Food availability and accessibility starts with our farmers and the land. As an industry under intense challenges and on the verge of crisis even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the future of farming requires care and stewardship from younger, more diverse generations to impact how we feed ourselves in years to come.
Thankfully there are women like Community Changemaker Adrian Lipscombe who is pioneering a project that has the potential to revitalize how we think about farming and break down historic barriers to make agriculture a more inclusive industry in communities. She started the 40 Acres and a Mule Project to make farming accessible for Black people, reduce Black food waste, and ultimately establish a sustainable program for future generations of farmers. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Adrian to hear her story and feature it as part of our ongoing Community Changemakers series where we shine a light on the ways individuals and communities are making sustainable change happen.
“Land is security, land is important.” This is a motto Adrian’s grandfather taught her and inspired her work as an organizer, chef and food advocate. Working with farmers, seeing their work and getting opportunities to work and talk with people is what Adrian is all about.
Adrian is a gardener, wife, mom, community activist, restaurant owner and two-time featured chef at the James Beard House for her renowned restaurant Uptowne Cafe in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Adrian’s restaurant is grounded in community, as are nearly all things she does.
With a background in architecture and a Ph.D. in city planning, Adrian fell into farming after she bought her first house in San Antonio, Texas. Backyard vegetable beds gave way to farmers market engagement, aquaponic gardening and beyond — with exploration and experimentation driving Adrian to become one of the first urban farmers in San Antonio. As her family grew, so did her love for food and community. After relocating to Austin, she started working with local farmers to understand not only their work, but what drove them as people.
She then moved to Wisconsin to work on a revitalization project and help the small city of La Crosse build a food community. The terrain in La Crosse is in the Upper Mississippi Valley, full of rolling hills and lush land. Adrian was elated by how fertile the area was compared to the dry terrain she was used to from her Texas roots. Most farming done in the area is organic since it’s difficult to get the big machinery through the valley, so the crop management work has to be done manually. Learning what to grow, why it’s grown, and how to grow it was Adrian’s focus in talking with Hmong farmers and white farmers. As she learned more about the land and all of the kinds of vegetation that can grow on it, she wanted a way to share it with the community. Thus, she soon had her eye on a space to build a restaurant (only 45 minutes from dairy producer Organic Valley).
A major diversity gap in farming leads to opportunity
If you search “Black farmers in Wisconsin”, you’ll find that less than one percent of farmers in Wisconsin are Black, and none from her county in La Crosse. Across the United States, Census Data reports less than 2% of farmers are black, with ownership on the decline.
These are the kinds of stats along with articles about race in farming, food and restaurants that Adrian started sharing on her Facebook page shortly after the death of George Floyd to educate her friends and connections about the history behind the lack of diversity in agriculture and the food industries. Compelled by what she shared, Adrian started receiving money unexpectedly from people she knew and those she didn’t. White people, La Crosse businesses and women-owned businesses alike began sending her donations for being a community activist and to support her during tough times.
Not long after the money started flowing in (be they mysterious checks to her restaurant or random payments to her Venmo account), Adrian woke up and thought “I’m going to buy land!” The community activist in her could not see the money go into her pocket, but instead as fuel for a good cause — to try and create successful Black farmers. Thus the 40 Acres and a Mule Project began.
40 Acres and a Mule Project
Adrian created a GoFundMe to purchase land for a few reasons: guarantee farm to table resources for the food industry; provide an outlet for Black foodways; and secure the legacy of Black farmers and food producers. The 40 Acres and a Mule name comes from Union General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No.15 to buy land for African Americans as restitution for enslavement. The ideal land plots for the 40 Acres project are multipurpose and are able to host animals, greenhouses and/or barns. The funds donated not only will help her buy land, but also support her long term vision to spark interest through education. Future programming includes lessons on innovative farming practices that ultimately increase sustainability and accessibility, partnering with businesses and restaurants near the community farm to provide meals or crops, while at the same time teaching people how to seek and make connections.
It’s not about the land, but the relationships
Adrian is not looking to just buy land, but is evaluating how sustainable and successful the purchased land areas are for the surrounding community. To help raise awareness and community support for agriculture mentorships and food collaboration, Adrian started making connections with Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, American Farmland and Trust, and Organic Valley. She says that they understand there is a lack of diversity in agriculture and they want to help with her to bridge that gap.
Being Black, however, doesn’t make the land search and purchase process any easier. Getting loans, working with the USDA and local farmers — Adrian has learned to be smart in her approach and get the farmers interested in her project first since it will impact and make an imprint in the surrounding areas.
Before any land is purchased, Adrian and her staff will visit a prospective location to meet the neighbors and local community to let them know the aims of the project and the opportunities it affords to residents. Programming will help the local economy in the long run by creating successful and sustainable job opportunities for people in agriculture. Not only do Adrian and her team want to alleviate any concerns, they wish to ensure residents they are being respectful of the culture, the land, the community and its history when looking to invest in the area. The involvement of 40 Acres is not to be seen as a takeover, but as a fabric of the community that encourages ongoing support and opportunities to give back.
She is building partnerships all along the way. Her team works with restaurants, businesses and different organizations, like the Boys and Girls club of the Greater La Crosse and the Neighborhood Resource Officers from the La Crosse Police Department, to provide opportunities to make food into meals and feed each community’s residents. The goal is to get larger corporations to support local endeavors, giving back to the land and people that make the food possible while keeping that cycle going. Ideally, 40 Acres and a Mule aims to impact hundreds of thousands of people and can be replicable nationwide and customized across local agricultural regions.
The first plot of land bought
The project is close to it’s initial goal of $150,000 and has since been increased to $250,000, primarily because of the expense of purchasing land outright. Her team of seven, along with a couple volunteers are still in the early farm programming and land buying stages, but are excited to have purchased their first plot of land as of October 2020!
They purchased 38 acres in partnership with Muloma Heritage in St. Helena Island in South Carolina. The programming there will focus on agriculture and African American and African Transatlantic Foodways. The 40 Acres and a Mule team will be focusing on how the farming methods, foods and seeds from Africa came to St. Helena. For example, they will look into seeds like okra and benne seeds; production methods like beer brewing, indigo dying and herbal blending; and specific farming techniques to be taught and shared with countries and communities with whom 40 Acres has partnered. Her team is currently researching and analyzing black food waste in St. Helena and will build programming to reduce it and teach farming practices new and old.
Take responsibility in your own hands
Our discussion with Adrian was inspiring. She is a force of nature, helming a project that is powering through barriers to guarantee farm to table resources for the food industry; provide an outlet for Black foodways and secure the legacy of Black farmers and food producers. She stressed the importance of being good stewards of food and land, no matter your skill level or organizing acumen.
Adrian is always learning (for example she’s currently in a beekeeping class!), and left us with encouragement to get involved with local organizations. She says, “Get involved. Get your hands in the dirt. Go outside the box. Because why not?...What we do today has an effect on us, our future and our children. We are responsible for keeping this going.”
Adrian takes her responsibility as a chef-owner seriously with a strong foot forward in sustainability efforts. As we wrapped our conversation with her, Adrian shared a cute story and good reminder to save your seeds! She told us she was able to grow 2ft tall avocado trees inside of her house out of 30-40 seeds deep. She advises saving seeds from squashes, bell peppers, avocados, tomatoes and watermelon and doing your own gardening to see them regrow. You could even give the seeds back to the farmer to keep the cycle going.
Adrian and all of us at Sustainable America are all about making connections. If you’re ready to get your hands dirty, check out our initiative Shared Earth, a program that connects people who have land with people who want to garden or farm. You can search listings and talk with nearby gardeners or landowners to get started on your next garden.
For more about Adrian and the 40 Acres and a Mule Project, please visit: https://40acresproject.com/