Dr. Gail Myers honors Black farmers in a new documentary film
Photos by Dr. Gail Myers
In the summer of 2012, cultural anthropologist Dr. Gail Myers drove through 10 Southern states on a mission to document the life stories of elderly Black farmers. During this tour, she interviewed 27 farmers, gardeners, dairy ranchers, and a basket weaver, mostly in their 80s and 90s, about their ways of growing food, caring for animals, and living on the land. Her film honors these farmers and highlights their dedication to sustainability, family, and community. Ten years after this trip, we interviewed Myers as she was completing her documentary film, Rhythms of the Land, which she describes as a labor of love and a valentine to generations of Black farmers.
During these years, Myers has also worked to establish the Oakland-based organization Farms to Grow, which launched the Freedom Farmers’ Market to support Black (and other under-served) farmers. When the pandemic hit in 2020, Myers took advantage of the break in her usual work schedule to refocus on the film. In this interview with Edible East Bay, she shared details about her experience making the film, the people she got to know, and the stories they told about their lives. For information about upcoming film screenings, go to rhythmsoftheland.com.
Edible East Bay: You describe your film as a depiction of the voices and life stories of African American farmers, sharecroppers, gardeners, and basket weavers. Are there other ways you like to present it?
Dr. Gail Myers: We initially began to discuss it as Africa comes to America, but of course, that was, in many ways, very simplistic. The idea is that the foodways emerged through the seeds that came through the traditional practices. We want to convey the importance of this story, give some background and details on Black farmers and how important it is to honor them and to appreciate these stories they have.
What compelled you to make the film?
I conducted my first interview in 1997, and I wanted the world to see what I saw. My first farm was in Adams County, Ohio, and at the time William Chambers was 89 years old. He was showing me his barn, and [I could see] the care and the love that this farmer took [with] his family and his animals, his crops, his land. One of his grandsons was with us, and Little William was hanging out in the top of the rafter [looking at the chickens]. Now, he looked to be about six or seven at the time, and he says, “I know they look small, but those chickens are mature.”
I was in awe of how this young man was so knowledgeable and had so much comfort and skill on the farm, and of how he loved his grandfather. It was a feeling that seemed absent in the literature that I had been reviewing and the stories I had seen about folks on the land.
Rhythms was my attempt to at least have some placeholder until other folks saw these stories and built upon them, so we could get a greater depth on the lives and worldviews of these farmers. I was learning through textbooks and as topics like sustainable agriculture were coming up, I would see the farmers that I interviewed actually going about these practices. But when I would go back to my advisors and share what I had seen, almost 100% of the time they discounted these stories. They would say, “That’s probably not what this is,” and I thought—huh?
So even at the beginning, I knew that this would be a story that was so new and so foreign that folks wouldn’t have any real idea that this is what’s happening. So, it was important that they saw and heard these farmers. I could convey it in my articles and summaries of the writings and interviews, but their voices, their intonations, the nuances of their stories, their inflections—those were things I wanted to share. Those, in my mind, added to the magic and made these stories even more human. Black and Brown communities, and especially their agrarian stories, have been dehumanized or just not there, and it was so important to add some humanity to these people and their stories. It’s been a labor of love.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to teach a class at Denison University about my work, and I took the students [in 2000] on an overnight to Mr. Chambers’s farm. While we were there, I actually did some initial filming of him, and those few clips that I recorded stayed with me, and I said, “This story has got to be shown.”
Fast forward: I graduated and eventually moved back to Atlanta, which is where I got my master’s and did some work at Morehouse School of Medicine, and then in San Francisco I started talking to folks about sustainable agriculture. This was in 2003, and I ended up moving to California and starting the organization Farms to Grow while I maintained communication with many of the farmers in Ohio. About a year would pass, and a family member would call and say, “Just want to let you know that my dad died.” And a few years go by and another family member would call to say, “I just want you to know that my mom passed.” These were people that I had in mind of interviewing, right? I wanted these stories, but people were passing away, and so it was a very intentional move in 2012 that I took the summer off. I got a camera, got a schedule of folks that I knew in Southern states, and just went on this tour. I started capturing these stories.
When I came back from the field, I thought the film would be produced in 2013 or 2014, [and] I came back to Oakland really excited. [Around that time, Ken Shandy of Brother’s Kitchen in West Oakland] had this dream of having a Black farmers’ market on his parking lot, so I had to choose, because I knew—having managed farmers’ markets before—that this would be time consuming. So, I made a decision to focus on the farmers’ market and then get back to the film [later].
When Covid hit in 2020, everything shut down, and I started re-looking at this film. Working with our organization, our executive director, the board, and a group of volunteers, we did some fundraising, we found editors, we found someone to score the music, and it was moving right along.
With everything going on in this country right now and our eyes open, I think this will be a welcome story. There is more urgency and more of a thirst for these narratives right now, so we’re excited. People are more curious, they’re more willing to realize that they’ve been missing a large part of the story.
When the Netflix series High on the Hog came out in 2021, folks seemed to get more curious about the subject matter. Did that change your urgency?
Yes, the timing is really perfect. As you mentioned in conjunction with Jessica Harris’s work, High on the Hog, people are looking at Black culinary history and some of the legal challenges that the farmers are facing. I was talking to an elderly aunt a few days ago, who was confused. She said, “I thought that the Black farmers got money and were compensated,” and I know that’s part of the problem is this idea that they did, when in fact they didn’t. Moreover, a lot of the individuals in those positions to discriminate are still in those positions. In many cases, nothing changed.
And as we can see with what happened recently with the stimulus payouts, 99.2% of all that stimulus money went to white farmers. Black farmers and Brown farmers weren’t getting anything, and it’s a continuing self-fulfilling prophecy, because if you’re supporting the big farmers and continue to not support the small farmers, the big farmers are going to continue to get big, and you’re not providing any real equity. People are now trying to help folks understand that Black farmers need some relief because every time these federal programs come around, they don’t produce any real success stories for Black farmers; they’re still going out of business.
Most Black farmers have a primary job outside of the barn. The farm is their second job, but they’re working all the time because they’re on the tractor before work, after work, on weekends. The fact is that they continue to want to farm. But the challenge over the last generation is that their offspring don’t want to farm. They’ve seen it and they said no thank you, and the parents are asking them to get away from the farm, especially those families who were sharecroppers. They’re not encouraging them to farm, but interestingly enough, they end up going out to get those degrees and coming back to the farm anyway.
I am impassioned about their story, and I know that this is good work for the planet and the people. Black farmers, as I have been witnessing, are more inclined to do all the natural things; they don’t call it organic, but they do all the natural stewardship practices that you could ask. Mostly the larger Black farmers are beef and cattle farmers, but the majority of the other half are vegetable farmers, and they maintain their land, their soil. They’re not going to bring in chemicals. They don’t want to use a lot of fake fertilizers. They do crop rotation. They’re always thinking about the quality of the soil, the care of the animal. And you know it is certainly about trying to make a living, but they’re not set on just trying to maximize profit ‘til it ruins the next generation or the next crops that will come. These are the things that I was reading as I’m taking these deep ecology classes and reading all this literature from other communities.
There were no books [on Black farmers]. Honestly, I searched. And, since my research, and since I’ve been in this area since ’97, many more stories, many more articles and books have been written about Black farming practices, so there’s not necessarily the dearth that was there when I started doing this research. But I know that people will continue to build on [this work] because we need to have access to this information. It matters that you have a story of a farmer in a community and the intentionality they had about maintaining their farm and maintaining their community, only to lose it anyway because of the power structure. These folks had no capital, and they had no wealth, so they were victims of all kinds of taking of land.
I went to 10 states: the Carolinas, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida. I’ve interviewed farmers in each one of those states. I interviewed my Great Aunt Rose. She says, “I’m 98 and know it, and I got a shape to show it.” Her father was a tenant farmer, so I learned from her about my own family’s land experience and land-loss experience. She tells the story of when they first moved. There was no electricity. It was a community of all Black people, and they kept asking, “Can we get some electricity?” So eventually a white family moved on that block and then they got electricity.
There’s Mrs. Icefene, who’s in Funston, Louisiana, and she is 109. She tells the story of when she was a girl. Her father had orchards, they had crops, and he gave them a bucket of peaches one time and they walked four miles to sell the peaches and [she and] her friend bought a hat with the [money from the] peaches.
I interviewed Jery B. Taylor, a fifth-generation basket weaver in South Carolina. She tells the story of how the Senegambians were brought into South Carolina to develop rice and how the basket weavers would make sure to preserve the straw. Somehow [there was] a depletion of a particular straw. They stopped using it and the only time that they would use it was if there was a hurricane or it was felled by the wind, in which case it became precious as gold. They would go out and collect it. There’s a picture I got off of stock, but it’s similar to the story that Jery Taylor tells about how the man and the woman, they’re carrying this pine straw, and they’re carrying it like a baby. That is just how they care and how they feel for it.
So, I continue to learn more about the worldview of farmers, like the barefoot farmer. When I visited his farm, I started looking around for rows of crops and I said, “Where’s the food?” He says, “You’re walking on it.” He actually plants his watermelons, his okra right in the forest. The words don’t even really convey all this. There’s so much emotion, I should probably write a piece about the emotion that I experienced just going to these farms.
[One day, a] vibration came up from the soil. I was in Mississippi, and I was going through the Delta, and it was one of the most eerie experiences I’ve ever had. It was like I could hear the voices of the ancestors. The soil was very dry, gray, very depleted during the summer, very hot. And I was thinking about that soil and who inhabited those areas and the conditions that the people that used to live there endured. It was otherworldly.
I interviewed a total of 27 farmers. Some were sharecroppers, former sharecroppers, some were doing gardening in Memphis, Tennessee, but grew up on farms. One woman, Mrs. Dodson, she and several other women were managing a community garden not far from where they lived in their senior living center. They grew flowers. They’d give the flowers away. It was the best medicine for them. I see that the farmers that have lived long lives on the land, their medicine has been the land, their connection to their family and their community. Every day on the land, that keeps you grounded.
Now, one of the things that I have found almost ironic [is] when I listen to the stories of the folks and they talk about the loss and they talk about the challenges, but then they talk with so much love for their community, for what they do. [Rhythms is] like a love story, it’s a valentine of love to Black farmers because they speak so lovingly, and they have that big sense of humor. I mean, these are some of the funniest folks you’d want to meet. And they just keep on living as long as they can be on the land.
I interviewed a farmer, Joe Thompson, in Cedar Grove, North Carolina. He had been a tobacco farmer in addition to a crop farmer, but he fell and injured his back. Then he got into prawns, so, he is famous in North Carolina. Every year they have an event on his farm, and he would invite folks out. It was a shrimp boil, and Joe’s shrimp were huge. He said, “You know, people tell me that I can get 20-something dollars out of these per pound. But if I price them that high, my people won’t be able to get them,” so he sold $14.99 a pound or something like that, and the care of Joe Thompson is very typical of the farmers that I know in California.
Mr. Will Scott for example: Customers would come and ask Mr. Scott, “Why are your collard greens so cheap?” They would say, “I can afford to pay more than this.” Mr. Scott would say, “Well you can, but some people may not.”
It’s the same kind of attitude, that they grow with a particular community in mind. I know I can get a lot more money, but I want to make sure that my food is accessible from an affordability perspective. These are some of the best examples of humanity on the planet: people who lose but keep giving. Rhythms is really a way for folks to see these stories in their own words. See the people say it themselves, convey their own joy on camera.
Is there a story behind the title of the film, Rhythms of the Land?
There is a story. It became more crystallized when I went into the field in 2012, but I’ve always heard the rhythms. The farm. When we did the field trip with the students, when we woke up in the morning, there was the rooster. The sound of the geese. The sound of the cows headed to the field. There was some kind of synchronized way in which I heard the land speak itself, and I began to know that this is really about a rhythm, because these farmers, they plant by the signs of the moon, meaning if the moon is in one-quarter phase, they know that’s not the time to plant potatoes, or a half moon, you don’t plant corn. So, they’re very in tune to the rhythms of nature. They know that if they’re fishing in a particular waterway and there are not a lot of fish, that this isn’t the time to fish here. They follow the rhythms of the fish, the birds, all the land that surrounds them.
That’s how I see this, there’s rhythm in the land and it involves the land and the farmers. It is about that soil. It is about that skin that covers the earth. And the role that they now have been given, the time to do something with it. And then they do their diligence, and then they pass the baton with instructions to the next generation. And that’s part of the rhythm, then, is the generations. There is a continuous movement, it’s a flow. It comes and goes, it gives and it returns. ♦
To view the film trailer and to learn about the upcoming release, visit rhythmsoftheland.com.
Many thanks to Associate Editor Rachel Trachten for her hours spent preparing this interview for publication.