A Return to Roots: African American Farming in Kentucky

Published: Sep. 27, 2018 at 6:41 PM CDT
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Local farming -- it's about as quintessential to Kentucky as bourbon and horses.

One particular group, who played a critical role in the state's development of agriculture, has dwindled over the years.

But for those who still do it, the call to farm remains strong.

"It's nature. You're outside, it's like you and God," said Andre Barbour, of Barbour Farms in Hart County.

He is one of the few landowning African-American farmers left in Kentucky.

Local farming as a whole has been hit hard in recent years.

Corporate agriculture, a graying population, upheaval in the dairy industry -- all creating an even more challenging environment besides the work itself.

But for African-Americans in Kentucky, history and heritage are found rooted deep.

"The African-American experience begins with agriculture," said Dr. Nancy Dawson, former professor of African-American Studies and creator of the Russellville Urban Gardening Project.

This part of Kentucky history played a critical role in establishing the Commonwealth's foundation.

"Especially in Kentucky, so much of the wealth and the industry, and the current economics that you see in this state were generated through slavery," said Ashley Smith, co-founder of Black Soil: Our Better Nature.

The Lexington-based organization takes those from both urban and rural areas to meet with black farmers around the state for tours and farm-to-table events. It's with the aim of uplifting African-American farming heritage.

According to the USDA's most recent Census of Agriculture, out of the 73,914 full or partial farm owners in Kentucky, only 423 of them were African-American.

"Many African-American farmers are still losing land. This is something that's been happening for many years," Dawson said.

"Within America currently, Black American landowners are losing 30,000 acres of land each year," Smith added.

According to Dawson, among many factors, this could be attributed to an improper transfer of heir property through generations, or people failing to pay taxes, along with others also forcing them off their land.

"There are many factors involved in this whole thing," said Dawson. "In modern times, it's more so too that people really don't understand why we should hold onto the land...But land is power."

An additional issue still, Barbour said, is that black farming can face discrimination.

"One thing that's always stuck in my head that we were taught growing up, is we gotta be two steps ahead," said Barbour. "We was already born a step behind. But you gotta be two steps ahead in life."

Barbour raises mixed produce on his 150 acre farm.

He plays a part in getting produce to food deserts in urban areas, taking home deliveries as far as Lexington.

There's a common motto amongst local farmers -- everybody eats.

And it comes with the encouragement, that young people -- both of color and otherwise -- would get familiar once more with where food comes from.

"The best way to guarantee what you eat is to grow it," Dawson said.

Dawson recently hosted a Farm-to-Table event through Black Soil, to showcase her Russellville Urban Gardening Project. The project includes a garden-park in Russellville worked by volunteers, along with high tunnel greenhouses across the street, and also partners with Russellville High School to help get them an aquaculture/aquaponics program with the help of Kentucky State University. Dawson said the intention is to give rural youth opportunity to explore another avenue of career options.

Community gardens and potted plants -- they're techniques that are still reminiscent of older generations' relationship with the land, but perhaps more accessible for younger people. Dawson said even the way normal farming is done has improved with technology, like air-conditioned tractors and drones to monitor fields.

"People are saying, you know -- 'the older farmers all across the board, across race, across ethnicity -- 'the young people don't want to do it,'" said Dawson. "And I say that the reason they don't want to do it is because they really don't understand that it's not the same."

"I think my ancestors would be happy. Because I've returned to my traditional roots," continued Dawson.

As local farming keeps innovating to keep up with the changes while inviting young people to be a part of it, the strength of those who undertake it right now continues.

"Man makes his character. It's trying to figure out how to overcome or, take the challenge, own the challenge," said Barbour.

is working to create a heated greenhouse to grow lettuce for Hart County Schools.

helped establish an

at Russellville High School.

will be hosting a harvest event to conclude the farm tour season in November.​