Since she started farming, Amirah Mitchell has sought to honor past generations of Black growers who worked the land before her. At the heart of her journey has been a desire to cultivate and save African, African-American and Afro-Caribbean heirloom seeds of vegetables such as okra, peppers, squash and black-eyed peas.
“I have felt called to the land by my ancestors to do this work for my community. It feels important to me that farmers of color have greater food sovereignty,” she says. “Getting at the heart of inequities that impact Black farmers in the food system starts with seed.”
Mitchell, who resides in Philadelphia, has more than a decade of farming experience and a degree in horticulture from Temple University. She’s currently completing a fellowship at Greensgrow Farm, an educational urban farm, while working at Truelove Seeds, an heirloom and open pollinated seed supplier. In both positions, she has been exposed to and grown various fruits and vegetables of the African diaspora, including collard greens, black-eyed peas, okra and watermelon.
She finds the work rewarding, but over the past year, she has yearned to create her own seed hub. Now, thanks to a GoFundMe campaign, which has raised more than $20,000 since October, she’s almost ready to launch her own farm.
Next month, Mitchell will start planting inside a greenhouse on a one-acre incubator farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia, which she will rent using money raised from her GoFundMe campaign. Operating under the business name Sistah Seeds, she aims to be a seed source of culturally important heirloom varieties such as “Ole Pepperpot” pepper, green-striped cushaw squash and Odell’s white watermelon, which she says are largely absent from mainstream markets. The farm will also serve as an educational site for community members to learn more about growing and saving their own seeds.
“There has been a historic exploitation over cultural resources, agricultural resources, biological resources,” she says. ”And we have seen Black farmers face challenges around access to quality seeds and seeds that are of particular cultural interest.”
Much like heirloom seeds within the African, African-American and Afro-Caribbean diaspora, Black farmers have largely been excluded from or pushed out of the American agricultural landscape. According to recent statistics from the USDA Census of Agriculture, Black farmers make up only 1.34 percent of all producers—a drastic difference from the early 20th century, when formerly enslaved people and their descendants owned and tended to 14 million acres of land. Since then, more than 90 percent of Black farmers have lost their land, in large part due to discriminatory practices by the USDA. Over the years, Black farmers have been denied loans and credit, have lacked access to legal defense against fraud and been subjected to acts of violence and intimidation.
It is not a reality lost on Mitchell, who views her sprouting business as an act of resilience. But to experience the outpour of support after the launch of her fundraiser, she says, means others see the need and importance of her future work.
“People have gotten behind this dream and now I know I can do it and not have to struggle. I feel blessed,” she says. “I also think there’s an increase in the number of people willing to support Black-owned enterprises with their dollars with the increased focus on the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Mitchell is currently in the process of establishing contracts with seed companies and seed banks. While she plans to stay in Philadelphia over the next few years, she hopes to someday relocate to the South, where she has relatives and where she feels there is a greater opportunity to get these heirloom vegetable seeds into deserving hands.
“Seed work has felt deeply spiritual to me, being close to that seed that has been around for multiple life cycles, using some of those same varieties that my ancestors brought with them across the Atlantic,” says Mitchell. “This is part of my heritage being African-American, and to one day be closer to my extended family in the South, it makes sense to me.”