Soil Sisters

Soil Sisters Plant Nursery. Photo by Sarah Warda.

“We’re often the first people who look like us who are in the room trying to do something,” says TaRay Kelly. “So, if we meet someone else who wants to do it, we’re there to share this with them.”

Opening and running a plant nursery and selling seedlings is a way to keep breaking through barriors. That’s because it is a part of the food economy Black people in Pittsburgh have no stake in. And, continuing the earlier efforts of organizations such as BUG-FPC, it’s also a means of empowering other people to grow their food, too.

And while acknowledging that the local food justice movement has received more support from Pittsburgh institutions and private foundations, they point to challenges new entrants into the business world still face.

Earlier this year, the Soil Sisters were at first denied a variance from Pittsburgh’s Planning Commission to build a hoop house — a structure similar to a greenhouse that, among other small differences, doesn’t use electricity for heating and cooling. It took a concentrated effort through connections they had built through their advocacy work to finally get the help they needed to work their way through the bureaucracy.

“There are people within our network who understand how the system isn’t fair. They see it. And they’re using their platforms, their privilege, their connections to fight for us,” Raynise Kelly says.

That access to influence shouldn’t be the way to get things done, she said. “People from out of state are coming into neighborhoods, building places that people that live in them can’t afford. What value does that add to those communities? We have two inner-city residents, natives of this city, with a table and a tent selling seedlings. Why aren’t we the ones you’re helping?”

Lisa Freeman, owner of Manchester Growing Together Farm, just built a greenhouse on a large plot that she owns in Manchester. Instead of another run of boxy, generic houses put up by developers, something that’s happening throughout the North Side neighborhood, Freeman’s land is vibrant with summer vegetables and decorative touches, including a colorful rooster mural. The longtime urban gardener plans on filing the greenhouse over the next few weeks for a winter CSA subscription. She also plans on offering a full year’s worth of produce next growing season.

She said the industry needs to address access — and land ownership.

“It has to be looked at through a full lens. And the way we’ve been doing it until now hasn’t been fair. It hasn’t been equitable,” she says. Utilizing public programs such as Adopt-a-Lot to build a small farm won’t necessarily build lasting equity for the farmers, for example.

“The people doing it on public land, they’re providing numbers the nonprofits are feeding back to funders. And those organizations are using those numbers to get big donations and feeding back pennies.”

“I don’t want to be beholden to anyone. I own this,” she says. “I want to develop wealth for my next generation. Black people haven’t developed that wealth.”

“Access to land is a big issue,” says Lunsford-Evans, echoing Freeman. “As is the lack of Black-owned banks.”

Lunsford-Evans, who grows her produce in her backyard, a nearby community garden and in her sister’s yard, sees herself selling her array of produce, as well as value-added products such as tinctures and salves, at more markets, particularly in the West End, where access to fresh produce is limited.

“My complete vision is to consolidate into one place where I can grow food and flowers, and have a space for education and for the community to grow,” she says.

Her business plan for FarmerGirlEb is to eventually own acreage but right now she’s thinking about the generational roadblocks — such as redlining — to getting there.

“We as Black people need to look to ourselves for what we can do to build ourselves. We are the understructure of the United States. We hold it up. But we have no base for ourselves. So, we need to get together to build that,” she says.

Ebony Lunsford-Evans

Ebony Lunsford-Evans, owner of FarmerGirlEB, monitors the health of her apple tree, moments after picking the remaining green apples.

A movement grows

At the Homewood Historic Farm, Raqueeb Bey noticed an increased interest this summer from the community — more people getting in touch with her to learn how to grow their own food. That curiosity, she says, is beginning to extend the network of Black agriculture in Pittsburgh.