BHM Profile | Local farmer embarks on a community-led farm initiative

Mark Davis, owner of RealRoots Farm Systems, seeks to expand his food sovereignty mission. Photo courtesy of Chris Risch

Ebonique Little, Spectrum Editor

After several rejected applications for a loan from the Department of Agriculture, local farmer Mark Davis said he was growing impatient.

Davis hoped to use a Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Loan from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency to start a farm rooted in food sovereignty, a concept that gives the consumers a say in how their food is grown.

“I could spend the next five years basically building a perfect application, or I could turn to people who want this to happen, who know that this needs to happen right now,” Davis said.

Davis launched a Kickstarter campaign in January to expand the capabilities and efficiency of his farm, RealRoots Food Systems. He said he received overwhelming support from Richmond residents and exceeded his initial goal of $25,000.

“It’s all about community, and food in particular is culture,” Davis said. “You take away people’s right to grow food, you take away their connection to the earth itself.”

Davis tends to the callaloo, a popular Caribbean vegetable. Photo courtesy of Ash Carr

After years of planting community gardens, Davis said he wanted to serve the public in a greater way. Davis began RealRoots Food Systems in May 2019 to further his mission of food sovereignty. The farm has three locations across the Richmond metropolitan area. 

Guests can participate in the farm’s daily operations by volunteering, apprenticing or working in exchange for produce or compensation at the farm’s primary location in Mechanicsville.

“Richmond kind of has a collective consciousness,” Davis said. “I think it’s evolving to where it seems like people really are ready to change what we’re doing day to day, and how we’re engaging with our food system.”

Davis said food sovereignty goes beyond ensuring access to food in neighborhoods that lack healthy food options.

“Sometimes, food access is not enough, like access to food that’s low quality or access to food that only is there for you because other people were abused and exploited to be able to get it there,” Davis said.

Davis’ passion for RealRoots Food Systems stems from common misconceptions around agriculture. The industry poses health and environmental consequences, such as toxic waterways, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

“It’s almost like a trauma response to the fact that my community, my neighborhood, my family, my friends are experiencing a disconnection from how their food is grown,” Davis said. “Food is such an integral part of all of our lives that we kind of take for granted and have for a long time, especially in America.”

Food sovereignty has gained traction nationwide. The U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, founded in 2010, has nearly 60 organizations representing thousands of members, according to Stephen Bartlett, a farmer within the Family Farm Defenders.

The U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance advocates for small farmers by supporting policies that favor small- and medium-scale farming, farm labor rights, urban and rural gardening, food processing, marketing and efforts to democratize farming decisions.

Bartlett said Davis’ work toward food sovereignty will have a strong impact on Richmond.

“It empowers local self-reliance and economic strength, provides livelihood, improves health through exercise and nutrition, enriches culture and reconnects people to ecology and soil,” Bartlett said in an email.

Bartlett said many beginner farmers face barriers such as limited access to land and lower crop yields because of their refrain from the use of genetic modification.

To receive startup loans from the USDA, farmers must own their land, have acceptable debt repayment history and several years of farm managerial experience. These prerequisites affected Davis’ ability to get approved.

“So it’s a lot of the conventional blocks that keep people of color out of consideration,” Davis said.

Collective farming, or farming with others on the same land, is a way Davis is able to decrease operating costs and support other farmers by sharing resources.

Ash Carr, owner of Hazel Witch Farm, shares land with Davis and grows medicinal herbs, flowers and bio-regionally adapted seeds, such as the Choctaw sweet potato squash.

Davis provides compost while Carr’s cut flowers serve as pollinators for other crops. 

The pair met after farming together at Tricycle Urban Ag, a former nonprofit in Richmond that promoted urban agriculture. Like Davis, Carr said she cares deeply about food sovereignty and its impact on health.

“If we don’t have control of our seeds, we don’t have the capacity to actually grow food,” Carr said. “And I found that there was a lot of folks really interested in herbal wellness and wellness outside of the scope of Western doctors, and not enough access to green spaces in which to acquire those herbs.”

Davis shares about three and a half acres of land with two other farmers at his RealRoots Farm Systems site in Mechanicsville. Photo courtesy of Ash Carr

For Davis, the land also serves as a space to acquire “culturally relevant” produce, such as collard greens and Jamaican scotch bonnet peppers, which nod to his African American and Afro-Caribbean roots. 

Davis opted to grow tropical produce to take advantage of Virginia’s hot summers, when farm staples like kale and sweet potatoes don’t grow well.

“The foods are very different,” Davis said. “We’re not a monolith as Black people, and so I want to basically give honor to both sides of me.”

This year, the items grown on the farm are available through a subscription-based weekly food box, as well as volunteer organizations, such as MAD RVA, to provide food for those in need. 

“My skill set and my spirit told me that I need to do this on a real scale,” Davis said.

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