Strawberries and blackberries grow fat in the summer heat. An insectary buzzes with the good kind of creepy crawlies, the ones that protect the tomatoes and cucumbers thriving in a nearby high tunnel. A black cherry tree has just opened up, and fragrant honeysuckle sprawls amidst pokeweed.
It’s summer 2021 and permaculture practicing farmer Patrick Johnson is leading Richmond urban farmer and community activist Duron Chavis around his 1.25 acre Airport Food Forest (located across the street from Richmond International Airport). Although the two men know each other through their respective work, today Chavis is acting as host and Johnson as interviewee.
The Airport Food Forest is one of five Black-led green spaces featured in season two of the Institute of Contemporary Art at VCU’s YouTube series “Black Space Matters.” Because of social distancing protocols in place at the time, season one’s interviews were all shot onsite in the empty lot turned resiliency garden adjacent to the ICA. This season, though, Chavis knew he wanted to take viewers to the physical spaces he was describing.
“I don’t want to hear about the yellow flowers, I want to see the yellow flowers,” he says, explaining why the video medium was so important to him versus, say, a podcast. “How do we showcase these spaces and what people are doing in these spaces with the highest possible quality?”
While season one features folks in a variety of roles and how they connect with the spaces they create, the through-line for season two is about people growing food. Although Chavis is quick to point out, the conversations are much “bigger than food, much bigger than land.”
“I can’t tell you how many times I field messages and DMs about where to find Black farmers,” says Chavis. “With this series it’s like ‘Here you go, here are five people for you to connect with in your community.’ We’re showing that these people exist and these folks are active and thriving in their work.”
Season two features farmers as disparate as Johnson, who has spent decades practicing permaculture, observing and understanding nature, to younger cultivators like Allison Hurst, who counsels the next generation of growers in the plant beds at Church Hill’s Legacy Farm.
“I think it’s important that we are telling stories that highlight the diversity of people and places,” says Chavis. “It’s not formulaic, everyone has their own personality and ethos.”
For Johnson, who Chavis credits with “archival knowledge” of food resiliency, that ethos is rooted in the cycle of life.
Johnson’s food forest is “beyond organic”—there are no chemicals to be found here. Johnson utilizes nature-friendly techniques like the German Hill culture growing method, hügelkultur, which involves burying wood and other organic material like compost and manure, then putting soil on top before planting.
“You’re increasing the microbial life in the soil as everything breaks down,” says Johnson. “There’s no fertilizer, no pesticides.” Johnson’s food forest is home to native vegetation as well as gently cultivated collards, kale, lettuces, onions, leeks, garlic and okra, all of which he currently sells at the Ashland farmers market.
An Alabama native with a Master’s degree in agriculture from Cornell, Johnson spent two years in the Philippines with the Peace Corps between college and grad school. “My primary assignment was to work with small farmers with rice production and vegetable gardening,” he recalls. “I was trying to encourage [the villagers] to grow vegetable gardens because they were not getting enough nutrition. We wanted to encourage them to use things they already had.”
Johnson purchased his Sandston property in 2013, though he did not begin the work of farming for at least a year. He used that time to visit the space, to observe how light hit the perennial plants, how water flowed through the soil, which critters were wont to visit.
“Man imposes his will—but nature will say this is what is supposed to be here,” says Johnson.
Sometimes, though, despite man’s best intentions, outside forces—referred to in permaculture as invisible structures—will bear down. Johnson says that ever since he started clearing his property for agricultural purposes, the residential neighborhood where the food forest resides has been, at times, less than welcoming.
While last summer his property was thrumming with life, this spring Johnson says he’s barely had time to plant anything as he navigates notices of violation.
“One of the challenges I’ve had with this space is that residents don’t seem to understand what agriculture really is—my property is zoned for agriculture—and county officials are driven by complaints,” says Johnson. He says that his neighbors have taken issue with everything from “woody debris” (mushroom logs) to sunflowers.
“I was trying to grow sunflowers outside my fence and they called the county,” says Johnson. “They thought they were weeds.”
Perceiving sunflowers as weeds is an apt metaphor, perhaps, for the challenges Black growers have faced and continue to face in spaces from suburban neighborhoods to urban gardens, from the redlining of Richmond to the false promise of 40 acres and a mule.
“The implications and consequences are everywhere,” says Legacy Farm manager and certified urban agriculturist Allison Hurst.
A VCU grad and former middle school teacher, Hurst says that after spending time both at home with Church Hill community members and abroad—two years in Norway—she began to connect pieces of the food access puzzle.
“Going to Norway was incredible and life changing and jarring,” says Hurst. “I come from a line of farmers and earth stewards and I’ve always been fortunate to have vegetables at my table—we never ate out of a box—but when we came home from Norway for a summer break we got sick, our skin changed. When we got back to Norway everything cleared up within a few days.”
Hurst says that this specific experience really hammered home the reality that marginalized communities have “less sovereignty to fresher and quality food.”
“I was determined to do something,” says Hurst. When the job for farm manager opened at Legacy Farm four years ago, Hurst took over. “I could engage youth, I love to cook, I can gather people. They needed someone to expand the garden, and the stories of these young people and who they were when they came around the table resonated … what it means to share food is primal.”
Legacy Farm is part of the nonprofit Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT). As farm manager, Hurst operates within the workforce development leg of this organization, working with students ages 14-18 as well as young people under the age of 24. She’s teaching them how to grow everything from “timeless classics” like tomatoes and squash, to medicinal herbs like calendula, yes, but she’s also imparting lessons that go beyond the dirt.
“We’ve had bigger conversations around land, around biodiversity and what it means to give back to the earth and heal, specifically what has been happening over the past one-and-a-half years,” says Hurst.
The three principles of Legacy Farm are heritage, restoration and reclamation. Hurst hopes that by introducing youths back to the land from which they’ve grown so detached, she can launch them into the world with both hard and soft skills. And maybe some healing.
“For me, it’s always been about young people,” says Hurst. “Letting them know they are valuable, worthy and capable.”
The five, 20-minute episodes of “Black Space Matters” season two—as well as the season two premiere panel discussion—are currently all available for free to stream online. Chavis says that while season three is not yet confirmed, he hopes that future seasons will include Black-led spaces located across the state, from NOVA to the Hampton Roads region.
“We’re not just looking for farms and gardens,” says Chavis. “We want to identify wellness spaces, outdoor spaces. We want to find folks engaging with the outdoors in real ways. We’re just trying to give people an opportunity to see themselves in the work.”
Find all 10 episodes of Black Space Matters for free online.