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By Hal B. Klein

In March and April, as the novel coronavirus pandemic took hold of the region, the program Ebony Lunsford-Evans designed to teach gardening to seniors on the North Side of Pittsburgh was shut down.

It was also the first spring for her business, FarmerGirlEb, through which she sells a variety of produce grown in plots peppered throughout the West End and North Side. At the time, nobody was sure how long the stay-at-home order would last and what it would mean for the season’s sales.

In May, TaRay and Raynice Kelly launched their small business, Soil Sisters Plant Nursery, selling seedlings to experienced and beginner gardeners eager to get a start on the growing season. They worried, however, about the fate of their garden-focused summer camp for kids.

Those working in agriculture, a fragile business to start with, typically handle so many variables each year that are out of business owners’ hands. But 2020 has been a season full of more than the usual mix of uncertainty, one shaped by the economic and cultural impact of a pandemic few could have planned for. The ongoing public health measures in place to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 made it harder to connect with potential customers. At the same time, it has bolstered awareness of food access and increased sensitivities to what is produced locally.

For new business owners Lunsford-Evans and the Kelly sisters, the pandemic, as well as the social justice movement that has grown exponentially this summer, put a greater emphasis on what had driven them to start their own companies. Both are part of a relatively new movement of Black farmers in Pittsburgh, and their business goals include helping to create a better system, a lasting framework for Black-owned agricultural businesses, along with addressing issues surrounding food apartheid — a term that highlights the lack of high-quality, affordable fresh food and the systemic race-based structures that cause it.

“We’re working to change an unfair system,” TaRay Kelly says. “There aren’t too many of us, yet. So we’re going to put that knowledge together and expand it.”

Raqueeb Bey

Raqueeb Bey stands inside the Homewood Community Historic Farm’s greenhouse, referred to as “The Green Trap House.”

Building the movement

According to the recently released 2017 United States Department of Agriculture census, there are zero Black-owned production farms or ranches in Allegheny County and just three in the counties surrounding the city.

The growers who set up stands at farmers markets and those with direct access to area restaurants, particularly high-end establishments, are almost universally white. Dan Dalton, Three Rivers Hub manager for Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, says that this reflects the current population of farmers in the area who are growing at scale, but that there are an increasing number of BIPOC farmers who are distributing their produce through different channels such as donation and sharing among neighbors.

TaRay Kelly says that changing the system means taking a full-spectrum approach to sustainability, starting with compost and seeds, moving through the growing season, and then into extending and preserving the harvest through the winter.

“We need to think about the whole system. We should be able to support Black ownership throughout the system. And we want to all work together to elevate that culture,” she says. “That’s how our economic system should work.”

For Lunsford-Evans, sustainability is erecting an infrastructure that addresses everything from reviving and sharing knowledge about how to grow food at home to creating greater access to transportation and mobility so that Black farmers can get their products to neighborhoods across Pittsburgh.

“We need an economy that teaches our children how to grow and how to get a stake in the agriculture industry. Right now, we have none,” Lunsford-Evans says.

More than two decades ago, Raqueeb Bey, one of the movement’s pioneers, began to lay a foundation for this work toward systematic change after she moved back to Pittsburgh from Atlanta in 2000 and was inspired by her godfather, Baba Amir Rashid, an avid backyard gardener. She went on to found an organization to teach young people in the city how to garden, Mama Africa’s Green Scouts, in 2011 and then, in 2015, she formed the Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Cooperative, (also known as BUG-FPC) “a collective of Black men and women involved in urban gardening and food justice for Black people.”