Farming for Change: Black Womxn Farmers Fight the Pandemic With a Food Revolution

In this special Emerald series supported by NW Journalists of Color and the Facebook Journalism Project, photographer and writer Sharon H. Chang introduces the womxn and nonbinary farmers of color at the heart of Washington’s agrarian revival movement who are moving the needle towards not only a future livable planet, but a socially just one. 

by Sharon H. Chang

Nyema Clark bustles around her Beacon Hill farm, checking on spring growth, weeding and planting, keeping an eye on her many chickens. Every once in a while, she walks across the way to the Black Power Epicenter where her office is. In a room near her office, Clark is growing starts beside windows, atop tables and stacked on shelves. The room is filled with seedlings she calls “her babies.” Out back, behind the center, Clark lifts the lid on her large compost bin, turns the compost with a shovel, points out the happy worms and demonstrates how it does not smell bad (which means it is good).

Sitting on the steps of her grandfather’s old house in the Central District, Shanelle Donaldson surveys her backyard farm. She points to a fence where Donaldson and her farm partner, Molly Brashear, will grow apple trees using a French style of trellising which makes the trees look like they have arms. On the other side of the house they are planning an all-weather African diaspora garden where they will grow foods like collard greens and okra. And in front of the house they are planning a perennial herb garden. 

Nyema Clark in Kent, Washington, where she also farms with a program called Living Well Kent. (Photo: Sharon H. Chang)

Clark and Donaldson are Black womxn farmers who both run urban farm projects in Seattle. Knowing that food sovereignty is key to Black health and liberation, for years the womxn have been growing culturally relevant, organic foods to support and empower communities of color. “It’s farming as revolution, farming as care,” said Donaldson describing her project, Percussion Farms and Preserves, based in the Central District. Clark’s project, Nurturing Roots, is just a few miles away on Beacon Hill. “We’re about preservation,” said Clark. “We’re about survival.”

Their words are prophetic at a time when Black people are disproportionately dying from COVID-19. A central reason African Americans have been so hard hit is because they are more likely to have pre-existing health conditions caused in large part by environmental racism. Because of the racist legacy of redlining, for instance, Black people are more likely to live in crowded metropolitan areas and neighborhoods with lack of access to local, healthy food options. Poor nutrition and unhealthy diets heighten risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity, the same conditions that make people more susceptible to dying from COVID-19. 

Increasing access to healthy foods can literally save Black lives.

But Clark and Donaldson already knew that. This knowledge is why they started farming in the first place, have continued farming for years, and why they are prepared to combat the racial injustice of this pandemic with a food revolution. 

Nyema Clark at Nurturing Roots, on Beacon Hill, shows visitors how to feed the farm’s chickens. (Photo: Sharon H. Chang)

“Nurturing Roots is all about sharing the truth about systemic oppression with an emphasis on food justice and environmental justice,” said Clark. “It’s all about access, education, and re-engaging folks with our environment.”

Clark grew up in South Seattle and went to Rainier Beach High School. Her love of the outdoors came from her parents, who encouraged her to be outside as much as possible when she was a child. “Me and my friends were always running around the neighborhood doing lemonade stands or I remember my dad cut down tree rounds and I painted them and was selling them at school.” Clark’s mother was a chemist and florist who taught her daughter about the science of plants. As an adult, Clark began growing cannabis and herbs. She and a partner sold seasonings made from the herbs at Pike Place Market, where they became the market’s only Black farmers. It was amazing, said Clark, but it was also lonely.

So, in 2016 Clark started Nurturing Roots by transforming an overgrown P-patch, on the same campus as the Black Power Epicenter and environmental justice nonprofit Got Green, into a vibrant urban community farm. Nurturing Root’s primary goal is to get more people of color engaged in “sustainable agriculture awareness and organizing for our community around systemic oppression and food justice.” Programs typically include events, workshops and volunteer days. Nurturing Roots is intentional about sourcing directly to people and communities of color like Chef Tarik Abdullah at Soulful Dishes and the Ethiopian Community Center. Clark is also hoping to offer farm-to-table dinners and to open an on-site pantry.

Shanelle Donaldson at Percussion Farms in the Central District. (Photo: Sharon H. Chang)

Percussion Farms and Preserves was formed the following year, in 2017, by Donaldson and Brashear. The farm has multiple growing spaces but is purposefully centered in Seattle’s Central District, a historically Black and redlined neighborhood that is now being gentrified. The partners grow food in the yard of Donaldson’s grandfather’s old house, where Donaldson frequently played as a child. “When we came here and built these boxes and putting the soil in, it just felt like Papa was here,” said Donaldson. “So, it felt really good being here and being in the Central District.”

Donaldson started growing food eleven years ago gardening with a friend at a P-patch. She ended up working for Solid Ground, an organization that works to end poverty and undo racism through food system support and community education. But a big life change took place for Donaldson when she saw the video of Philando Castile murdered by the police in front of his girlfriend in Minnesota in 2016. “I went outside, and I laid on the ground and just screamed,” says Donaldson. She didn’t know what to do, so she started weeding, and it felt healing. She realized she could do nothing for Castile, but she could take care of herself and other Black people. That was when Donaldson knew she wanted to be a farmer for a living and farm for Black revolution and care. “If no one else is going to care about our bodies,” she said, “we can at least take care of our bodies. We don’t have to believe that we aren’t worth it and that we aren’t worth living.”

Donaldson’s goal is to encourage people, Black people in particular, to grow their own food and learn about their history. Besides growing food for the community, Percussion Farms focuses on food preparation and prolonging harvest through food preservation, canning, dehydrating, and freezing. They work with local schools and offer workshops. The farm is named after a rhythm and heartbeat. “We wanted to be a driving beat for the Black community,” said Donaldson, “and so, Percussion the farm is the beat of our heart song.”

Shanelle Donaldson at a small farmstand she ran last summer for Leschi Elementary summer school students. (Photo: Sharon H. Chang) 

With visionary programs already in place to support and empower people of color, both farms immediately shifted gears to support communities of color in the face of the current pandemic. Given that poor health due in part to food injustice means increased vulnerability to COVID-19 disease and death, Donaldson’s and Clark’s efforts are not only providing relief for people of color, but likely saving lives. Percussion Farms was just gifted some space at Yes Farm on Yesler Way. “So we now have a way to get more food to people,” said Donaldson. They will begin planting this week. The farm will focus on delivering food weekly while continuing their sliding-scale pricing options. They will also provide food preservation and gardening classes online to help the community buy fresh produce and stretch their dollars.

Nurturing Roots is in a similar “planning and extreme grow mode,” said Clark. Some of Nurturing Roots’ partners have linked arms to provide hot food to limited-mobility residents and high-risk individuals. Clark has been donating food to the Seattle Community Kitchen Collective and others. Meanwhile, the farm increased their start yield to provide free grow-at-home boxes which community members can come pick up and grow at home in a variety of spaces. “Self-sustaining is key!” the farm’s Facebook Page reads. Nurturing Roots also advocates for the incarcerated community, which is disproportionately Black and Brown and one of the most vulnerable populations to coronavirus infection. It is one of many ways Black farmers make sure not to leave anyone in their community behind, Clark said, and it matters now, during the coronavirus crisis, more than ever.

“In times like these,” Clark said, “small farmers truly are becoming superheroes.”

Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer, and award-winning writer. She is the author of the acclaimed book Hapa Tales and Other Lies that reflects critically on her Asian American, Mixed Race, and activist identity through the prism of returning to Hawai‘i as a tourist. She lives in the Columbia City neighborhood.

Featured image: by Sharon H. Chang.