BY ALLIE HYMAS
“The best way to predict the future is to have an understanding of your past.” Kamal Bell, a middle school teacher and farmer, stands on a TEDx stage at North Carolina State University. “Sankofa is a term that comes out of the Akan language in West Africa that translates, ‘to go back and get.’”
Rooted in a mindfulness of Black history, as well as a desire to nurture and grow the Black community in Durham and Orange Counties, Bell and his team at Sankofa Farms are on a dual mission. The 2.5 acres of vegetable production and 35 beehives provide nutrition to food-insecure communities, while the operations provide a setting for Kamal to teach five Black students leadership, teamwork and personal development as they learn how to farm.
“We’ve been growing very quickly,” Bell says. “We’re just trying to keep up!” January marked Sankofa’s first year supplying food to local individuals as well as contributing to other CSAs in the area. Lettuce, kale, collard greens, squash, okra, watermelon, peppers, mustard greens and navy beans make up some of the produce the farm is growing. Through connections with the Rural Land Advancement Foundation, Communities in Partnership and Rise Up North Carolina, these veggies will go to the people who need them most.
According to the South Eastern Consortium on Hunger, Food and Nutrition, 20 percent of children in Durham County and 18 percent in Orange County live in food-insecure homes, meaning that one in five children do not know where their next meal is coming from.
“A lot of farm accounts post pictures of food, and I think about all my students who may not have access to healthy food,” Bell says. “I don’t post pretty pictures of the food because I have to remember that the people following the page might be hungry.”
While racial justice and food insecurity are massive issues, Bell not only offers a resource to his community; he also brings five Black students along with him. “When people hear ‘the Black community’ they think of every Black person on the earth, but we’ve honed in on working with the youth in our community and then we partner with organizations in our community that can distribute the food to the populations we’ve targeted.” By the end of the summer, it’s Bell’s intent that these students will be more than just farmers, but confident young Black leaders.
“We’re just here for the people,” Bell says.
For the Love of Nature
Farming is an extension of Bell’s love of natural science and simply being outside. “If anyone ever meets my sons they’ll see right away their affinity for being outdoors and being in nature — they get it from me. When I was their age I was the same way — I loved being outdoors.” Bell remembers the impact of a teacher in his elementary school days who first encouraged him to appreciate nature. “I went to a Title I school where a teacher would take a group of Black boys out to a pond in the back of the school to catch Marble Salamanders. Being involved with activities like that my whole life, I grew really closed to nature and came to love animals. When I went to college I chose animal science as my career path.”
Bell started his degree with the intent to become a veterinarian, but as he grew closer to the content, he began to feel like he could serve the Black community better working outside the lab. “I did a lot of reading at that time, and I asked myself how I could give back to the Black community, and I came around to farming.” Shifting his studies to gain exposure to the agricultural industry, Bell gained experience through working with farmers in Greensborough as well as internships and jobs at the university farm. After graduating with a masters in agricultural education, his professors encouraged him to pursue a farm purchase.
Justice Starts with Access
When Bell graduated from college in 2016 he applied for a USDA Farm Service Agency Direct Farm Ownership loan, but he quickly noticed that the process was not treating him fairly. “I think this is one of those moments that defines what racism is.” The USDA’s Census of Agriculture found in 2012 that only 1.6 percent of all farmers are Black, compared to 14 percent in 1910. The Center for American Progress notes in its 2019 report that this shrink is the result of decreased access to loans and insurance. The report found that between 1910 and 2007, Black farmers lost 80 percent of their land.
After Bell’s first application was denied, he discovered that the agent he had been working with hadn’t given him all the information he needed to create a successful application. With the help of a more thorough FSA agent, Bell had no trouble building an application that met the FSA’s specifications. “He looked me in my eyes and said, ‘this is one of the best put-together applications to come across my desk.’” While Bell waited for his application to be processed, he observed that the FSA department was awarding his white peers more quickly. “My application ended up taking almost eight or nine months, while typically it should take three or four months. I remember doing an office visit where [my agent] was talking to another farmer about giving him $300,000 for a fallow field, while they didn’t want to give me $70,000 with a $10,000 operating loan to buy a 12-acre farm.”
Even with the full confidence of Bell’s second FSA agent, he found himself with another denied application. But even as a USDA Civil Rights attorney got involved in Bell’s case, the prejudicial treatment continued. When the FSA agent failed to return his calls, making it unclear when Bell was supposed to arrive for this critical meeting, instinct told Bell to arrive early to the office so that the proceedings wouldn’t happen without him. “Sure enough, I walked in the door and the meeting was starting right then.” Bell says that this meeting brought up so many examples of prejudice in the department’s handling of the application that the civil rights attorney representing the FSA had to agree. “I was providing points to him that he didn’t have a rebuttal on.” Several weeks later, the denial was overturned, but again the final award letter stalled. “I had to talk to the director and to push this farm through.”
On the day Bell closed on his farm purchase, he had made all the arrangements on top of his full-time teaching job to be present and prepared for the transaction, but the same couldn’t be said for the Farm Service Agency. “They had forgotten my check at the closing,” Bell remembers, pointing out that each difficulty was another obstacle keeping him from getting the farm. “You can see this repeated behavior.”
Both the Farm Service Agency in Greensborough and the state office declined to comment on these events.
The Agricultural Academy
Bell brought his vision of an integrated, farm-to-school program to the school’s administration where he taught environmental and earth science. “At the time, I was teaching agriculture and the students were gravitating toward my program. We started a little garden at the school; it was a perfect setup. The students were changing their behavior and responding to me and the program I was running.” Even though Bell’s approach was clearly getting results, the principal and administration weren’t ready to create a program. “I didn’t want to wait until they figured it out; I had a student who graduated that year get caught up in a murder — he’s doing jail time right now. I wanted to change these kids’ lives now.” Driven by this mission, Bell created the Agricultural Academy as its own nonprofit, and brought students onto his farm with no funding or tools ready. They got to work.
“Sankofa was literally built from the ground up,” Bell recalls. In the stiff, unyielding clay soil, he and his team worked to manually remove the forest to make arable land. “I don’t come from a network of people in agriculture, so we were figuring it out as we go,” Bell says. After renting bulldozers, hiring people and getting help from neighbors and local community service projects, there was finally enough land cleared to begin production. “We didn’t have a well the first three years, so we were dry farming.” It wasn’t easy, but Bell is proud of what they were able to accomplish. “We just had to put our nose to the ground and teach the students not to get deterred. All the things they were learning through it were really special: if you want to do something for your community, you’ve got to push at the beginning.”
The Agricultural Academy runs as a STEM program, introducing students to farming skills, as well as leadership and personal development. The students who join the program do so based on their own volition. “They all have their own reasons for being there, but it gets down to a desire to help the Black community” Graduates of the Agricultural Academy have become certified beekeepers, improved their scholastic performance and even become long-term employees of Sankofa Farms. “Of the original four students from that first year of the program, two are still with Sankofa Farms now and they’re doing amazing,” Bell says
At the 2019 Atlantic Festival in Washington D.C., two Agricultural Academy students joined Bell on stage for a live panel describing their work and outcomes in the program. When the moderator asked student Kamoni King about the future of farming, King responded, “I think the future of farming holds us bringing more people onto the farm and breaking generational poverty in the African American community.” King’s statements exemplify the vision and mindset graduates of the Agricultural Academy take with them.
Connecting with Partners
“Anyone who understands farming knows that it can be a money hole if things don’t click for you,” Bell remarks. In their first years, the Agricultural Academy raised its money through speaking engagements, sales and grant funding. “We got a grant to start the Agricultural Academy with an Ag In the Classroom grant from the Farm Bureau. That allowed us to get tools and some materials to raise chickens our first year.”
Partnerships have helped the farm pour its resources into mentoring the students in the Agricultural Academy. “We have a really good relationship with Bayer Crop Science. They donated some beekeeping equipment to us, so we’ve been able to develop an apiary.” In a combined partnership with Bayer Crop Science and the Durham County Beekeepers association, Sankofa Farms was able to offer beekeeping mentorships which resulted in four out of the five students becoming certified beekeepers in its first year.
While Bayer Crop Science is behind many of the agricultural practices criticized by the small farms movement, Bell points out that their willingness to offer capital and tools to Sankofa Farms has enabled his program to flourish. “There’s no friction in that relationship because there’s no pressure there,” Bell explains. “Anytime that we need help, I can reach out and they’ll provide assistance. I recognize that they’re trying to help and that’s what we needed to go forward.” Bell suggests that the question shouldn’t really be about whether justice-focused nonprofits should accept money from agribusiness, but why other organizations aren’t supporting more programs like the Agricultural Academy. “Out of everybody else that has seen the farm, Bayer is the group that reached out and that means a lot to me.”
For Bell, serving food-insecure populations displaces any impetus to make Sankofa drive a profit. “If somebody pays Sankofa $20 for food, I want them to be able to eat from that for a couple of days. I will farm for as long as I can just so my people have access to healthy food.” The legacy of being a change-maker for the Black community is what drives Bell. “My great-great grandkids a hundred years from now are going to read about me — it matters to me what they read, more than how much money I had.”
Kids are the Future
In living out the mission of Sankofa — “to go back and get” or, “to predict the future by understanding the past” — Bell is confident he’s spending his time wisely by focusing on Black kids.
Bell feels that terms like ‘food justice’ can often be distracting. “I’m just thinking about how I can help Black people, how I can help solve issues in the Black community.” Bell points out that the issues of food security span race, class and economic structures that undergird our society; it can be frustrating to throw around words that make the issues seem clear-cut. He’s always trying to think expansively about how to directly impact the Black families in his neighborhood and the students who attend his school. “It’s about being adaptable and being genuine in trying to help my people — that’s what food justice would mean to me.”
“I don’t really see agriculture changing, based on what it was designed to do and who is in power there. The stolen labor is what drives it. I definitely believe that we need more African American farmers,” Bell says, “but the food system is so vast that everybody will have to pitch in, in some form or fashion.” Bell is appreciative of organizations trying to hold themselves accountable and exact change, but he’s skeptical that a system that continues to operate on the backs of underprivileged workers can change without a dramatic restructuring. “I’m not necessarily advocating for a specific system because I’ve seen Black people suffer in all of them,” he says. “I’m just interested in things that work.”
Bell wants to see Black youth highlighted and heard in this cultural moment. “The kids are the future of everything; they’re the ones that can change. Working with them gives me the opportunity to see where our future is going, and honestly I think it’s going to a good place.” Bell continues to sow into that future through his work at Sankofa Farm. they’ve continued to operate while following social distancing guidelines. He’s hopeful that the cultural dialogue surrounding race can lead to more open hearts joining Sankofa’s mission. “We haven’t had the normal things that distract us, and hopefully we can continue this conversation,” Bell says. “We’ll see. I’m just going to keep doing the work and keep pushing forward.”
Learn more about Sankofa Farms and Kamal Bell at www.sankofafarmsllc.com, Instagram @sankofafarms and Facebook @sankofafarmsllc.