As part of Black History Month, we’re highlighting how Connecticut’s Black-owned farms are planting the seeds for the state’s agricultural future. In addition to providing CT Grown products for the market, Black farmers are often actively involved in nonprofit groups working to improve access to fresh food in Connecticut’s cities through urban farms, community gardens, educational programs, and more.
Agriculture remains a predominantly White profession; just 2 percent of farmers in the United States are Black. The ratio is similarly lopsided in Connecticut. The last USDA Census of Agriculture in 2017 found just 25 Black farmers responded among Connecticut’s more than 9,500 agricultural producers.
Yet many young Black farmers are actively working to change perceptions about farming and encourage people of color to consider it as a career. Let’s take a closer look at some of these producers, how they’re shaping the future of CT Grown, and how you can support them.
In a profile for the Boston Globe, Robert Chang recalls how he would visit his grandparents’ small farm while growing up in Jamaica. But he didn’t give agriculture a try until he was in his 30s, when he started a backyard garden at his home in Middletown. This proved so bountiful that he set up a roadside stand to sell the surplus.
That surplus inspired Chang to start a larger farm, and in 2015 he purchased a 14-acre property in Woodstock. He now runs Echo Farm, which grows organic produce and cut flowers that he sells to restaurants, at a farm stand, and at farmers’ markets.
Chang balances farming with a full-time career in IT. He co-founded the Southern New England Farmers of Color Collaborative and has been active in other local farming organizations, including CT NOFA and the New Connecticut Farmer Alliance.
Hodges Family Farm
In 2015, Army veteran Anthony Hodges purchased an 1899 farmhouse on the outskirts of Waterbury. His original goal was to renovate the property as a way of dealing with his PTSD. Family members pitched in on the project, and then members of the community started helping to maintain the land every weekend.
Today, Hodges Family Farm is open to the public. Visitors are able to pick their own fruits and vegetables, purchase produce at a farmstand, or make day reservations to simply relax at the farm.
Emmanuel Marte raised his first crop while he was working in Maryland and successfully grew a tomato plant at his apartment. He began experimenting with other crops, such as growing microgreens indoors, and learned more about agriculture through KNOX Hartford after returning to Connecticut.
In 2018, Marte established Micro2Life with Zania Johnson, whom he met while studying biology and nutritional science at the University of Connecticut. Micro2Life grows organic vegetables including hydroponically produced leafy greens, peppers, turnips, and some specialty crops such as Jamaican pumpkins.
The vegetables are sold to customers as well as schools and restaurants, and some are donated to food security programs. In 2022, Micro2Life supplied CT Foodshare with over 4,000 pounds of produce.
Johnson and Marte have actively worked to encourage people to learn more about where food comes from and to consider agriculture as a career. They have given presentations in schools, conducted urban farmer training programs, and led educational courses on hydroponics and growing microgreens.
Park City Harvest
Richard Myers recalls that his classmates sometimes asked him if his name was Shawn while he was studying horticulture at Naugatuck Community College. Eventually he met “the other Black kid in the program,” Shawn Joseph, and the seed of Park City Harvest was born.
The duo founded the company in 2018, currently specialize in microgreens grown in an indoor farm, and are also adding a hoop house and honeybees. In addition, they offer value-added products such as West Indian hot sauce, pickled jalapenos, dried herbs, olive oils, teas, and T-shirts dyed by the flowers and vegetables they grow.
Aware of the small share of Black farmers in agriculture, Park City Harvest operates under the slogan “Changing the Image of Farming.” The business aims to be a supplier of fresh, sustainable, culturally appropriate food in the Bridgeport area.
Myers and Harris say there is sometimes a negative stigma in the Black community that equates farming to slave work, but that they are working to portray agriculture as a means of financial freedom. Their outreach includes a new nonprofit, North Carver Foundation, to “educate, fund, and promote all farmers of color.” They also plan to publish a cookbook and a farming-themed children’s book.
“Having the opportunity to grow food for yourselves and your community and income is empowering,” they say.
Dishuan Harris’s interest in farming began with a simple realization: while his ancestors had been able to work the land and provide for their families, he only knew how to buy his food.
Harris, a New Haven native, began volunteering with as many local agricultural organizations as he could. He was later hired as a farmer and educator with Common Ground High School in New Haven, then started his own business in 2016 with the goal of sharing the agricultural knowledge he had developed over his career.
Through Root Life, Harris (also known as Native Praxis, or Farmer D) raises organic produce such as berries, herbs, and microgreens. He farms on a selection of different community spaces, totaling about one-sixth of an acre in total.
“These grow spaces are unique because they are in the center of urban neighborhoods that currently deal with food apartheid (food deserts),” says Harris. “As a result, these grow spaces contribute more than just the production of organic produce; these spaces offer a place for the community to connect to each other and reconnect to natural spaces.”
Harris also sells vegan health and beauty products; and provides environmental consulting services on topics like edible landscaping, gardening, and farming. He plans to start selling value-added products made from locally grown and locally produced ingredients.
Harris continues to volunteer with numerous Connecticut urban agriculture groups, helping them in areas such as youth education and the startup and maintenance of community gardens. He has also established other organizations with the goal of promoting sustainability and food sovereignty, including Love Fed and Root Life Media.
Samad Gardens Initiative
Azeem Zakir Kareem remembers that it was a “culture shock” when he started working at Holcomb Farm in West Granby and saw the rows of vegetables. He says urban “food deserts” have led to a significant lack of awareness in Black populations about how their food is sourced.
Kareem had been invited to work at the farm by his wife Sarah Rose Kareem, then Holcomb Farm’s wholesale manager. In 2020, they started their own business, Samad Gardens Initiative, with the goal of inspiring and educating people of color to grow food for themselves and their communities.
Their Windsor Locks farm raises organic produce and medicinal herbs, which are sold at farmers’ markets and donated to organizations such as Connecticut Foodshare. Samad Garden Initiative also creates value-added products such as tea blends, and the Kareems offer numerous educational offerings on topics such as regenerative growing techniques and seed saving.
Liz Guerra and Hector “Freedom” Gerardo were dabbling in agriculture even when living in a Manhattan apartment, composting their food scraps on the fire escape. Shortly after they moved to Connecticut, the couple developed even more of an appreciation for locally sourced food due to the grocery shortages brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a way of promoting food sovereignty, Guerra and Gerardo established SEAmarron Farmstead on a 3.1-acre plot behind their Danbury home. They tend to a small but diverse farm operation that raises crops including vegetables, apples, and hemp. A small apiary is also on the site.
Both co-founders of SEAmarron Farmstead are involved with the New Connecticut Farmer Alliance. Gerardo has also founded the nonprofit companies E&G Community Builders and 1Freedom for All, both of which encourage people of color to address food insecurity in their communities.
To learn more about the Connecticut Department of Agriculture’s working groups to support diversity, equity, and inclusion in Connecticut agriculture, click here.