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Down on Virtue Farm with Radio 4 … talking a load of manure


IT used to be soothing to drift into Sunday listening to BBC Radio 4’s On Your Farm, hearing advice on stockpersonship and agricultural practice. 

Recent issues have included Brexit, the EU Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policy, GM crops, biotechnology, pesticides, animal welfare, organic farming and problems with rural broadband; a good start to a day dominated by The Archers

As we all know, our safe, rational world has suddenly changed; we now have the Black Lives Matter movement and nothing can be seen outside the perspective of race, at least not by the BBC. Black and white cows, the four-legged variety, once loomed large and rubbed along well in the programme, but not any more.

‘American agriculture is overwhelmingly white, male and straight, so too here in the UK. Could that ever change?’ asked the BBC blog site.  

‘There’s a chronic lack of diversity in agriculture in the Western world,’ BBC reporter Anna Jones told us from a farm in New York state run by two black women and two married lesbians. ‘Black, gay, female and farming,’ exclaimed Anna, ‘diversity is the way of the farming future.’ 

Rather than correct animal feed, the programme fed us with essential facts; Africans invented agriculture, but their skills were stolen from them. And if you thought people once moved from the land to the cities seeking a better way of life, you were misinformed; it was all about slavery and racism. 

What the four female farmers do sounds admirable. Karen Washington, founder of Black Urban Growers, (BUGS) opened a farmers’ market in New York City’s impoverished South Bronx and talks to underclass people about the value of fresh food. 

She also delivers food boxes, something usually restricted to the middle classes. But she talks about ‘food apartheid’. 

She said: ‘I’m black, I’m a woman. As a person of colour who once came to this country enslaved. I can see people of colour (POCs constantly mentioned) having a distance from the food system.’ 

All underclass groups get poorer food, apart from the Chinese and Koreans, who still cook with fresh and pickled veg. This issue is about class, but for these women everything is seen in the context of slavery, the shibboleth of black activism, or what is now termed, ‘Black Centrism’, and even ‘Afro-futurism’.

To many of us duplicitous, thieving white folk, this sounds like fantasy. Their farming methods are more extreme than organic. ‘No pesticides because our ancestors never used them,’ said one woman. ‘If we lose a crop, we can do better next time.’ 

Could their, our, ancestors really afford such a relaxed attitude to crop failure? 

Anna for the BBC cut to the nub of this, speaking emotionally of what she called, ‘legacies of oppression’, and, ‘that word that hangs in the air; slavery’. Everyone seemed to hold their breath as if she’d just used a word that is rapidly becoming sacred. 

Despite slavery, Lorrie Clevenger claimed that 14 per cent of US farms were once owned by prosperous black farmers – now it’s one per cent. ‘Are there attitudes that farming is just a little too close to slavery?’ Anna asked. The women agreed that black people had spent too long ‘getting away from all that’. 

They saw no connection between themselves and other industrial peoples the world over, who have escaped rural poverty and lost touch with natural food.

It’s sometimes observed that migrants from Asia often do not garden, seeing it as some kind of throwback to poorer times. But the belief on this farm is that their former skills had been deliberately stolen. 

Lorrie had a white mother, but calls herself black and left her home in rural Missouri for New York because, she said, she didn’t like the ‘behaviours’ people exhibited because of her race. In the Big Apple she rediscovered her ‘farming heritage’ and growing tomatoes became a ‘spiritual experience’.

The women are working as farmers to ‘reclaim our roots as expert farmers before we were kidnapped and enslaved’. They represent ‘liberty, healing and the larger collective heritage I am part of’.

They fear their expertise will be stolen again by conniving whites, so they are struggling to ‘protect their ‘stories’ from being ‘co-opted’ and ‘renamed’, for capitalist profit. To deal with this threat, they’ve come up with the word ‘Agricology’ to encompass the ‘indigenous practices of growing food all over the world’. ‘Centuries of knowledge,’ stolen by white people. 

No one described that knowledge, or mentioned the need for agricultural surpluses, often lacking or stolen in poor countries, or of cash-crop farming.

Instead, they seemed to embrace an ideal of subsistence farming away from capitalist combines of any kind. Africa was a lost Eden. ‘We were growing food in Africa,’ said one. ‘There was a beautiful relationship with the land and with each other, that was lost to enslavement and we need to reclaim our relationship to the land.’

Africa also has a ‘diversity’ problem, not mentioned; only one sex does most of the work. According to a recent World Bank report, African women produce 80 per cent of food for local markets and create gardens. They mostly sow seeds, do the weeding, cultivate and harvest the crops and sell surpluses. 

The report states that in Nigeria, where women are 60 per cent to 80 per cent of the agricultural workforce, men make all the farm management decisions. African women have little access to cash, land or credit. In Kenya, the value of female farmers’ tools is one-fifth that of men’s. 

Michaela and Jane, the married lesbians – merely ‘white allies’ to the black farmers – offered uncompromising advice to snoozing white listeners: ‘Get comfortable being uncomfortable.’

If you live in a rural village, you must travel to find POCs or ‘read, listen and learn from black people’ by watching them on YouTube. ‘Remember, if you live in the US, you’re living on land which used to be populated by black people before you.’

BBC Anna, who says it was ‘one of the most moving farm visits’ she’s ever done, wasn’t there to question, let alone challenge, any of the myths the American women cherished.

One wonders if they’d even heard of Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of south Africa, where highly productive land expropriated from 4,500 white farmers is now a place of scarcity and starvation. But for ‘Afro-futurists,’ claiming the hinterland and moral high ground of historic slavery, anything can be true if they say it is.   

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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