Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, personal trainers Rachael and James “Stew” Stewart were preparing to launch a fitness program and buy a house in Phoenix where their four children could play. Now, they’re tending goats on the Mexican border.
The pandemic triggered a triple threat for the Stewarts. First, gyms went into lockdown. Then, meat shortages cut off the staples of their paleo diet. Then, a real estate boom drove housing prices out of reach. It all combined to push the Stewarts to consider a dramatic change that would solve all three problems: They could buy inexpensive rural land and become commercial ranchers.
As a teenager, Rachael raised a pig through the 4-H program. But that was the totality of the Stewarts’ agricultural experience before they bought their land. Since Stew is Black, and Rachael is Filipina-Mexican, the couple searched for Black livestock farmers who might mentor them. And they were shocked to discover that there were none in the state.
They decided to become Arizona’s only Black-owned and operated commercial ranch, and in their change of career, they hope to become bellwethers of a burgeoning network of Black livestock farmers in the Southwest. “We want our children to grow up in a world where there are Black ranchers,” Rachael says. “So, Zwhen you don’t have an example, you have to be your own example.”
African-Americans have largely been pushed out of livestock farming due to the high cost of animals and discriminatory practices. But amidst the pandemic, job and food insecurity has motivated some to pursue self-sufficiency through agriculture.
Support networks for aspiring farmers of color are concentrated in the South and Northeast. But in the Southwest, the Stewarts had to get creative. Stew sold his classic 1972 Chevy Caprice to buy 10 acres of dust and scrub near Douglas, Arizona that they’ve dubbed The Protein Ranch. They called themselves the Southwest Black Ranchers and started a fundraising campaign to raise money for animals, equipment and feed. They’ve received messages of support through the campaign, but it’s also exposed them to abuse and derogatory comments by people telling them to pay for the ranch themselves.
Undeterred, they’re making the most of their bare-bones budget. Rachael is channeling her thrift shopping habit into searching for bargain livestock and second-hand chicken coops. She listens to an African radio station to get inspiration from farmers thriving on meager resources.
Instead of trying to break into the costly cattle industry, the family decided to fill in what they see as the gaps in the meat market. They’re acquiring goats and sheep to supply halal meat to Arizona’s large population of refugees and immigrants from Muslim nations. They also have ducks, chickens and heritage turkeys, and they plan to buy some guinea fowls and pheasants. “We specialize in the things you don’t get in the grocery store,” Stew says. “We want to go [directly] to people,.. and give people the freshest and most natural foods possible.”
Photo courtesy of James Stewart.
They’re also shoveling into the hardened rock called caliche on their land to create underground greenhouses that will protect vegetables from dust storms and temperatures that swing from oven-like to freezer-ish. They stuff the dirt into mesh bags and stack them to construct what are called hyperadobe buildings, complete with roofs that harvest rainwater. Their first building is serving as their house, but it will eventually become a library where they’ll host nutrition, fitness and farming classes. Next up: a hyperadobe gym.
The Stewarts’ sons and daughters—aged eight to 11—are fully involved. They relish digging in the dirt and caring for the animals. “In reality, this is their ranch,” Stew says. Rachael adds, “They are the Southwest Black Ranchers.”
The Stewarts are forming a support network of Black farmers in the hope that they can become the mentors they didn’t have. They’re regularly connecting with about eight families of color who want to buy land and livestock,l or to purchase animals to raise on the Protein Ranch. Some are beginners who never imagined ranching could be a reality. One couple who had farmed in Phoenix recently moved next to the Stewarts’ ranch and purchased livestock for their own use.
“We want this to be a hub where people can grow and learn, and they don’t have to be ashamed. It’s OK to be scared of the turkeys,” Rachael says with a laugh. “Our goals are to help other people get into this, too, and to tell people that this doesn’t have to be impossible. It doesn’t have to be a dream.”