Our Roots Are in the Roots

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Black farmers and ranchers in Southern Arizona aim to create new legacies

by Adiba Nelson

I am a city girl, through and through. Born and raised in New York City until I was eleven and my mother moved us west. However, my ancestors on both sides of my family raised animals and grew crops. The women on my father’s side lived on a plantation on Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina, and those on my mother’s side lived in rural Vieques, Puerto Rico. According to my mother, my great grandmother gathered eggs from backyard chickens and sometimes killed one of the family goats for meat to get through the month. My paternal grandmother could clean okra and shuck peas faster than anyone I knew.

And while all of this seemed like the distant past to me, I’d been hearing about more and more Black folks returning to their agricultural roots by homesteading and farming. One night while mindlessly scrolling on Instagram, I came across the accounts of not one, but two Black farmers right here in Southern Arizona.

Soon I found myself wanting to learn how to grow my own food, and taste a fresh egg, and got very curious about whether a freshly killed free range chicken tasted different than the rotisserie chicken I fancied from Costco. I felt the urge to go stand out in open land surrounded by nothing but air, dirt, and the memories of how the women who came before me had provided for their families. My ancestral roots were tugging at me.

So I reached out to those farmers I found on Instagram. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one wanting to connect with ancestral roots.

It’s about having roots somewhere: Sha and Sherman Lester

Sha and Sherman Lester started their farm, or “homestead” as they refer to it, on a quarter acre of land in Sha’s mother’s backyard. Both were raised in Tucson and had been exposed to gardening and animal husbandry as children, but neither had ever tended to anything of their own. Sha grew up with her Black dad and white mom, and together they raised rabbits and chickens. She spent a lot of time outside, and at one point even helped her dad dig the hole for the family pool. Sherman traveled to upstate New York every summer to work the family farm—one of the few Black-owned farms in this country—with his grandmother.

One day Sha put a simple post on Facebook: “All I wanna do is grow some vegetables, raise some chickens and look out at my land.”

Sherman saw it and within a few months they were, as the kids say, “Facebook official.”

A man with medium dark skin, a brown t-shirt, jeans, and boots, stands on a ranch with his arms sprawl out. A white and gray dog is at his side with blue skys behind him.
For Sherman Lester of Deeply Rooted Ranch & Homestead, farming is about connecting to his ancestors and build wealth for future generations of Black people.

Turns out they were both looking for a way to slow life down and get “back to basics.” They had individually conquered quite a few hurdles, from family tragedy to getting clean and sober. And if there’s one thing farm life will force you to do, it’s slow down.

They began with fruits, vegetables, and chickens. Their goal was to learn the basics and teach their children about self-reliance via hard work, manual labor, sweat equity.

Perhaps in the moment they forgot they had teenagers.

It started out, and has primarily remained, the Sha and Sherman show. They consult how-to manuals, YouTube videos, and Google for anything they don’t already know how to do. They are determined to get this homesteading thing right, they say, because it’s not just a return to the basics for them but also a laying down of roots.

The Lesters are well aware of the history of Black folks in this country when it comes to farming, generational wealth, and the exclusionary practices that have kept many Black families at or below the poverty line in rural areas. Black people have been historically and strategically cut out of the path to wealth accumulation when it comes to agriculture, and while some simply call it capitalism, we call it good old systemic racism.

The concept of “40 acres and a mule” was a real, living thing for a short time in the late 1800s. It is what freed slaves were promised under General Sherman’s Special Field Order #15, on January 16, 1865. By June, 40,000 freed slaves had acquired a total of 400,000 acres of land and were successfully operating their own towns, businesses, and farms. It was a significant gain in the aftermath of “emancipation.”

But then President Andrew Johnson overturned the order in the fall of 1864, and the lands along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts were returned to the planters who had originally owned them. Writing in the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Dr. Barton Myers’ notes that “By the time redistribution had finished, only 2,000 Black people still owned land between South Carolina and Georgia.”[1]

The land-grab—or systematic denial of land to Black farmers—never stopped. From 1910 to 2019, the land owned by Black people in this country has dwindled from 14 million acres, to 2 million acres. Twelve million acres in just over 100 years. It is no wonder the Lesters are trying to recoup what at one time was (and I would argue still is) rightfully theirs: the opportunity to build and grow a farm not only to provide for their family, but also for future generations. 

Slowly but surely, they are on their way.

In 2018 the Lesters were able to expand to five acres in Picture Rocks, Arizona where they started Deeply Rooted Ranch & Homestead.

For the first time Sha is trying her own hand at growing a vegetable garden. “I don’t have my dad here to guide me this time,” she says, but she does have her memories. And what she doesn’t know, again, she doesn’t hesitate to Google.

Where once this family of nine had only ten chickens, they now have a flock of 56, providing them with eggs, and very soon, meat. At one point they also had a steer, which they bought from a friend. After processing, the steer fed the family for more than eight months.

Sherman and Sha Lester standing closely next to each other
Sherman and Sha Lester of Deeply Rooted Ranch & Homestead farm on five acres near Picture Rocks, Arizona.

On the ranch Sherman says he feels more connected to the earth beneath his feet and to his ancestors who worked the land before him. Part of his motivation, he says, comes from anger.

“When we look at the fact that our people fed this entire nation, and that we are a big part of why it is where it is today, and we’ve received none of that wealth yet all of the death and all of the labor from it – yes, it’s certainly angering,” he says.

But an angry man is not a grounded man. So Sherman balances his anger with faith. “My faith and our desire to lay down roots for our kids and future generations,” he says.

For both Sha and Sherman, laying down roots and changing the trajectory of their children’s lives is as important as learning to live off the land, if not more so. Being able to create generational blessings as opposed to continuing the generational curse of living paycheck to paycheck, all too common among Black families, is a major motivation for their work on Deeply Rooted Ranch & Homestead, they say.

“When we talk about the future and where we want to go with this, we think about our grandkids coming to spend summers with us, getting up at four in the morning, and learning how to do this with us. Passing this down to them. We’ve lost our connection to the land, so we have to re-start that. It’s about having roots somewhere because as a people, we don’t have roots anywhere.”

Land is more valuable than air: Rachael and James “Stew” Stewart

One hundred and fifty miles south of Deeply Rooted Ranch & Homestead, another Black family is also looking to begin a legacy of generational wealth for their children, and hopefully other Black families as well.

Near Douglas, Arizona, Rachael and James “Stew” Stewart, are learning how to be ranchers—protein ranchers to be exact, which for them means raising free-range sheep, goats, alpaca, turkeys, pigs, ducks, chickens and cows.

A woman with medium dark skin is wearing a white Stetson hat and cowgirl attire,sits in a bare mesquite tree with the open desert in the background.
Raised in Oakland, CA, Rachael Stewart now ranches near Douglas, AZ, with her husband Stew and their children. Photo by Ivan McClellan

Do either of them have a background in ranching? Not at all. Raised in California—Rachael in Oakland and Stew in Chico—they were bodybuilders, sales reps, and personal trainers before moving to Arizona to live their best life on ten acres of land.

Their ranch is part petting zoo and part industry; they sell duck eggs, goat, and lamb as a form of income. With the food they grow and raise, they feed their children, their neighbors, and the community. Ranching, they say, is not about just them.

One of their goals is for the Black community as a whole to one day gain food security, sustainability, and ultimately independence, both financially and agriculturally. Like Sherman and Sha Lester, the Stewarts are on a mission to break generational curses and hand down generational wealth.

Which means learning as they go, Stew says.

Two young people with medium dark skin wear Stetson hats. The person on the foreground is holding a goat.
Providing for their children and community, say Rachael and Stew, is what motivates their ranching life on ten acres near Douglas, AZ. Photo by Ivan McClellan

“Black folks make up 12 percent of the country, therefore if things are ‘fair and just,’ we should also represent 12 percent of every industry. But we don’t. Rachael and I don’t have any mentors—no Black ranchers in the protein industry to show us how to do this.”

 At a time when “innovation” can mean developing things such as single cell meats, air proteins and 3D meats, Stew and Rachael are also looking at past trends and the economy. When the housing bubble burst in 2008, Stew remembers that too many Black and Brown families found themselves without homes due to predatory lending tactics.

Stew worries that, as it was during the housing boom of 2006, the playing field will not truly be level for Black and Brown farmers. As lab-created proteins become a hot meat commodity, for example, Black and Brown entrepreneurs could easily be priced out, he explains.

But not if they own the land, and the animals on it. “Land is more valuable than air,” Stew says.

Given the history of race and agriculture in this country, who can say he’s one hundred percent wrong?

If history has taught Black farmers anything, it’s that what is simply given, can and will be simply taken away. Therefore, Black farmers must find ways to get what they need on their own. Which usually involves some level of self-sacrifice.

The Lesters started in a borrowed back yard. Stew sold his prized 1972 Caprice car then bought land with the money. Both families are looking to turn the tide of history and put down roots for their families.

The Stewart Family poses on their ranch. They are a family of mixed raced Black, Mexican, and Filipino farmers wearing cowboy hats, standing in the desert with mountains and a blue sky in the background.
The Stewarts are on a mission to break generational curses and hand down generational wealth. Photo by Ivan McClellan

Our roots are in the roots: Anthony T. Johnson

Anthony T. Johnson, a Tucson transplant from Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina, knows a thing or two about American agriculture and its ties to Africa. Anthony has studied both the science and cultural history of planting, including the origins of some of what we plant and enjoy in the Americas.

A graduate of the University of Arizona’s Master Gardening Certification Program and of his Grandma’s farm in North Carolina, Johnson says Africans brought to the Americas melons, sugarcane, cannabis, as well as spices like oregano, basil, thyme, and bay. They also brought the methods of growing these foods, specifically irrigation techniques.

“The Moors in Spain expanded on the Roman aqueduct and irrigation systems because they were used to building running water into desert areas to create oases,” says Johnson.

Anthony T. Johnson, a man with dark skin, a black beard and goatee, a beige blazer atop a white collared shirt, looks into the camera with trees out of focus in the back.
Anthony T. Johnson links the current interest among Black farmers to return to their roots to the history of Africans and Native Americans in the South.

From as far back as Christopher Columbus, Africans and Native Americans have worked in tandem, sharing their cultural methods of growing food and irrigating the ground, he says. “These very same methods were then used by the freedmen [freed slaves]. Anyone able to hold on to their family’s land has passed these techniques down generation after generation.”

Many of today’s gardening and agriculture techniques originated with African and Native American land practices, Johnson says.

Johnson, who himself is of African, European, Sri Lankan and Native American (Tuscarora) heritage, links the current interest in “returning to our roots” to the history of Africans and Native Americans in the South.

“The Afro-Native Tuscarora people of North Carolina,” he explains, “did not believe in enslaving Africans, unlike the Cherokee, who did. But when the government came around to check, the Tuscarora claimed they were Cherokee, which implied they shared the same ideology as the white lawmakers. This lie or ‘mask wearing’ allowed the Afro-Native people of North Carolina to continue to work the land in the same way that Native Americans had done for thousands of years.”

It makes sense, Johnson says, that Black people and Indigenous people in this country—after so many years of disenfranchisement—would turn to the land as a source of renewal and power.

“That independence, that financial abundance, that sovereignty that comes from your own land, feeding yourself, clothing yourself, building your house out of your own materials—it’s appealing for many people nowadays who’ve come from cities, where they never owned the place that they lived. Many people have never seen an animal born, grow, reproduce, and die,” he says.

Adiba, a Black woman, holding a chicken.
The author, Adiba Nelson, meeting one of the Stewarts’ flock.

He continues. “Most folks have grandparents who did come from farms, if not great grandparents. Most Black people in the big cities migrated from the Jim Crow South, post-Civil War, and have a fondness for the foods that you would get if you were living in a rural area. We have that taste for it. It’ll never die, so many folks nowadays have that desire for independence, the desire to get away from genetically modified foods, and to get out of the energy of people who are still carrying racial biases.”

He’s not wrong. At a time when the country seems more turned on its head than ever before (at least since the late 1960s), I, as a Black woman, am not the least bit surprised that we are retreating to what our ancestors knew. And do not be confused; I am not using the word “retreating” in the sense of duck and take cover, but, rather, in the sense of letting our minds, spirits, and bodies rest from the stresses and ills of racism over generations.

I may be a girl born and raised in New York City, but like the Lesters, the Stewarts, and Mr. Johnson, I too see the value, even the need, in working outside, among plants and animals, and of returning to my roots.

Adiba Nelson is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Ain’t That A Mother (Blackstone Publishing, 2022). She is an award-winning children’s book author, and the subject of the Emmy Award winning documentary, “The Full Nelson.” Adiba is a regular contributor to Arizona Public Media’s “Arizona Spotlight,” and travels the country speaking about the importance of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Accessibility (DEIA) from a disability perspective.

Cover photo: Ivan McClellan

[1] “In the Beginning: Origins of African American Real Property Ownership in the United States” – Roy W. Copeland – Journal of Black Studies; 2013

Black Farmers, a news segment from Cronkite News featuring Rachael and James Stewart.
BorderLore contributor Debbie Weingarten on Black farmers in the Guardian, Oct. 30, 2018.
Episode Five of the New York Times’ 1619 series covered Black farmers in the United States.
Follow the Stewarts (@southwestblackranchers)and the Lesters (@deeply_rooted_ranch) on Instagram.

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