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Rootz into Food Growing

Three people work in a field. One is pulling up a piece of black plastic, one is using a garden fork, one is holding some garden waste.
Members of the BlackRootz Collective at Wolves Lane Pasteur Gardens by Christian Cassiel

Agriculture - and related industries - is the least racially diverse sector in the UK: 99% of farmers are White (compared with only 86% of the total population). Black people and people of colour (BPOC) face a range of race-related barriers to entry into farming and growing, including gatekeeping, bullying, prejudices and bias from other growers and customers, on top of financial and access barriers which many new entrants to agriculture and agroecological farming face. BPOC farmers, growers and other workers in the sector who overcome these barriers continue to experience discomfort in the course of their work, including microaggressions and a lack of non-White role-models.

Yet despite these clear, pernicious and harmful facts, there seems to be very little awareness in the food and farming movement of how race presents an additional barrier to entry into the spaces of farming and growing. Until very recently, discussions about the challenges new entrants and urban and peri-urban growers face have rarely explored the experiences of BPOC growers, or the role of colonialism or structural racism in shaping the food system. Similarly, the colonial history of botany, horticulture, and land ownership in the UK are only recently beginning to be explored - even though these dynamics underpin much of the exclusion experienced by aspiring and established BPOC farmers and growers.

Against this background, the Rootz into Food Growing (RIFG) project team conducted research into, and published a report on, the experiences of the few BPOC growers with experience of commercial or social enterprise food growing in and around London. They conducted interviews with food growers past and present, asking about their journeys into the food growing world, and the challenges and opportunities they faced.

Two people work in a field, one holding garden waste, the other using a hoe.
Members of the BlackRootz Collective at Wolves Lane Pasteur Gardens by Christian Cassiel

RIFG is a collaboration between Ubele, OrganicLea, Black Rootz and Land In Our Names (LION) which was funded through Farming the Future’s 2020 Grant Pool and is coordinated by Pauline Shakespeare. The project aims to more clearly identify, understand, plan and implement interventions to reduce barriers to entry into the social enterprise growing system and begin to identify appropriate land for commercial food growing. It also hopes to promote food justice by identifying and training a new generation of BPOC growers who are empowered to develop their own food growing systems and enterprises.

Following the delivery of the research report by project partners Land In Our Names (LION), Pauline will be working with project partners Ubele, OrganicLea and BlackRootz to build on the research findings to develop meaningful interventions and partnerships, responding to the needs of emerging BPOC food growing collectives and enterprises involved in peri-urban food growing activities in London, with a greater focus on enterprise skills and access to distribution and local food trading systems.

We have published, with permission, an extract from the report below, and would encourage you to read the full report (available here) as it contains many important findings and recommendations for the agroecological community in order to better incorporate anti-racist, equity-led practice into its work. The report was written by Josina Calliste, Sam Sivapragasam and Marcus McDonald.

Four people sit around a work table, talking and laughing. There are garden gloves on the table.
Members of the BlackRootz Collective at Wolves Lane Pasteur Gardens by Christian Cassiel


Several interviewees had experienced gatekeeping, bullying or abuse in their enterprise journeys. Phil told us that he and other growers of colour had been turned away from their local farmer’s market, and his perception was this was a broader problem rooted in racial prejudice:

“... if you go to any farmer’s market in this country, it’s very difficult to get colour or black or so African or Indian people in there, there’s always a problem.”

Women interviewees we spoke to were more likely to report experiences of bullying and gatekeeping from within a growing project. These ranged from the extreme “it was probably one of the most abusive work situations I’ve been in", to the less-severe “I don’t really know, why that person decided to have something against me personally, but it always felt very personal. They didn’t want me to be there for like, no real good reason.”

Exclusion was described by one woman interviewee as racially motivated and detrimental to her voluntary engagement in a large growing enterprise:

“When [new project] was put together by [bigger project] I wasn’t invited to join. So it was pretty much all white faces. And at the end of our traineeship, he said that I was the best one. And I kept thinking why didn’t you even include me in the conversation? I actually felt really hurt. I felt really hurt, actually...Um, I don’t think I did [speak to them about it], because I felt really hurt about it, and I just thought, well, they excluded me. They haven’t even included me in any conversation, because they didn’t think I was good enough or whatever. I don’t know, but I didn’t say it, I don’t know. I don’t know, and I just withdrew.”

Other participants also raised being perceived as less competent compared to white grower colleagues, and experienced (from customers):

“[a] very narrow-minded kind of approach to what people of colour know, or, to not see them as professionals. So, like I would have people, like, actively choose not to ask me questions about the produce or the food or the growing, because they thought that I didn’t know anything about it or I wouldn’t be able to communicate it to them.”

A lack of safeguarding and care for women seemed to emerge from the interviewees. Some growers experienced a series of negative experiences in their growing journeys. Two Black women spoke of the trauma from negative experiences impeding their ability to learn or remember, and in the example above, to engage in food growing projects. One woman experienced horrific bullying and abuse from the farmer during her traineeship with him:

“It actually deteriorated my capacity to withhold information, learn and piece things together. There were times when he’d ask me questions about irrigation. If you’d asked me in London a year before, I could’ve answered. But there I was just constantly doubting myself because it was never really explained to me, I don’t know it goes together. And any time I would think I could explain something, it always felt like he was trying to catch me out, and then, he’d give me a task that he knew he’d never explained to me and knew I’d be too afraid to talk to him about."

Conversely, Seeta named the confidence she gained from a positive experience of a growing apprenticeship, which helped her see the value of her labour and time, a good support network of friends and family. Everyone who described gatekeeping, bullying or abusive situations still voiced their love of growing. It was concerning that some interviewees had multiple negative experiences, but clear that positive and negative experiences did coexist for participants within the same food growing spaces. Furthermore, the rural racism and gatekeeping of rural growing spaces experienced by some growers was often voiced as an anti-city sentiment, highlighting the importance of urban growing spaces as the frontline for equity and justice in SEFG.

“There was very much this snarkiness about me being a city was just very much a rejection of me in that space. It was a real ‘you’re not made for this’, ‘No you’re not, this isn’t for you’, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing here’, ‘Is this a joke?’ And while there was no explicitly racial aspect to it, there’s no way a white person would have been treated with so much rejection, no matter how “city or urban” they were perceived to be.” Cara

Thus, addressing harmful power dynamics including gender seems necessary to retain good food growers from all backgrounds, in both rural and urban spaces. Our research suggests Black women and women of colour are the least likely group of all demographics to run their own food growing enterprises. It is important for larger organisations to consider and address the vulnerabilities to bullying of women and gender minorities in food growing spaces, as well as offer opportunities for repair and healing. Comments from the women interviewees suggest that projects led by Black women and women of colour may be more inclusive around various facets of difference (class, disability, sexuality), that “Women build Communities”.

Participants have big aspirations, despite needing support, particularly around models of enterprise and sources of support for people. Some people needed more knowledge around how enterprise and businesses work, including laws and permits. Others needed more infrastructure and networks. Funding and financial support emerged as a key need, combining with some participants’ lack of decision-making power in relation to larger food growing enterprises they worked with(in). Selene told us she was discouraged from running her project as an enterprise and earning an income, ultimately being “pushed out” after being bullied and harassed by the larger organisation running the growing site.

“...financially supporting myself. That feels funny as a question. Coz that’s not happened since entering this field. I’ve done nothing but lose money.” Selene

It was common for interviewees to have several part-time jobs at once and have to supplement their income through other, non-food growing, part-time or full-time work. These jobs were often manual or physical, which contributed to the burnout, ill-health and “churn rate” of growers reported.

“I’ve just had a baby that is 15 months tomorrow, and I can’t afford to live in London on grower wages” Fahid


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