“When I was about four months pregnant, the pandemic was bad enough that they shut down public schools and limited gatherings to under 10 people,” said Mia O’Connor-Smith of Portland, Oregon. “My partner and I made our living as freelance artists. So [after Covid-19], we had basically lost all our future gigs and income and didn’t know when we would work again—many things were unknown but we knew our baby was due in June.”
Even so, just five months after the birth of her baby, Mia rediscovered the roots of her purpose when she—alongside Shantae Johnson, Qiddist Ashe, Olivia Ashe and AnAkA Morris—founded The Black Oregon Land Trust (BOLT), a nonprofit community land trust that seeks to collectively own land that supports Black agricultural communities in Oregon.
“My experiences with my family in Puerto Rico taught us that the government is literally not going to save us when disaster comes…I knew Covid-19 could be a similar disaster that would take a very long time for communities to feel some kind of recovery,” Mia said. “By co-creating Black Oregon Land Trust, we are collectively putting the power back into the community and how we wish to see it; [it’s] one of many solutions to our existence in capitalism, without abandoning our people.”
Now, Mia leads a weekly group of volunteers at Mudbone Grown Farm, a Black-owned farm that feeds over 140 families each week with free CSA boxes. She tends the land with her baby Turiya on her back, helping the team lay down irrigation in rows of peppers and eggplants.
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Mia is one of many people across Oregon—and the nation—who have quickly realized the urgent need for community solutions to food and land security. In 2020, one in four families in Oregon were food insecure, with over 30 percent of BIPOC families facing hunger. With a rising national interest in regenerative and sustainable farming practices, there is a powerful opportunity to engage communities in cultivating their agricultural skills, learning to grow food and sustain themselves and their communities.
It is a need that runs deep. In fact, a 2017 OSU Extension fact sheet revealed that of Oregon’s 67,595 farm producers, only 64 were Black. One of the major barriers to Black farmers and land stewards being successful in farming and agriculture is the lack of access to land, support, and infrastructure.
This is where the Black Oregon Land Trust (BOLT) comes in. As a collective of Black farmers, herbalists, birthworkers, mothers, artists and visionaries committed to collective liberation through land sovereignty, we believe that secure access to land is a critical resource, and we are birthing this dream into reality.
Where are the Black Farmers?
Black communities across the United States have long been disenfranchised from owning and having access to land.
The broken promise of “40 acres and a mule” for 40,000 Black people freed from enslavement was compounded by systemic racism from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other government agencies, private lenders, and the legal system, which continues today. Moreover, predatory loans, discrimination from the department of agriculture and exclusionary policies from the Farmers Home Administration have meant that the majority of Black land owners have since lost access to land at significant economic, social and health costs.
For context, in 1910, records show that Black Americans owned over 14 million acres of land— more than ever before in U.S. history. But Black land ownership has been rapidly declining ever since, down to two million acres in 1997. An estimated 30,000 acres of Black landownership is lost every month primarily due to inability to pay property taxes, discrimination, lack of estate planning, or confiscation of land by the government, according to non-profit F.A.R.M.S.
An estimated 30,000 acres of Black landownership is lost every month.
The freedom to securely tend and own land is a primary way that generational wealth is built and passed down, creating opportunities for families and communities to thrive. As BOLT, we are creating new and interdependent pathways for communal land ownership, so that Black communities have the security and freedom to grow food, culture, businesses, and families.
The Redistribution of Land and Resources
Such pathways are carved out by focusing on land access and preservation; farming and food justice; and cultural sovereignty.
To this end, BOLT works with the likes of Mudbone Grown, a black community farm, The Black Food Fund, which shifts capital to advance Black-led food systems development, and Ecotrust, a fiscal sponsor and supporter of our climate-centered work to raise capital and acquire land that is secure and protected. As a land trust, otherwise known as a non-profit organization that holds land for community purposes, we also transfer stewardship of the land to Black farmers at free and affordable, long-term ground leases so that Black farmers can build successful farming businesses and provide for their communities. By holding land within our trust, we know that the next generation of farmers and land stewards will have land access, safe from developers, debt, and being priced out.
On a day-to-day basis, BOLT farmers are supported with resources for ongoing mentorship, infrastructure, and opportunities to have their voices heard at local and statewide policy tables, influencing the conversations and resources that are distributed to Black agricultural communities. Our work also involves training current and aspiring farmers and land-tenders on culturally relevant, sustainable farming skills so they are prepared to be restorative and thriving land stewards, with a focus on sustainable community food production.
BOLT is also beginning a capital campaign to be able to acquire land within our community trust and expand from the 20 acres we are currently on in Eastern Oregon.
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From Private Ownership to Communal Stewardship
Fostering a collective sense of responsibility over the land is crucial to the mission of empowering Black farmers.
Take, for example, Shantae Johnson and Arthur Shavers, co-founders and farmers of BOLT collaborator Mudbone Grown, the genesis for many aspiring farmers of color in Oregon. Communal stewardship has been embedded into their model of farming. For Johnson and Shaver urban farming taught them the importance of community. They credit the community for the difference they have been able to make.
“The only way I can see doing this work is with a collective,” Johnson says. “If you don’t have the equipment you need to till, or the people power to put up a high tunnel, you’d be stuck without a community.”
When Johnson and Shavers started farming full time there weren’t many resources or programs dedicated to supporting aspiring Black farmers in Oregon. This experience led them to cultivate a farming culture where farmers of color could help each other plant, harvest, build infrastructure, and share resources. For Johnson and Shavers this way of doing it was the only way to survive and thrive.
If you don’t have the equipment you need to till, or the people power to put up a high tunnel, you’d be stuck without a community.
“Collective doesn’t mean easy,” Johnson said as she walked through a row of collards. “We are continually looking to models of cooperative economics as our north star of how to grow together. I know we can scale and thrive together.”
BOLT—like Mudbone Grown—sees communal stewardship as a means for accepting responsibility to collectively tend to the land. Thus, BOLT continues to interrogate what “ownership” really means in the context of community, by asking questions like, who are we accountable to and how? We are learning how to be land tenders while remaining accountable to the Cowlitz, Chinook, and other local Indigenous communities, to the earth itself, and to our wider collective. We do this humbly and without all the answers, but with a deep commitment to our collective healing and liberation. We are imagining new ways to communally secure land for our future generations, while divesting from the raciest, violent and capitalistic paradigms of personal ownership.
Changing the Narrative of Farming in Oregon
Here in Oregon, the state’s founding constitution had exclusion laws that prohibited Black people not only from owning land, but also from living in the state. Despite this, Black farmers did come to Oregon, started farms, and fought to keep their land. While today’s numbers may still be small, the number of Black farmers in the state is actually growing.
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BOLT is emerging in a powerful moment in history, when we have the opportunity to invest in racial justice by supporting the next generation of Black farmers and land tenders. This means cultivating accessible opportunities for the next generation, by training farmers and land stewards, providing low-cost options for land access, and reclaiming ancestral agricultural practices.
Regenerative agriculture, too, puts the health of the land and the communities they serve first. This is a holistic approach to farming and invites land stewards to see the entire ecosystem of agriculture in their work. Regenerative agriculture is changing the landscape for ranchers in Corvallis and those tending vineyards in Willamette Valley.
The collective paradigm shift in agriculture is creating space for Black Farmers to reclaim the practices and principles of regenerative agriculture, many of which have been important to the survival of Black farming communities. As Johnson recounts, “Historically, when Black farmers didn’t have resources, everything we did, we did cooperatively with the land and the community.”