This week on Tent Talk we are joined by Dr. Gail Myers, Agri-Cultural Anthropologist and co-founder of Farms to Grow, Inc. Over the last 15 years Dr. Myers has been busy lecturing, researching, teaching, writing and documenting stories of African American farmers, sharecroppers, and gardeners. In our interview we chat about the inspiration for Farms to Grow Inc., what it takes to run a community farmers’ market with a mission, and the importance of studying the history of food systems.
Out of the classroom and into the field
When Gail Myers started her training as a cultural anthropologist at Ohio State, she had no intention of ever becoming an expert on the history of farming. It wasn’t until the topic of black farmers came up in the classroom that she ever considered farming as part of her cultural heritage. With her curiosity peaked, she headed to the library to do some digging. Unfortunately at the time, there was little to be found on the topic besides reports on the Pigford v. Glickman case, which was making its way through federal court.
Five years later, the soon to be Dr. Gail Myers, found herself interviewing farmers and historians for her doctoral dissertation on sustainable practices used by black farmers in Ohio. After completing her research she was was offered a position based in San Francisco, where she was happy to find the terms agro-ecology and sustainable farming weren’t met with furrowed brow.
Relocating to California was a big move, both geographically and culturally, but Dr. Myers found that some things remained the same: farmers of color were experiencing the same barriers to entry as the farmers she had interviewed in Ohio and Georgia.
How Farms to Grow Inc. grew
Out of her academic research and real-life experience with farmers, Dr. Myers felt a calling to apply her expertise in Agri-cultural Anthropology. In 2004 she co-founded Farms to Grow, Inc., a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to working with underserved sustainable farmers around the country. Through this organization Dr. Myers helped farmers write grants, developed a farmer lecture series, and established a youth gardening and cooking education program.
Eventually, it was obvious that Farms to Grow, Inc.’s next step was to open their own farmers’ market. They surveyed the community and received solid interest, especially from vendors who were having a difficult time getting into other markets in the Bay Area.
“The Freedom Farmers Market was an answer to a lot of things. It was an answer for a community that was going without fresh food, the answer for some farmers that were going without access to other farmers’ markets,” said Dr. Myers. “We weren’t getting a seat a the table, so we just made our own table.”
Shopping for a cultural connection
Farms to Grow launched The Freedom Farmers Market in 2013. This community-led market serves both the community of West Oakland with a place to find fresh produce, and underserved farmers in need of location to sell their product. Since opening, It has also reintroduced shoppers to legacy foods grown by African American farmers such as crowded peas, collard greens, and okra.
But Dr. Myers believes The Freedom Farmers Market serves a much bigger purpose for both the farmers and the shoppers.
“Yes they are coming to make a profit, and they have to. But they’re coming to answer a historical exchange. It’s an engagement piece that for many of these farmers, they were more interested in really being apart of a community that needed what they had,” explains Dr. Myers. “Yes it’s shopping for fresh food, but it’s also shopping for a part of your cultural identity that is so missing in a community that is so shamed for its relationship with land or shamed for eating watermelon.”
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