These Farmers Are Sowing Seeds of Diversity in the U.S. Food System (and Have Been for Quite Some Time)
By Robynne Boyd
Winter is waning at High Hog Farms, which sits on five acres about 40 miles northeast of Atlanta. The farm's 21 raised beds have been prepped and await the growing season. Hens are laying eggs, chicks are hatching and a new angora bunny named Langston has joined the farm as its future buck. Along with the resident sheep, his offspring will be sheared for wool. Soon enough, all that fluff will be on sale at a local farmers' market alongside High Hog's herbs, fruits, vegetables, poultry and pork. This is how Keisha Cameron nourishes her family and neighbors.
With the help of her husband, Warren and teenage sons, Cameron has turned a large plot in the small town of Grayson into a flourishing farm. She raises her livestock without growth hormones, cultivates her crops without pesticides or chemical fertilizers and sells the produce locally, right off the farm or at farmers' markets. Throughout the year, Cameron throws open High Hog's gates to volunteers and offers cooking classes like a"Cultured Kitchen Workshop." This is Cameron's way of cultivating community among black farmers in the region.
"For me, part of farming is about reimagining and reenvisioning what it means to be a black person on the land in the South, and learning to be self-reliant," said Cameron, who came to farming five years ago after a career in marketing. "And my idea of self-reliance absolutely requires other people."
Founders and owners of High Hog Farm, Keisha and Warren Cameron and their sons, Zach (far left) and Abraham (far right).
Caleb Jones / Food Well Alliance
African American farmers have been helping produce the country's food for centuries, but their role and time-tested knowledge base have largely gone unsupported and unappreciated. A 2012 USDA Census on Agriculture found that out of the approximately two million farms in the United States, only 33,000 were black owned — fewer than 2 percent. Part of the reason, said Tamara Jones, executive director of the Southeastern African American Farmers' Organic Network (SAFFON), a nonprofit that supports black farming, culture and history, is that the U.S. agriculture system favors vast, industrialized farmsteads that grow commodity crops over small-scale farmers, especially those who are black.
Indeed, discrimination has played no small role. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides financial and technical support to America's farmers, but it has a long history of prejudicial treatment against African American ones, something the agency's own Commission on Small Farms acknowledges. Such systemic racism made headlines in 1999 when a federal judge in the Pigford v. Glickman case — reportedly the largest civil rights settlement in history — awarded almost $1 billion in restitution to black farmers and their families who were unfairly denied USDA farm loans and assistance between 1981 and 1996.
The fallout of such inequity has been a colossal loss of land over time for black farmsteads. In our current agricultural system, to kick off the growing season, farmers need cash — typically loans spent on seeds, fertilizer and pesticides that are paid back after the harvest. But when yields are poor and the farmer can't get a loan, a cycle of debt ensues that can eventually lead to the loss of the farm. According to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, black farmers in the U.S. owned about 15 million acres of land in 1920. By 1997 the acreage had dropped 87 percent to around 2 million.
But a movement to preserve the cultural heritage and growing practices of black farmers and to support more diverse agriculture has been sprouting in the Southeast. There's always been a group of black farmers who have worked outside the dominant, chemical-heavy food system, said Jones, often because they couldn't afford all the extra inputs. Many have been farming the same parcel "organically" for generations, even before that term entered the vernacular.
Siblings Althea and Matthew Raiford of Gilliard Farms in Brunswick, Georgia, for instance, are growing organic vegetables and raising livestock on a 25-acre plot that's been in their family since 1874. Matthew said when he told his "nana" about the organic farming techniques he learned at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California at Santa Cruz, she replied, "Well, baby, you could have come here first and I would have told you everything you needed to know."
Althea and Matthew Raiford of Gilliard Farm in Brunswick, Georgia.
Then there's Jennifer Taylor, an associate professor and coordinator of small farm programs at Florida A&M University, whose 35-acre organic farm was once sharecropped by her grandmother. Taylor, who works with her husband, Ronald Gilmore, leaped into organic farming for its health benefits and market advantage that enables her to sell to health food stores and restaurants. Many small-scale farmers, however, find the USDA National Organic Program certification out of reach. In fact, that same 2012 census found that America's black farmers owned just 116 of its 17,750 USDA-certified organic farms.
"Why I find African Americans aren't certified organic is largely the expense," said Jillian Hishaw, an agricultural lawyer and founder of Family Agriculture Resource Management Services, an organization that helps southeastern farmers of color retain their land. "A lot of them have already been farming sustainably, but with all the regulations, they just don't go through the certification process."
Jillian Hishaw, founder of Family Agricultural Resource Management Services, with Letanya Williams, a farmer and Hishaw's client, on her farm in Chester, South Carolina.
Work-arounds to certification have sprung up in lieu of the official USDA label. Some farmers, like Cameron, sell directly to consumers or farmers' markets. Another cost-effective option is to become "certified naturally grown" (CNG), after inspection by other CNG farmers, ensuring organic standards equal to or above the USDA's. The Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture, a nonprofit that "grows food, people and community" within Atlanta's city limits, is using its CNG certification as a transitional step to organic certification.
Getting all of this produce into low-income communities of color, which often lack adequate access to fresh food, is another priority of the movement. Organizations like Truly Living Well and the Georgia Farmers Market Association (GFMA) are helping do just that. For instance, GFMA's "Just Food Market" sells shares in its community supported agriculture (CSA) program on a sliding scale ranging from $6 to $40. The price structure enables people on food assistance to buy local produce, farmers to receive a living wage, and those with higher incomes to support food justice.
"We see that when black farmers are thriving, we are more likely to get that food to the people who need it most in our communities," said Leah Penniman, cofounder of Soul Fire Farm near Albany, New York, and author of Farming While Black. "If you're growing using Afro-indigenous practices, which is what we prefer saying to 'organic,' then again you will have that healthy outcome."
Leah Penniman and participants in Soul Fire's BIPOC Farmers Immersion celebrating the last day of the program.
Soul Fire Farm
These farming methods have persisted since time immemorial, added Penniman. Cleopatra was vermicomposting, using worms to boost soil health. George Washington Carver planted cover crops to do the same. Booker T. Whatley forged the "pick your own" and CSA movements. And thanks to the work of the Camerons, the Raifords, Taylor and Gilmore, and the upcoming farmers they're nurturing, this agricultural community's influence on the health of its members, and the food system as a whole, will continue to grow.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Mangroves play a vital role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere. Mangrove forests are tremendous assets in the fight to stem the climate crisis. They store more carbon than a rainforest of the same size.
- Protecting Mangroves Can Prevent Billions of Dollars in Global ... ›
- Could the 'Mangrove Effect' Save Coasts From Sea Level Rise ... ›
Monday is World Oceans Day, but how can you celebrate our blue planet while social distancing?
- 5 Things to Know About Earth's Warming Oceans - EcoWatch ›
- Bioluminescent Waves Mesmerize California Beachgoers, Surfers ... ›
- NOAA: 2020 Could Be Warmest Year on Record - EcoWatch ›
- On June 8, We Celebrate Our Oceans, Our Future - EcoWatch ›
- 5 Things to Know About the State of Our Oceans for World Oceans Day ›
By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
This Saturday, June 6, marks National Trails Day, an annual celebration of the remarkable recreational, scenic and hiking trails that crisscross parks nationwide. The event, which started in 1993, honors the National Trail System and calls for volunteers to help with trail maintenance in parks across the country.
- As Protests Rage, Climate Activists Embrace Racial Justice ... ›
- First-Ever Black Birders Week Tackles Racism Outdoors - EcoWatch ›
- 15 EcoWatch Stories on Environmental and Racial Injustice ... ›
- Take a Hike Day Is Around the Bend. What's Your Dream Hike ... ›
By John Letzing
This past Wednesday, when some previously hard-hit countries were able to register daily COVID-19 infections in the single digits, the Navajo Nation – a 71,000 square-kilometer (27,000-square-mile) expanse of the western US – reported 54 new cases of what's referred to locally as "Dikos Ntsaaígíí-19."
The Navajo Nation covers the corners of three different states. Google Maps
Growing Contribution<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzM3NDY5Ny9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjM4MTgyM30.IuQTKQs1stvYYKD6vaVTrqAyoBsUG0BhDvlhxsyKwPA/img.png?width=980" id="02a05" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2841f82b1785df5d5ed7bf64d3bb882b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
World Economic Forum
- Black and Hispanic Americans Suffer Disproportionate Coronavirus ... ›
- Native American Tribes' Pandemic Response Is Hindered by ... ›
- Navajo Nation Has Highest Covid-19 Infection Rate in the U.S. ... ›
World Environment Day: A Time to Consider the Planet We’ll Return To, and Decide How to Care for It Going Forward
It's a different kind of World Environment Day this year. In prior years, it might have been enough to plant a tree, spend some extra time in the garden, or teach kids the importance of recycling. This year we have heavier tasks at hand. It's been months since we've been able to spend sufficient time outside, and as we lustfully watch the beauty of a new spring through our kitchen's glass windows, we have to decide how we'll interact with the natural world on our release, and how we can prevent, or be equipped to handle, future threats against our wellbeing.
Scuba divers around the world are holding their metaphorical breath to see if a coronavirus infection affects the ability to dive.
DAN medical experts explained the difference between normal lungs, on the left, and "very serious lungs caused by COVID-19," on the right. Matias Nochetto / Divers Alert Network (DAN)
- How the COVID-19 Coronavirus Attacks the Entire Body - EcoWatch ›
- What Does 'Recovered From Coronavirus' Mean? - EcoWatch ›
- Scuba Divers Make Face Masks out of Recycled Ocean Plastic ... ›