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Fighting Food Apartheid and Finding Freedom on a Virginia Farm

Renard Turner on his farmstead in Virginia.

BY LEIGH GLENN

Virginia farmer Renard Turner grew up in a military family that traveled all over the world. That exposed him to different ways of thinking, being and doing.


In the late 1960s, while attending high school in California, he joined Future Farmers of America, studied ag engineering, learned about livestock and aspired to become a large-animal veterinarian. Both he and his future wife, Chinette, also a military brat, were in college in Germany when they met. After college, they moved to Washington, D.C., and lived briefly in a townhouse on Capitol Hill before renting an apartment. They soon found the city to be more of a place of enslavement. And in the early 1970s, they sought a freedom they believed they only could achieve by living off the land as their ancestors had done before being brought to the colonies against their will.

They wanted their own land to be able to grow food in a sustainable way — to eat “clean” food without pesticides or herbicides. And while they explored herbalism, yoga and kung fu, they looked for land.

“We could chart our own course and follow our own stream of consciousness and get the hell out of the city because neither one of us liked it. Liberation was key to everything we did,” Turner said.

In their mid-twenties, they joined up with a cooperative that bought 208 acres in Mineral, Virginia, a few hours southwest of D.C. They lived and worked there from 1977 to 1995, when they grew tired of having to get buy-in through consensus from their far-away partners who never visited. They bought 94 wooded acres in nearby Gordonsville and began developing it into what is now Vanguard Ranch.

At 66, Turner still farms. He has had to create value-added products and services and find niches that others have not filled — all while still confronting discriminatory practices.

“Small farms are always faced with how to generate income,” he said. “This is a capitalist society. You have to reinvent yourself every few years or find a formula that works for you.”

The formula for the Turners as they move into their “retirement” years — Chinette works part-time off-farm — includes keeping their business hyperlocal by operating a food truck on-farm during the four to five music festivals they host every year. Most recently, they set up a system to supply squab to restaurants and others in the region. They also are trying to help other black Americans to overcome the fallacy —“blacklash” Turner calls it — that farming, or even homesteading, somehow equals a return to enslavement. They often encourage young people especially to forgo “urban farming” and seek their own place in rural areas.

‘PERFORMANCE’ GOATS

As students of the land in a new place, the Turners had a lot to learn. The upside of a downside — when Chinette’s father passed away and left her a small inheritance — meant they had some money to invest in the land. They also worked with the forest service and did a “chop and burn” on 35 acres.

Turner thought it would be helpful to raise sheep — he was familiar with caring for them from his years in FFA — and they bought 65 Horned Dorsets and Karakul. But he did not realize at the time that it takes many years to develop pasture from woodland. That meant buying hay in the summer. They also found shearing to be a chore they’d rather not take on. So they quit raising sheep and shifted to meat goats. They planted sericea lespedeza and got good cereal rye seeds from fellow Louisa farmer. The goats did well on browse, and the Turners learned how to read the land better.

They started with Kikos, a New Zealand breed that, upon researching it, Turner found reportedly resisted parasites. They got good at working with goats and Turner even served as national secretary for the American Kiko Association. But, just like the perennial students they are, they kept researching meat goats and found the Myotonic (also called American Stiff Legged or Fainting) goats had the highest meat-to-bone ratio and switched over.

Turner believes in adapting the animals’ genetics to the land and environment in which they live and so he’s developed his own line based on Myotonic genetics. His herd is essentially closed. “I only have purchased goats from two sources in the last 10 years,” he says.

“I cull heavily here,” Turner said. “Goats are bred, kid on their own, are good mothers and there’s no need to trim much hoof.” He supplements grain, if needed, in the winter when the does are lactating and nursing and also provides free-choice minerals.

The offspring will be in the herd for three seasons and need to be “performance” goats, which includes producing twins. “If they don’t produce to my standard, they go on the grill,” he said.

ADDING VALUE

About that value-added aspect of the Turners’ farm: Sometimes necessity (or want) gives birth to a new idea. The Turners found one in an unlikely place — the state fair.

“I was thirsty and wanted a lemonade,” he said. “It was getting close to closing time. At the first concession, they were fresh out.”

The person at that concession said he would call his cousin four concessions down and then sent the Turners over there.

Turner asked the second man how business was and the fellow pointed out other units that belonged to him and his family. He explained they spent six months on the road doing concessions and wintered in Florida. They made $77,000 a week.

In terms of economy of scale, meat goats were not enough — the Turners could not compete with 500 goats going into the slaughter markets. “If you’re a small farmer, you better figure out a way to tap into value-added markets,” he said.

He began researching mobile concession businesses. And that’s how the food truck came into being. This year marks a decade in that business.

“We had never operated a unit,” he says. “We just jumped in and did it.”

That meant decals, lettering, insurance and getting the goats processed under inspection—“a lot of learning curves.” They deliver goats to T&E Meats in Harrisonburg, get the meat back and retail it through the mobile unit. They also built a stage on the farm to accommodate the concerts they provide the food for — everything from vegan meals to the goats for those who are omnivorously inclined. As the concerts grow in attendance beyond 300, they plan to invite other local producers who serve other niches to join them.

In addition to the food truck and a fledgling squab business, the Turners have also grown various kinds of boutique vegetables over the years, again to fill niches that others haven’t. They’ve sold to the Local Food Hub in Charlottesville, which sources and sells bulk amounts of produce, meats, dairy products, eggs and mushrooms from local farms. They’ve also focused on vegetables of importance to people from West Africa because too often immigrants from there have not been able to find foods from back home.

FOOD APARTHEID

If the vegetables and herbs, Myotonics and squab are the Turners’ retirement plan, what about their community legacy?

This takes the Turners back to the beginning of their own lifelong adventure in homesteading and farming, and raises concerns for Turner, who sees nothing easy or quick about changing the dynamics of race in agriculture. He doesn’t consider Europeans in the Americas “settlers.”

“If I gathered 25 homeboys from the hood and sailed to Ireland next week, they’re not going to look at me as a settler, so how did they become settlers here? It needs to be looked at differently,” he said.

But it may take another revolution to change the dynamics, he said.

“Issues of inequality across the world are real,” Turner said. “It’s a dangerous situation politically what’s happening across the world. Global capitalism is not working. Most people are so dependent. We do what we can do. We’re proponents of local and sustainable: 150 miles or 1 hour from the farm in any direction—that’s enough.”

Turner does not see solutions coming from government, and long-term solutions won’t likely come from nonprofits, either.

He’s also been a member of Chesapeake Foodshed Network’s Community Ownership, Empowerment & Prosperity Project for more than a year. Although the group focuses on food justice and food sovereignty, Turner said they’re only seeing a slice of the pie—what they call “urban agriculture” and he calls gardening.

A lot of times, he said, nonprofits don’t want to talk about big-picture issues because they need to maintain their funding and the big picture invites controversy. Seeing the big picture means recognizing that urban gardens don’t equate to food sovereignty and do little toward decreasing the numbers of food scarcity in inner cities.

Turner rejects the term food desert in favor of food apartheid. Some deserts are natural ecosystems sometimes exacerbated by human activity, he said, but apartheid is “by design.” Food apartheid, he said, is connected to redlining of real estate districts and largely based on subjugation of black Americans.

Real food sovereignty for African Americans, said Turner, would mean owning and farming the land, owning the means of distribution and owning the retail outlets through which they can sell food produced by African Americans. Otherwise, food apartheid will persist and the health and longevity of black Americans will continue to decline.

RACISM IN FARMING

Turner said one can’t talk about food apartheid without talking about the cause — systemic racism.

When it comes to black farmers, in particular, more and more are getting kicked off their land, he said. As an example, he mentioned a Louisiana sugar cane farmer who went to a bank to get a loan. The bank would lend to him if he would reduce his acreage in sugar cane from 4,000 to 1,200. But he needed 3,000 acres in production to cover the debt burden, so he couldn’t get the loan and he was forced to leave his house and the farm that had been in his family for four generations.

The Turners also lost land through a bad loan they had applied for and were granted by the Farm Services Agency. The main issue was not having enough buyers. Turner said that’s a bottleneck especially for rural black farmers, who lack a customer base of African American eaters.

“You still have to deal with buyers,” Turner said.

As one example, the Turners made an appointment with a store that sources food from local farmers, put together a basket of produce and dressed in matching farm shirts. At the store, the person who had sounded so enthused on the phone told them to check back the following year. Two days later, they learned a neighbor — a white woman — was going to sell her produce to the store.

“These things still continue,” said Turner.

Their case with the Farm Services Agency was eventually litigated and they lost — not only the case, but land. They now operate on 20 acres of the original 94.

“If I had to do it all over again, I would not have done it,” Turner said. “The process was ugly. It’s nothing I would recommend to other African Americans to go through.”

The example raises important questions: Why is it African Americans own less land now than in 1930 and why is it that fewer than 2 percent are farmers and that probably half of those or more are struggling to keep what they have?

BACK TO THE LAND

Just as there is an aging-farmer crisis, so there is a heritability crisis when it comes to black farmers’ passing along their land. Too often, there is no one to inherit it and the last surviving farmers end up selling the land to developers, which ends the possibility for a young African American would-be farmer to acquire land. That’s a conversation that needs to happen within the African American community, Turner said, because each generation of African Americans starts with zero and has to rebuild.

“Where are these generational black farms being passed down?” he asked.

He means the ones where subsequent generations are not born into debt, but rather, have the infrastructure to build upon in order to be self-sufficient.

Unfortunately, “even family members don’t support you,” he said. “They will drive past your farm and go to the store to buy food even though you’re growing high-quality, non-GMO foods. The value is not there for them.”

Turner has some videos on YouTube that talk about change for African Americans in farming.

“People say I changed their life. That makes me feel good,” he said.

Turner expects he’ll try to win people over one at a time — and maybe more en masse when he finishes a book he is working on about homesteading for African Americans, which will share how to find land, how to build and how to free themselves from the bonds of a capitalist culture, so that they can grow their own food, help others and build good health.

“I don’t hear enough conversation about, ‘Let’s change the whole population density for green spaces, get off the grid, have chickens, goats, feed your family, get out of an environment heavily influenced through drug culture, drive-by shootings and gang activities,” said Turner. “We can see that as a problem and develop the means or tenacity to remove ourselves and can, in fact, change the way our lives are.”

Too often, African Americans are “comfortable slaves,” Turner said, okay with working 40 hours a week in exchange for material goods.

Still, in some online groups in which Turner participates, he sees change afoot, with young people considering trading city for country.

“Change is definitely going to come,” he said, “but it’s not going to include everyone, and I fear that many people are going to be lost because they’re captives in a bad situation with no way out.”

For black farmers still on the land, Turner urges them to take advantage of newer crops that have or are likely to become hot commodities—hops and hemp, for example—and he encourages black land-grant institutions to step up their game and promote such crops and help black farmers get started growing such crops.

Turner wonders what would happen if African Americans were to reverse the urban trend and ag leaders began to speak in terms of “Hey, let’s buy thousand of acres of land and build communities that are self-sufficient and reverse this paradigm.” Anything less will not solve the problems, he said.