OGS values our shared history of these last 29 years, where participants often reflect all can come and find common ground and fellowship over a shared commitment to organic growing. How we have interpreted and done this over the years has evolved, and we’ve had to examine if we’re truly creating a space where “all” feel welcome. The most common denominator for folks who come to OGS is a desire to connect and grow; grow food, grow relationships, grow the community, and grow in knowledge. As a historically white-led organization, we realize that our impact has been unwelcome and even harmful to Black, Indigenous, and Growers of Color. And that is simply unacceptable to us. Our commitment to Social Justice states that we are seeking “to transform the food system into one that truly serves the needs of all communities, creating social and environmental ecosystems that thrive by empowering people to farm, garden, and live organically. We recognize that to reach this vision, it is necessary to understand the impact historical oppression and systemic racism have had on the food system.” Part of fulfilling that commitment requires spreading awareness about the roots of inequity, exploitation, and injustices in the food system, and engaging in dialogue about it with those who are interested in learning more.
Our recent Thanksgiving post raised some questions amongst long-time OGS supporters. In our Thanksgiving address, we intentionally focused on the real story of Thanksgiving, which questioned the traditions of white settler colonialism and highlighted the genocide of Native Americans. While there is debate about the origins of the present-day Thanksgiving holiday, we know that it originated in the context of widespread betrayals and massacres perpetrated by white settlers. We knew this was not a traditional way to wish everyone a “Happy Thanksgiving”. Our intention was not to chastise families for celebrating much-needed time together, but rather to encourage readers to learn about this history and ongoing struggles for self-determination among Native communities in the Americas. According to The New York Times, Thanksgiving has been a day of mourning for decades for Native Americans.
What does this have to do with organic agriculture?
It’s no question that European settlers were not the first to “discover” North America. Native peoples have tended the soils and cultivated relationships with these intricate ecosystems long before Western agriculture and backyard chickens became popular. In Buncombe County, much of Western NC, and much of the Southern Appalachian region, we are on the ancestral land of the Anigiduwagi, more commonly known as the Cherokee. According to the Buncombe County Register of Deeds, “The traditional territory of the Cherokee people covered more than 100,000 square miles, much of this is what today we consider the American Southeast. In the early 18th century, the estimated Cherokee population was 36,000. The most significant blow to the Cherokee population came from the smallpox outbreak brought by Europeans, which devastated Indigenous people.”
At its core, regenerative and sustainable agriculture is Indigenous knowledge. Many techniques we use, such as permaculture principles, can be accredited to Indigenous science. Native North Americans domesticated many crops such as corn, squash, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, and tobacco, which was one of the most important cash crops in Colonial America and Western North Carolina through the early 2000s. Tobacco grew in the wild and was cultivated by Indigenous peoples as a ceremonial and medicinal herb, but it was commodified in 1610 CE by John Rolfe. These contributions have been erased for generations, as others have built fortunes on stolen land using Indigenous science, claiming it as their own. Acknowledging this history & centering the truth is critical to ensure we don’t repeat these types of exploitation.
The infamously cruel Trail of Tears – the forced removal of Native communities from the Southeastern US to the Midwest – was carried out by the federal government so that white settlers could grow cotton, and build family wealth. Many white colonizers resorted to violent means to take land from their Indigenous neighbors. They stole livestock, burned and looted houses and towns, committed mass murder, and squatted on land that did not belong to them. They also benefited from the violence and scourge of slavery. With the rise of the cotton industry in the mid-1830s, the number of enslaved Black people grew astronomically. Enslaved people were the literal and figurative backbone of the southern cotton economy, yet treated as less than human and endured horrific conditions.
The racist history of agriculture
Black farmers have had to fight for a share of this country’s fertile ground due to a history of racist policies and land theft since Emancipation in 1863. Today, Black people only make up about 1.4% of the nation’s farm owners, which did not happen by accident. Following emancipation, the government’s failure to provide land and resources (40 acres and a mule) to formerly enslaved people is one major cause of today’s agricultural inequities.
America’s history of racist exploitation and dispossession continues to affect people from these lineages today. This shows up in the present as racial gaps in healthcare, criminal justice, housing, employment, and land ownership.
We owe much of our knowledge as modern farmers to Black and Indigenous peoples. In an article published by Mother Jones, Leah Penniman, co-director of Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York and author of Farming While Black wrote:
Our ancestral grandmothers, when faced with the very likely possibility of being snatched up, kidnapped, and forced into trans-Atlantic slave ships, gathered up the seed that their families had been saving for generations—their okra, cowpea millet, sorghum, black rice—they braided that seed into their hair. . . . [They] believed, against all odds in a future on soil—that their descendants would need to inherit that precious seed.
Our Director of Programs, Nicole DelCogliano, adds, “As a farmer, I can still love to grow food, talk to other farmers and growers at OGS events AND acknowledge the land I farm has been stolen. We have a responsibility as we bring new folks into growing to include the very real history of land theft, genocide, and enslavement into our work. As a farmer, who teaches beginning farmers, that is a responsibility I take seriously. We will continue to include these stories and educational opportunities at OGS events.”
Examining our past to improve the future
As farmers and growers, we are intimately connected to land for our sustenance, as are the Native people living in the US today. What do we have to lose by learning the real truth of our history in the US, especially regarding those who were on this land and those who came to it? Acknowledging how colonization has disrupted and harmed Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color is a part of growing in our all who come to find common ground and fellowship.
We at OGS have had to examine and understand who we are serving and what stories we tell as we continue to learn and evolve. We strive to create a learning environment—not just for farming and gardening—but for social justice and racial equity within sustainable agriculture and our personal lives. In order to truly build a transformed, regenerative, and sustainable food system for all, the ALL has to be broad and true. By recognizing how Thanksgiving came to be and examining the stories we tell, consider an alternate approach next year. It is possible to rethink Thanksgiving while still finding gratitude in our time with friends and family and honoring those who tended this land before us.
Where do we go from here?
If you want to learn more about Indigenous knowledge within the farming and gardening landscape, our Spring Conference & Market, happening March 18th-20th, 2022 has a great lineup of classes! Learn about Cherokee foods, gardening, and wildcrafting from Mary Crowe. Tyson Sampson will be teaching a class on Cherokee Heritage, Food Ways, and Ecological Flavors. Nancy Basket will be teaching a class in our Sustainable Living track on Invasives in Native Culture, and Almeta Tulloss is leading a half-day workshop on brewing spring tonics, teas, and meads. Keep up to date with news on the 2022 Spring Conference and other insights by signing up for our Newsletter.
Whose land are you on? Various organizations have been helping Indigenous people map their territories. These maps support Indigenous communities in seeking protection status and fight unwanted exploitation of their natural resources by oil, timber, and other companies. Native Land Digital strives to create and foster conversations about the history of colonialism, Indigenous ways of knowing, and settler-Indigenous relations, through educational resources such as our map and Territory Acknowledgement Guide.
In addition to our links above, here are resources to help Black, Indigenous, and People of Color farmers reclaim access to land so they can get growing.
Author: Julie Douglas
Julie is the Marketing & Communications Associate. She is the owner and Clinical herbalist at Wildkrafted Kitchen, a holistic healthcare company in Asheville, NC. Julie is a medicinal herb grower, ethical wildcrafter, educator, and formulator of internal and external medicines. After graduating with an AA focusing on Photography and Ceramic art, Julie went on to pursue their passion for sustainable small-scale agriculture in Washington state where she apprenticed on various organic farms. After discovering their affinity for medicinal herbs, they moved to Asheville to study Holistic Herbalism at the Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine. Julie’s main goals are to make alternative healthcare accessible to marginalized communities, decolonizing herbal medicine, and be part of mutual aid networks which strengthen and empower the community.