The Freedom Farmers Market Brings Together Black Farmers and Foods
Selina Knowles, Communications Coordinator
February 25, 2022
Over the last 20 years, Dr. Gail P. Myers has been lecturing, researching, teaching, writing and documenting stories of African American farmers, sharecroppers, and gardeners. In 2013, Dr. Myers founded Farms to Grow, a nonprofit organization that operates the Freedom Farmers Market in Oakland, to help fill the growing gap of Black farmers and traditional legacy foods, working in partnership with farmers, business owners, and food makers. Dr. Gail P. Myers talked with CUESA about what inspired the Freedom Farmers Market and how it has become an important gathering place for seasoned and aspiring Black farmers.
In 1920, there were over 920,000 Black families farming in the United States, although the majority were sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Today there are just over 48,697, a 95% decrease in 100 years due to a long history of systemic discrimination. Black farmers are losing their land, and to preserve their stories and honor their lives and agrarian legacies, Dr. Myers is working on a documentary Rhythms of the Land. Watch the trailer and learn how you can support the film’s completion here.
CUESA: Why did you start the Freedom Farmers Market?
Myers: I moved to California and started talking to Black farmers, and lo and behold, the same problems I heard from farmers all over Ohio and the South—lack of resources, state and federal agencies running interference on them, farmers not being able to keep their operations going—those same things were happening in California.
I spent years listening to Black farmers talking about loss of land and not having support, and also how they practiced their farming very sustainably, how they loved the land, and how they loved their families. When you think about land stewards, they were the epitome of how you should steward land.
The Freedom Farmers Market came about because there was a gap. We talked to several farmers, including elders who were 70 and 80, who had been trying to get into farmers markets and were given a 6- to 18-month waiting list. So, we started the Freedom Farmers Market as a distribution outlet for the farmers’ produce.
CUESA: What distinguishes the Freedom Farmers Market?
Myers: I’ve written about it in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. The market became this model of decolonizing the local food system, in the degree that we were able to step outside the main structure of agriculture and bring in a Black narrative around food.
When they heard about the farmers market, Black folks from Oakland, San Francisco, and eventually Sacramento and other places, had a venue where we could talk about recipes and dishes. The food served and sold in the market includes Purple Hull peas, black-eyed peas, okra, sweet potato, turnip greens, collard greens—the traditional diet, if you will. A lot of these foods have made their way into the U.S. through being transported through Africans and the African slave trade. In some cases, such as with Purple Hull peas that were still in the shell, if you didn’t get them from a Black farmer, you wouldn’t be able to get them at all.
CUESA: Why is it important to bring Black farmers and legacy foods into Oakland?
Myers: For farmers and food producers, the stock narrative in the U.S. is a white farmer with a cowboy hat, maybe in his sixties or seventies. That’s what people think about when they think of a farmer in the U.S. They don’t think about a woman, they don’t think about a person of color. They may think about laborers or farm workers as people of color, but the landowners and the folks that are bearing the burden of maintaining the land generation after generation are not thought of as Black people. People think that we’re not here. So, it is important to know that there are other farmers in this industry, within the agricultural landscape, and they look like people of African descent.
Young people came to the market, saw these Black farmers, asked them questions, and in some cases went out to their farms because they were interested in farming. When you want to do something and you don’t see anyone that looks like you in that particular area, sometimes that can discourage you. If you want to do something and you see someone doing that, they’re successful, and you have access to them, it gives you some motivation and inspiration.
CUESA: What are your hopes for the future of the Freedom Farmers Market?
Myers: The goal for us is to become a year-round market. We’re an organization that provides technical assistance, guidance, seeds, and other kinds of training. We’re growing the farmers that we need to be in our market. A lot of the farmers were not equipped with the knowledge, transportation, and the know-how to sell at a farmers market.
Over the last eight years, we’ve been doing that kind of training and we’ve been bringing on new farmers. This year, we’re working with 15 Black farmers, so we fully intend over the next year or two to have a thriving year-round market.
This is the market that we have created and developed for a community whose stories are missing. Their faces are missing and their food is missing, and we want to make sure that that isn’t the case. We’re really excited about the trajectory, growth, and the collaboration and partnerships that have come to us as gifts throughout the course of these nine years.
CUESA: Do you have any other messages you’d like to share with an audience invested in farmers markets and sustainable food systems?
Myers: Supporting a farmers market, no matter where it is, is supporting a local food system. You reduce the miles of transportation, you reduce the cost of pollution, and you’re supporting communities that shop, eat, and buy where they live. When you’re eating food from the farmers market, that food has had a chance to ripen on the tree. If you want to get the best food, the best produce, and the best meat, it’s best to support a local farmer and a local food system.
The Freedom Farmers Market is located at 45th Street and Telegraph Avenue and is open the second Saturday of each month until July, when it will move to a weekly schedule through November. The next market is happening on March 12, 2022.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.