Natasha Bowen, farmer, photographer and author of the new photo documentary, The Color of Food, speaks to guests at Purdue University about empowering black, Asian, Latino and Native American farmers and other people of color to become part of the sustainable food movements.
Natasha Bowen, farmer, photographer and author of the new photo documentary, The Color of Food, speaks to guests at Purdue University about empowering black, Asian, Latino and Native American farmers and other people of color to become part of the sustainable food movements.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — When Natasha Bowen left her job in Washington to move into the countryside of West Virginia to work on a farm, she noticed something strange at the area farmers markets and in the community-supported agricultural systems there.

The farmers at the farmers markets were only white. Where, she asked herself, were the brown people?

After all, wasn’t it a sharecropping system of agriculture in which black farmers labored in the fields picking cotton that enabled the U.S. to become, in large part, what it is today?

It was after discovering her love for organic agriculture, nurturing an obsession about where food comes from, and leaving her job in Washington, that she realized she could unearth many of the answers to her questions about how blacks and agriculture were intertwined in history.

“I had to start asking myself about race in the agricultural system, how racial disparities and injustice are very apparent,” Bowen said. “It was brown folks who started the tradition of farming in America, but they were being left out of the healthy food discussions taking place around the country, categorized to only eat junk.”

Bowen’s discoveries about food and agriculture blossomed into a ripe fruit that she now is passionately peeling back, the juice spilling across the pages of www.browngirlfarming.com, the personal website where she logs her endeavors to give black and Latino farmers power in the sustainable food movement.

A self-described writer, food sovereignty activist and a landless farmer, “a young, brown, female farmer,” she emphasizes, she can be found writing, photographing, farming and envisioning a future America where Asian, black, Latino and Native American farmers have a seat at the table, and food communities to thrive.

Though a native of Florida, she recently spoke at Purdue University through the College of Agriculture’s celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., where she shared the personal stories of farmers she has encountered from eastern New York City to Savannah, Ga., all of which spring to life in the pages of her new photo documentary, The Color of Food.

During her talk, she recounted her visit to Yard Bird Farms in Louisiana, where she saw a chicken being slaughtered for the first time — “an exciting experience for me,” she said.

Black farmers these days, she argues, are virtually nonexistent, while black people are grossly portrayed in the media.

“I hear all the time about how the average age of the farmer is 57 to 59 — the average age of the black farmer today is 63,” she said.

“We went from 1 million black farmers in 1920 to less than 30,000 today. White men still own 96 percent of our farms, while blacks own only 1.3 percent.”

She emphasized that her work does not focus only on black farmers, but migrant workers, such as Luis, who farms in New Mexico and benefits from the National Immigrant Farming Initiative.

“Immigrants and refugees often come from home farms, so the lack of availability of some of their traditional foods means cultural change for them,” Bowen said.

“They also face language and cultural barriers in accessing some of these programs, as well as lawsuits.”

Bowen’s agricultural aspirations extend beyond American borders.

She takes great interest in the Ethiopian farming community and Haitian farmers in Florida, as well as Native American reservations where farmers are establishing seed banks to revive traditional, sacred crops.

Despite all these tribulations, farmers of color have managed to survive, and their stories of transcendence, many of which are deeply rooted in the soil and are as simple as sowing a seed and watching it grow, are captured in her writing and brilliant photographs.

The book is part of a larger multimedia project she is coordinating through her website to spotlight people of color who are working to revolutionize the food system in their communities.

For instance, the Color of Food map and directory provides an inlet for farmers to sign up their farm, market or organization to join an international network of farmers.

Bowen said she is very excited about the diversification of urban farms in eastern New York City, as well as her involvement with the Groundswell group to aid African farmers.

“There are a lot of small farmers out there, and a lot of people trying to get into farming who may not have the background,” she said. “We need to change the support and value we’re giving farmers.”