The long game | Arts and culture | Weekly style
Strawberries and blackberries grow big in the summer heat. An insectary buzzes with the right kind of creepy critters, those that protect the tomatoes and cucumbers that thrive in a nearby high tunnel. A black cherry tree has just opened and a fragrant honeysuckle spreads in the middle of the pokeweed.
It’s summer 2021 and permaculture farmer Patrick Johnson leads Richmond urban farmer and community activist Duron Chavis around his 1.25 acre Airport Food Forest (located across from the airport Richmond International). Although the two men know each other from their respective jobs, today Chavis is acting as host and Johnson as interviewee.
The Airport Food Forest is one of five black-led green spaces featured in the second season of the Institute for Contemporary Art of VCU’s “Black Space Matters” YouTube series. Due to social distancing protocols in place at the time, interviews for the first season were all shot on location in the empty lot-turned-garden-of-resilience adjacent to the ICA. This season, however, Chavis knew he wanted to take viewers into the physical spaces he portrayed.
“I don’t want to hear about the yellow flowers, I want to see the yellow flowers,” he says, explaining why the video medium was so important to him compared to, say, a podcast. “How do we present these spaces and what people do in these spaces with the best possible quality?”
While season one features people in a variety of roles and how they connect to the spaces they create, season two’s focus is on people growing food. Although Chavis is quick to point out, conversations are much “bigger than food, much bigger than land.”
“I can’t tell you how many times I text and DM asking where to find black farmers,” Chavis says. “With this series, it’s like, ‘There you go, here are five people you can connect with in your community.’ We show that these people exist and that they are active and successful in their work.
The second season introduces farmers as disparate as Johnson, who has spent decades practicing permaculture, observing and understanding nature, to young growers like Allison Hurst, who mentors the next generation of growers in flower beds. Church Hill’s Legacy Farm.
“I think it’s important that we tell stories that showcase the diversity of people and places,” says Chavis. “It’s not a formula, everyone has their own personality and their own philosophy.”
For Johnson, whom Chavis credits with “archival knowledge” of food resilience, this philosophy is rooted in the cycle of life.
Johnson’s Food Forest is “beyond organic” – there are no chemicals here. Johnson uses nature-friendly techniques like the German Hill culture cultivation method, hügelkultur, which involves burying wood and other organic materials like compost and manure, then putting soil on top before the plantation.
“You’re increasing the microbial life in the soil as everything breaks down,” Johnson says. “There are no fertilizers, no pesticides.” Johnson’s Food Forest is home to native vegetation as well as gently grown cabbage, kale, lettuce, onions, leeks, garlic and okra, which he currently sells at the Ashland Farmer’s Market.
Originally from Alabama and with a master’s degree in agriculture from Cornell, Johnson spent two years in the Philippines with the Peace Corps between college and graduate school. “My main mission was to work with small farmers in rice production and market gardening,” he recalls. “I was trying to encourage [the villagers] growing vegetable gardens because they weren’t getting enough nutrients. We wanted to encourage them to use things they already had.
Johnson bought his Sandston property in 2013, although he didn’t start farming for at least a year. He used this time to visit space, to observe how the light hit the perennials, how the water flowed through the ground, what creatures used to visit.
“Man imposes his will, but nature will say that’s what’s meant to be here,” Johnson says.
Sometimes, however, despite the best intentions of man, external forces – called in permaculture invisible structures – weigh on. Johnson says that since he began clearing his property for farming, the residential neighborhood where the Food Forest is located has at times been less than welcoming.
While last summer his property was teeming with life, this spring Johnson says he barely had time to plant anything as he navigates trespass notices.
“One of the challenges I’ve had with this space is that residents don’t seem to understand what farming really is – my property is zoned for farming – and county officials are driven by complaints says Johnson. He says his neighbors have challenged everything from “woody debris” (mushroom logs) to sunflowers.
“I was trying to grow sunflowers outside my fence and they called the county,” Johnson says. “They thought they were weeds.”
Perceiving sunflowers as weeds is perhaps an apt metaphor for the challenges black growers have faced and continue to face in spaces ranging from suburban neighborhoods to urban gardens, from Richmond’s redline to the false promise of 40 acres and a mule.
“The implications and consequences are everywhere,” says Allison Hurst, director of Legacy Farm and certified urban agronomist.
A VCU graduate and former college teacher, Hurst says after spending time both at home with members of the Church Hill community and abroad – two years in Norway – she began to connect the pieces. of the food access puzzle.
“Going to Norway was amazing and life changing and upsetting,” says Hurst. “I come from a line of farmers and stewards of the land and I was always lucky enough to have vegetables at my table – we never ate from a box – but when we came back from Norway to summer vacation we got sick, our skin changed, when we got back to norway everything cleared up in a few days.
Hurst says this specific experience really hammered home the reality that marginalized communities have “less sovereignty over fresher, quality food.”
“I was determined to do something,” says Hurst. When the position of farm manager opened up at Legacy Farm four years ago, Hurst took over. “I could engage young people, I love to cook, I can bring people together. They needed someone to expand the garden, and the stories of these young people and who they were when they came to the table resonated… what it means to share food is paramount.
Legacy Farm is part of the non-profit organization Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT). As Farm Manager, Hurst operates within the workforce development framework of this organization, working with students aged 14-18 as well as youth under 24. She teaches them how to grow everything from “timeless classics” like tomatoes and squash, to medicinal herbs like calendula, yes, but she also teaches lessons that go beyond dirt.
“We’ve had bigger conversations about the land, about biodiversity, and what it means to give back to the land and to heal, especially what’s happened over the last 1.5 years,” says Hurst.
The three principles of Legacy Farm are heritage, restoration and enhancement. Hurst hopes that by bringing the youngsters back to the land they’ve strayed so far from, she can launch them into the world with technical and soft skills. And maybe a cure.
“For me, it’s always been about young people,” says Hurst. “Let them know that they are valuable, worthy and capable.
All five 20-minute episodes of “Black Space Matters” Season 2, along with the first panel discussion of Season 2, are all currently available for free to stream online. Chavis says that while season three is yet to be confirmed, he hopes future seasons will include black-led spaces located across the state, from NOVA to the Hampton Roads area.
“We’re not just looking for farms and gardens,” says Chavis. “We want to identify spaces of well-being, outdoor spaces. We want to find people who are truly engaged in the outdoors. We just try to give people the opportunity to see themselves in the work.
Find the 10 episodes of Black Space Matters for free online.