Land Rich with Possibility:
How Two Urban Farms in Oregon are Addressing Food Injustice within the BIPOC Community
By Victoria Ginzburg
EUGENE, Ore. — From afar, Churchill Community Garden, a former wetland behind Kennedy Middle School might appear like a chaotic jumble of plants. However, when you are welcomed by the smiling faces of interns shoveling compost into a big truck, you cannot help but notice that this place is special.
In Lane County, fresh, organic and local food is plentiful. However, Gatlin Fasone-Youngblood, the Organic Farm Project Manager at Huerto de la Familia, indicated that when fresh produce is made more affordable through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) it is often not distributed in lower-income neighborhoods. CSA outreach is also often not in Spanish and, therefore, becomes less accessible to the Latino community.
The neighborhood South-East Brentwood Darlington in Portland, with only one grocery store and a handful of corner stores, is an example of a “food desert”. This neighborhood has a few micro-farms, yet it is not enough to address the need for fresh produce according to Malcolm Hoover, Co-Director of Black Futures Farm.
Before living in Portland, Hoover experienced barriers to obtaining fresh produce in Oakland, California. “I remember going to buy carrots and cucumbers and almost all the carrots were expired,” Hoover said. “I mean, how long does it take for carrots to go bad? A long time.” Currently, Hoover lives within walking distance of two co-ops and a grocery store.
According to a CDC report, the Black community experiences high rates of obesity and other food-related illnesses. Without access to fresh produce, people tend to consume highly processed, and relatively unhealthy food. Hoover attributes the high rates of illnesses in Black communities to the lower rates of land access and land ownership by Black people.
According to researchers Megan Horst and Amy Marion, in 1910, Black and African American people owned 14 percent of all U.S. farms. From 2012 to 2014 the BIPOC community owned only two percent of farms. According to figures provided by Feed’em Freedom Foundation, the BIPOC community in Oregon currently makes up six percent of all agricultural producers.
The study by Chelsea Gazillo argues that urban farming is more than an environmental solution; it can also be an act of anti-racism. “Black people have this broken connection to land,” Hoover says. “Black Futures doesn’t own the land our farm sits on. We seek to reacquaint Black people with ways of growing food and being self-sufficient.”
Bringing urban farming to lower-income communities and communities of color empowers group members to make a change and benefit from their farm work. Hoover and his wife, Mirabai Collins, broke ground at Black Futures Farm in January of 2020. Their farm is intended to be a provider of fresh food for their local community and a place of empowerment and connection.
Black Futures Farm focuses on serving Black people, working-class folks, and diasporic African people in Portland. Mirabai Collins and Hoover describe Black Futures Farm as a community impact organization with Black people at the center of their focus.
Collins, the Co-Director of Black Futures Farm and a member of the Black Food Sovereignty Coalition described Black Futures Farm as “a safe, accessible space for Black people to be able to explore their curiosity, be supportive of one another and eat a variety of fresh produce. It is a space that employs different ways to work within sustainable and self-reliant food systems.”
Urban farms are not new. They have been around since 1890 and have enabled easier access to organic produce, increased fruit and vegetable consumption and created deep-rooted community connections.
However, like most food systems in the U.S., urban farming is a predominantly white, middle-class initiative. According to the organization FoodPrint, this is why bringing urban farming to communities of color is extremely important and a component of achieving “food justice”.
In Lane County, Huerto de la Familia, a non-profit organization in Eugene, focuses on urban farming for the Latino community. Since 1999, the organization has been able to offer its services to over 400 families and currently is working with 86 families in its seven community gardens. One of which is the Churchill Community garden in Western Eugene.
Huerto de la Familia provides all of its services in Spanish. They offer classes on canning, how to plant in small spaces, the importance of biodiversity, companion planting and food preservation. The organization offers classes based on interest and who in the community has the skill necessary to share.
Huerto de la Familia has noticed an uptick in support for their farm’s mission in the past few years from outsider grants focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion missions (DEI). “Oregon is white, and Oregon farm owners and landowners are really white — so there’s been a real push from a lot of different farming advocacy agencies to change that,” says Gatlin Fasone-Youngblood, a worker involved with Huerto de la Familia for over three years.
Urban farms, such as Huerto de la Familia and Black Futures Farms which focus on Black and Brown people in Oregon, provide a much-needed service to these communities.
Fasone-Youngblood tours a small group of visitors through the rows of garden plots at the Churchill Community Garden. She explains that a family of up to six can be completely self-sufficient by farming on two twenty-by-thirty feet garden plots. “They’ll have to buy Kiwis, lemons… things that are not grown here, but they will be able to be pretty much self-sufficient,” Fasone-Youngblood explains.
Being self-sufficient can create security for a family. “When you’re not afraid of where your next meal is coming from because you have a freezer full of chilis, you have time to play with your kids,” Fasone-Youngblood said.
Collins and Hoover from Black Futures Farm express similar sentiments. “To have sovereignty over your food is to exert more control over your life,” Collins, a 5-year resident of Portland, said. “If you can grow your own food, not only do you save money, you have direct control over what foods you eat. This has a direct effect on your diet and your overall health.”
According to Fasone-Youngblood, another benefit of the garden spaces at Huerto de la Familia is that they offer people the opportunity to have a sense of complete ownership and autonomy when this may not be possible in other areas of their lives. Having access to land was not an option for most families before they came to Huerto de la Familia because many of the community members lived in apartments or trailer homes.
On a brisk November morning at Churchill Community Garden, the Huerto de la Familia garden is very much alive — visited by two interns, community members on a garden tour, journalists and a volunteer class from the nearby high school. Each person seems to leave the garden with a bright smile, fresh produce, and earth-caked shoes.
Fasone-Youngblood describes Huerto de la Familia as a “third space” for the Latino community– a space that is not focused on business or any other specific purpose. It is solely designed to be a community space and a Spanish-speaking environment.
“It is beautiful here — we share ideas and learn from each other,” Elva Webster, the garden and community engagement coordinator at Huerto de la Familia, said.
Farming is not easy work. It is labor-intensive, expensive, and time-consuming according to the co-founders of Black Futures Farm. On top of these difficulties, Black Futures Farm has experienced robberies and vandalism on their property. Security is their biggest current problem.
“There needs to be a way to make urban farming sustainable for people,” Collins said. “Black Oregonians do not have a safety net, so we need to think of ways to make it actually viable and not performative.”
Both Huerto de la Familia and Black Futures Farm depend upon monetary donations. For Huerto de la Familia, receiving donations means saving money but if anything happens to their donated resources they are at a disadvantage.
Huerto de la Familia is planning to open a new garden in Cottage Grove, Oregon that will primarily serve Mam speakers, Indigenous people from the western highlands of Guatemala.
Fasone-Youngblood wants to focus on creating even more opportunities for member involvement and leadership. She envisions a future that further empowers and supports the Lane county Latinx community through more classes, land development and increased funding.
Black Futures Farm also imagines a bright future involving a farmer apprenticeship program in collaboration with Oregon State University extension for the BlPOC community as well as exploring the possibility of becoming a clean energy farm.
“I met Mirabai doing this work,” Hoover said. “Meeting the love of my life has been the greatest thing. And second to that, the opportunity to be a good servant to this community has been restorative to my soul as a human being.”