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A fresh start for Black farmers in North Carolina

 Gerald Harris, left, Gabrielle E.W. Carter and Derrick Beasley make up the Durham-based "Tall Grass Food Box." June 10, 2022
Leoneda Inge
Gerald Harris, left, Gabrielle E.W. Carter and Derrick Beasley make up the Durham-based "Tall Grass Food Box." June 10, 2022

Every year, about this time, Gershwin’s famous opera “Porgy and Bess” comes to mind.

“Summertime, and the living is easy. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high. Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good lookin’ so hush little baby don’t you cry.”

Back in the 1930s when “Summertime” was composed, there were a lot more Black farmers in the U.S., with a lot more land for cotton, corn and greens than there are today.

During the pandemic, the Biden administration attempted to right some of the government’s discriminatory wrongs with billions of dollars set-aside for disadvantaged farmers in the American Rescue Plan.

But before the big rescue, three friends in the Durham area had come up with their own plan to save the Black farmers they knew.

Back in 2020, Gabrielle E.W. Carter, Derrick Beasley and Gerald Harris started their own CSA or community supported agriculture venture called “Tall Grass Food Box.”

“We have some Swiss chard, we have lots and lots of kale, which is also known as Dino kale, we have white potatoes, mint, blueberries, three ears of corn,” said Beasley. “We got a lot of new customers today, so we really want to give them a good looking box.”

The “Tall Grass Food Box” collects recently harvested food from a handful of Black farmers, paying a commercial rate. They box up the food and use social media and word of mouth to sell it. The operation is still going strong

Two years ago, customers would line-up in Durham for a box, which cost about $50. Beasley says today, there are lines at four pick-up spots in Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and in the area of Apex and Cary. Subscribers pay for 200 pre-packaged boxes, twice a month.

Harris grew up on his grandparent’s farm in Dallas County, Arkansas, passed down from his great-grandparents. He says they started their CSA with 40 boxes, thinking their rescue project would last a few months.

“And now it’s rolling into year three, because we think this work is important,” said Harris. “We understand that this opportunity that we had to support farmers is work that is so much bigger than us.”

The “Tall Grass” team says the plan is to forge a partnership with Black farmers to better secure their futures.

One Black-owned farm doing great things these days is Sankofa Farms. It is located in a small unincorporated area called Cedar Grove, in Orange County. Kamal Bell is the CEO.

Bell says he wants to be able to eventually farm on all or his 12 acres and eliminate food deserts in nearby Black communities.

“Throwing food at the problem is just that,” said Bell. “You’re just putting food in people’s faces and we need to actually build community.”

Bell says he wants communities to be self-reliant when it comes to healthy food.

“I want to do something that can help my community and then everything else will follow,” said Bell.

Bell has a Master’s Degree in Agriculture Education from North Carolina A&T State University. When Bell is not getting his hands dirty in the soil, he is a doctoral student in Agricultural Extension Education at N.C. State.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She explores modern and historical constructs to tell stories of poverty and wealth, health and food culture, education and racial identity. Leoneda is also co-host of the podcast Tested, allowing for even more in-depth storytelling on those topics.