Picture a farmer.
Elizabeth Bryant's face might not be the first that comes to mind.
But someday, when more of the people who produce our food look like the people who eat our food, maybe she will be.
"Growing up here, there's a sense — either felt or expressed — that you don't belong here," said Bryant, an aspiring Black farmer learning the craft in rural Rice County.
Last Saturday, the last hour of the last day of the winter market at the Mill City Farmers Market in downtown Minneapolis. Bryant and her aunts, Lynne and Nancy Reeck, had sold out of almost all the cheese curds and feta and buttery wedges of herbed chèvre they'd brought up from Singing Hills Goat Dairy near Nerstrand, Minn.
Nothing in the grocery dairy case prepares you for cheese like this.
Once you've had a tomato fresh from the vine, warmed by the sun, most of the tomatoes at the grocery store taste like cardboard — like some durable good, built to bounce around in the back of a delivery truck for a few thousand miles.
Singing Hills cheese comes from goats that graze 25 acres of tall grass and wildflowers on the border of Big Woods State Park. One human — usually Lynn Reeck — creates each small batch, and the taste of the product changes from season to season and goat to goat.
"You can taste the differences from spring to fall," said Lynne Reeck, who made most of the cheese on sale on Saturday. The farm has a small herd of its own dairy goats right now, supplemented by a neighbor's herd of Oberhasli.
These are the things you learn when you grow and make your own food.
These are the lessons Lizy Bryant hopes to share.
She's part of a new generation of Black farmers in Minnesota, working for ownership and access to land in a nation where nearly everyone who owns farmland is white.
Her dream, backed by a wildly successful fundraiser, is to share those 25 acres at Singing Hills with other Black Minnesotans. To turn this farm an hour south of the Twin Cities into a space where Black families can learn, create and reconnect with the land.
"Rural spaces can be havens," Bryant said. "Places for people to just be in a natural landscape."
It will take $365,000 to buy the land from the bank and turn Singing Hills into a shared agricultural resource and refuge.
"When fully operative, this land will function as a farm, a gathering place, a learning facility, and a generative nexus for wellness and creativity," she wrote in her introduction for the fundraiser.
Not everyone gets to grow up on a farm. Most of us are generations removed from the land.
We'll never meet a goat unless someone introduces us.
We'll never coax a seed into a plant into a meal unless someone teaches us how.
"It's been a really hard year," Bryant said. This was the year George Floyd died under a Minneapolis policeman's knee, the year his city burned, the year Minnesotans died by the thousands in a pandemic, the year the country tore itself apart over politics and policy.
"Despite all that," she said, "I think we really do have everything we need to be able to create the type of society we want to live in, where people's needs are met."
There are thousands and thousands of farmers in Minnesota. At last count — the state's 2017 agricultural census — more than 99% of them were white.
"What does a farmer look like?" Minnesota Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Patrice Bailey asks children when he visits schools to talk about careers in agriculture and agribusiness.
The students talk about boots and overalls and fields of corn and soybeans. Which is what Bailey would have pictured when he was a kid growing up in Harlem, five blocks from the Apollo theater and miles from the nearest farm.
Agriculture is so much more, he tells them. He describes the fields of canola, bright as sunlight, waving in the breeze up near the Canadian border. He tells them about organic farmers and immigrant farmers who sell tiny parcels of their land to other immigrants so all can own a little piece of the American dream. He tells them about micro farms and orchards tucked in city lots, and the entrepreneurs using them to start their own businesses, selling produce or making artisanal jam.
He tells them about his office on the fifth floor of the Agriculture Department, and how he's the first Black man ever to hold this post.
However you picture farming in Minnesota, it's Bailey's job to expand the picture so anyone can see themselves in it.
Minnesota's emerging farmer program offers a helping hand to aspiring farmers from diverse backgrounds. Veterans, people with disabilities, women, minorities, Native Americans.
Black farmers owned and worked millions of acres in 1920. A century later, most of that land had been lost to predatory banks, to racist government policies, or to younger generations who drifted away from farm life and its association with slavery and sharecropping.
"It's time to see Black farmers and Hmong farmers, Native farmers, Latino — see them not just as [farm] workers," Bailey said. It's time to see them as the people who own the land, run the business, nourish their communities.
"If they don't see it," he said. "They can't dream it."
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