Home Arts Movies Full House for ‘Farming While Black’ Documentary and Panel

Full House for ‘Farming While Black’ Documentary and Panel

From left, Claudel Zaka Chery, film director and president of Calabash Gardens; Hazel Adams-Shango, cofounder of The Flying Buffalo; Khonsu X, co-steward of Ezili’s Respite Farm & Sanctuary, and moderator Elizabeth Hewitt discuss the documentary “Farming While Black” on Saturday, March 16, as part of the 2024 Green Mountain Film Festival. Photo by Finnegan Cook, courtesy of the Green Mountain Film Festival.
An audience packed the Savoy Theater on March 16 for the Green Mountain Film Festival’s screening of “Farming While Black” and stayed afterward for a panel discussion featuring four Black Vermont farmers.

The panelists were Hazel Adams-Shango, cofounder of The Flying Buffalo, a small farm in Lamoille County; Claudel Zaka Chery, film director and president of Calabash Gardens, a saffron producer in Wells River;  James Key, director-at-large of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, and Khonsu X, co-steward of Ezili’s Respite Farm & Sanctuary, a small, diversified farm in Groton; with moderator Elizabeth Hewitt.

“It’s exciting to be here with other people who are actually able to be on the land, on their own farms,” said Khonsu X.

“Farming While Black” documents Leah Penniman founding and growing Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York. Penniman, co-executive director of Soul Fire Farm, wrote a book also called “Farming While Black.” The documentary covers ideas of regenerative agriculture with roots in Black and indigenous practices, and “food apartheid” in modern America.

“Many of the things that were said in the movie, I echoed many years ago. That’s probably why I’m a lonely Black beekeeper,” said Key. “I find myself alone in farming in this state. A state that is very homogeneous,” he said.

“I love this film, I loved the book. It was really transformational for me,” said Khonsu X. Afro-ecology, an idea discussed by Blain Snipstal in the documentary, “is sort of my necessary response to my own pessimism in the world,” he said.

Khonsu said hearing Leah Penniman and her sister Naimi speak on discovering farming “and feeling very separated from it, or that it wasn’t something that might have been theirs, then that realization to reconnect with roots. That’s also part of my journey.”

“Food apartheid” is a term coined by Karen Washington, who appears in “Farming While Black,” telling the story of guerilla gardening in the Bronx’s empty lots in the 1980s. She describes a time when healthy food wasn’t readily available in her neighborhood, and of former mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s overnight attempt to shut the urban gardens down.

The term food apartheid differs from the term “food desert” because it acknowledges that the scarcity of nutritious, affordable food is manmade and creates inequities in class and race.

Adams-Shango, who raised her children in the Bronx, said, “There was a time in the early 2000s, where we had to travel like 45 minutes, by taxi, just to acquire some organic fruits and vegetables.”

In 1910, 14% of American farm owners were Black. Now, Black farmers make up less than 2%, according to the documentary. The 2023 Justice for Black Farmers Act, which aimed to make up for this, and the legal opposition it faced, were also mentioned.

“Even though this movie brought a lot of attention and awareness about what’s going on in farming, primarily with Black, people of color with farming, things really haven’t changed. They haven’t transpired from the screen to reality,” said Key.

“Let’s start sharing our skill sets,” said Key. “That’s what I hope to do more, this year.”

Farming practices that have roots in African practices, like cover cropping for soil retention, have become even more important after the July 2023 flooding in the Northeast.

Khonsu X brought up Vermont bill H.549, which will limit outdoor farming in densely populated areas. “That’s a bad idea, and will increase inequity here,” he said. “I really hope that Vermont doesn’t go in that direction,” for urban or rural farms, and “for anybody else, either.”

“Maybe things haven’t changed in 250 years. Maybe they just actually haven’t. But today is today, and we have an opportunity to define our future,” said Adams-Shango.

Key continued the “business side” discussion. “Many people in the Department of Agriculture will not listen to basic farming practices,” he said. “They’re focusing on what is profiting.”

“It’s very important to know what you can control, and (what) you cannot. And what we can control is here in Vermont,” said Adams-Shango. She said she learned that “we have to work at the speed of trust with one another” in the Vermont Releaf Collective – a collective that amplifies the voices of people of color in Vermont within focus areas of land, environment, agriculture, and foodways, according to its mission statement.

“You can create your opportunity as well,” said Adams-Shango. “I remember seeing my grandmother with a hoe. That was all I needed to kind of get this party started, and there’s so much more.