Urban farming: It’s not sharecropping anymore

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Collie Graddick says the time is now for neighborhoods all over the Twin Cities to set up urban farms. “A community food system, in my opinion, is a way to hopefully bring economic opportunities to inner-city communities,” explains Graddick, a Minnesota Department of Agriculture consultant, of his “neighborhood-level sustainable food system.”

This is a good fit with the growing “sustainability” movement, which Graddick, an educator and food justice advocate, believes more Blacks should understand and appreciate. He defines sustainability as simply ensuring provision of the basics needed to live.

“It’s looking at the resources that you have and living within those resources. It’s working with your community and sharing what you have so that everybody can prosper together. It’s [concerned] with food, clothing, shelter, transportation and vacation” (adding that if we adequately take care of the first four needs, then we can afford to take a vacation).

Graddick, a Georgia native who grew up on a farm, says, “This country was founded on agriculture and on farming,” adding that Black people in particular have moved away from farming since the Civil War.

“When sharecropping came along, it shined a different kind of light on food production for our community than it did for anyone else. We looked at it as a job we didn’t want to do.”

It’s time to return to those roots, Graddick opines. “It’s part of our history, too. If we are going to grow all this food, then why not help our community make money off it rather than saying if you have extra food, give it to the food shelf? I want to create a system where we actually buy that food and process it.”

He isn’t just talking about gardening; rather, Graddick wants to plant locally an idea that is taking hold in other urban areas. “All over the country there is this push for urban food systems, urban gardening and community gardening,” Graddick points out.

“Our community needs to get on board on the front end of this. We don’t need to see if it works. We already know that it works, because we sit at the table and eat every day.”

Graddick has been involved in Southern-based farming co-op efforts for several decades. “We had a 200-acre farm, and my dad was able to get a contract with brokers who did business with the military base. The contract basically said that they would buy everything, whatever he brought off his truck. With that contract, he bought a bigger truck, and then went around to our neighbors and [convinced them to form a co-op].”

A similar Black-led operation could be established here in the Twin Cities, “but we need to go one step further,” says Graddick, “because we don’t have a readymade market where we can take a whole truckload and unload.”

However, establishing 25 small independent businesses is his idea to begin this process, “and create a complete food system from growing it to preparing it…preserving it for winter consumption, cooking it for Meals on Wheels or for a school. Then we have people out marketing and labeling our products, going to the different corner stores or grocery stores.

“The main thing is getting our community label on every kitchen table, which is our motto. We want to develop independent business owners who are working cooperatively together in order to support each other’s business.”

Graddick recently met with the McKinley neighborhood group, located on the city’s North Side. “It is a way for us to capture dollars that we already are spending,” he told the group. We just have to figure out how to capture those dollars. In order to do it, we need to grow the food.”

McKinley resident William Bolton says he is sold on Graddick’s idea: “I just think it’s a way of creating a community and keeping the money in the community. It’s a good start in building healthy relationships.”

“A lot of what I am talking about is going on all around the Twin Cities,” Graddick notes, such as churches and community groups. He has worked with several native African women in Brooklyn Center who have established a community garden on a vacant lot at the intersection of Brooklyn Blvd. and Bass Lake Road to produce food for the community.

This group last year received a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant for developing a Minnesota African Women Sustainable Backyard Farming Project cooperative to start backyard farms and related businesses in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

“Gardening is a hobby,” Graddick points out. “A hobby costs you money, and you pay for your hobby. Farming is a business and will make you money. This is what I want to do with our people, which is to change our way of thinking.”

There are USDA dollars available, he says. “The federal government doesn’t fund gardeners, but they do fund farmers. It takes about three years; then, at that point we can tap into the federal farm programs and get some of those dollars into our urban farm entity.”

Graddick says he’s very available to talk about starting an urban farming cooperative. “I’m willing to go and talk to any community anywhere about it and help them get their program going. It takes about 45 minutes to explain this whole process to someone in a way that they can put this whole food system concept together and how it will work.

“If we don’t do it, the other communities will.”

Bianca Alexander, a conscious living advocate in Chicago, and her husband recently released a documentary called The Color of Health, which features urban farms in Chicago. “There is this movement of people who are going back to their roots, and I see this for people of color as a simple economic movement,” she points out. Alexander’s film can be seen at www.consciousplanetmedia.com.
Masthead garden photos are courtesy of Collie Graddick.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.