On a windy day outside in rural Northfield, Minn., a group of farmers from Sharing Our Roots in T-shirts and jeans walk through the rows of a neatly plowed field. New growth pokes through the soil, while in the distance sheep and lambs are grazing in a pasture that’s been restored as a result of attempts to improve topsoil health.
Though it’s been around for about 17 years, nonprofit Sharing Our Roots is trying something new this year. It’s creating a support system for beginning and newly emerging farmers and BIPOC farmers. It also teaches regenerative agriculture techniques while also addressing food insecurity within southern Minnesota.
Executive Director Rocky Casillas Aguirre said Sharing Our Roots opened up all of its 100 acres this year to prospective farmers in the area.
“Land access is the single largest barrier to emerging farmers and farmers of color,” Aguirre said. “A lot of these farmers can’t afford land in this area and maybe have farmed in other places, but not with long-term lease.”
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He said for farmers to have food sovereignty — the right of people to have healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sustainable methods, and the right to define their food and agriculture systems — they need land.
So, Sharing Our Roots acts as a homebase for farmers for as long as they want to be a part of the project. Some move onto purchasing their own land and growing their business enterprise. Others stay and continue feeding their families right off the land.
This is Elkana Abobo’s second planting season with Sharing Our Roots. He grows tomatoes, sweet potatoes and corn. He also planted traditional Kenyan vegetables, such as managu, African nightshade and chinsaga, or African spider flower as it is sometimes called in the U.S.
“It’s not easy to get in the market,” Abobo said. “Unless the Africans have planted them, harvested them and they have enough they can take to the market and sell them there.”
Abobo’s neighbors in the plot are Araceli Baez and Vicky Agapito from Veracruz, Mexico. They’re busy planting onions, tomatoes, cilantro, beans, flowers and jalapeno peppers. Baez said that the types of plants they grow taste different from what they even find at their local store.
Mostly, Baez said that she was more excited about being able to be outside with their friends after two years of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic and that they’re growing food together.
“Everything is natural and organic,” she said. “Organic food is more expensive, here we plant everything. It’s not too expensive for us because we’re here, everything [is] here.”
Executive Director Aguirre said by removing barriers, the farmers can have a voice in what foods they eat and grow, which is essential in addressing long-standing disparities in rural food systems.
“If you don’t have long term access to a space, you can’t really invest in that space, or have any sense of stability to be able to grow a business,” he said. “To give them that sense of security and stability, to be able to do something for themselves and be able to build wealth or equity from the work that they’re doing.”
Lack of food access in southern Minnesota disproportionately affects immigrants, BIPOC and low-income families. From conversations with community members, Aguirre said Sharing Our Roots identified reliable transportation, language barriers and high costs of groceries as common problems they encounter in food access.
Supplying the land, support and resources, the farmers are empowered and take care of the rest.
“Our community can feed itself,” Aguirre said. “There’s no need to do any importing or exporting of food. We can all grow it here. It’s just a matter of putting capital and resources in the right places and for us right now, it’s really empowering families to be able to produce their own food.”
The demand for access to healthy foods was seen especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sharing Our Roots focused on producing and distributing healthy foods to families in five Northfield-Faribault neighborhoods. Volunteers planted culturally specific foods on the farm, and during the summers, made weekly deliveries.
During the last two years, Sharing Our Roots delivered more than 2,250 pounds of vegetables to more than 200 households and more than 1,000 pounds of chicken to residents.
The new farmers also learn conservation practices to help restore soil health and water quality. Aguirre said it’s part of the effort in reversing the effects of climate change through reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing flooding and healing ecosystems affected by industrial agriculture.
“Before Sharing Our Roots purchased this land, it was conventional corn and soybeans for like 20 or 30 years,” he said. “So it looked just like every other farm in this area. Some of my work has been to document the return of wildlife to this space, which is an indicator that our regenerative practices do help with land restoration.”
There are 14 farmers in this year’s cohort, working and cultivating the land, as well as raising livestock such as cows and chickens. Another group of local farmers are also raising sheep to rent out to power companies to eat weeds on solar farms.
Working together in the plots helped the group members build a community. Were it not for this project, the farmers would never have met.
Elkana Abobo said not only did he make friends, but he’s able to provide for his family. One day, Abobo said, he dreams of building on the skills he learned and earned from farming at Sharing Our Roots, and building his wealth. One day, he aspires to own a farm of his own.
“The experience that I’m learning here is that to empower other people, and we can be able to have enough food that we can supply also to the communities,” Abobo said. “Also, we can sell and save some money.”
Correction (June 17, 2022): An earlier version of this story misspelled Vicky Agapito’s last name. The story has been updated.