She sees seed keeping as ‘an important piece of resistance’ and is starting a Black heirloom seed farm


PHILADELPHIA — When Amirah Mitchell chose to pursue her passion for farming as a career, it took her some time to help those closest to her understand why she felt called to work with the land.

“A lot of my peers, their immediate thought was that Black people farming is just like slavery,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of that trauma in my community that connects land work to really traumatic experiences in our history. That lingers in our families and I am not exempt to that.”

But Mitchell’s mother also taught her that their people’s history didn’t begin with oppression and enslavement, that it had far deeper roots than that.

“I saw farming as an ancestral African practice that was exploited and this was a way to connect with those farmers even before they were enslaved and oppressed for it,” she said. “And my instinct was correct — many Africans were enslaved purposely because of their agricultural knowledge and skill.”

For Mitchell, working with the land became a way to repair that trauma and to reframe farming as a “strategy of liberation.” As she became more deeply involved in agriculture, Mitchell felt particularly called to seed keeping, the practice of not only saving seeds, but also preserving and passing down the stories of the cultures from which those seeds came.

“It’s an important piece of resistance. The way these stories are told by whoever — a large seed company, academia — are often told in a way which disempowers our communities or erases our community,” she said. “Telling our own stories is active resistance against these narratives that do so. And so is keeping our own seeds.”

In the spring Mitchell, 29, of Fairmount, graduated with a horticulture degree from Temple University. Next month, with the help more than $27,000 she’s raised through GoFundMe, she’ll start her small farm business, Sistah Seeds, at an agricultural incubator in Emmaus called The Seed Farm.

“What I’m aiming to do with Sistah Seeds is to grow, distribute and build a community around heirloom seeds from the African diaspora, with particular focus on African, African American, and Afro-Caribbean seed crops,” she said.

Mitchell’s connection to nature began as a kid in Boston, when her parents would take her hiking through Blue Hills Reservation, a state park outside of the city. At home, Mitchell would pretend she was a park ranger in her backyard, tracking animals and collecting feathers.

Every summer during high school Mitchell interned with a program called The Food Project, where she learned about food systems, worked on urban and suburban farms, and volunteered at shelters and food banks, serving the food she’d grown.

“It’s just a really amazing program that exposed me to a lot of different ways to work with the land and to interact with food,” she said.

And during difficult times, like her parents’ divorce, Mitchell found it healing to dig her hands in soil and work with the earth.

“I attached myself to farming as a way to keep myself together,” she said.

Mitchell spent three years studying environmental science at Spelman College in Atlanta, where she continued practicing farming, but returned home before completing her final year to focus on her mental health. Back in Boston, she worked at food justice organizations, taught workshops, and continued educating herself about farming.

Then, in 2018, she decided to make the move to Philly.

“So many of the organizations that center on urban farming in Massachusetts are very, very white, white run and white led,” she said. “There is a community here of Black-and-brown farmers who are involved in movement work, who are organizing around the land, and who are supporting each other and building with each other.”

Within months, Mitchell began working part-time at Truelove Seeds, a local seed company that works with small farmers and specializes in seed keeping. She also worked full time at a nonprofit and picked up side work after hours before enrolling at Temple in 2019.

Last year, she also got a job at Greensgrow Farms in Kensington, which led to her developing a seed-keeping fellowship program there during which she taught eight people from the community how to keep seeds from their own cultural heritage.

When it comes to keeping the stories of seeds, Mitchell uses rice as an example. While Asian rice is most ubiquitous in the United States now, she said West African rice — which was grown and domesticated for generations — was the first to be introduced to the Americas.

“The entry of rice into the Americas was in the braid of the women’s hair who stuck the seeds, stowed them away, knowing they’d be captured,” she said. “This is a story that has been passed down with those seeds. Anywhere where those seeds have been kept alive, this story has been kept alive …

“The story tells us the rice is our own, we can return to a good relationship with this plant. This rice, this seed, connects us to our ancestors who passed it down to us in the hopes we would survive,” she said. “There’s no better way to speak to my ancestors than through their seeds.”

With the opening of Sistah Seeds next year, Mitchell plans to continue hosting seed-keeping workshops and programs, along with selling her seeds. While her seeds will be available to anyone, she also plans to start a seed CSA for Black, brown, and Indigenous farmers.

Mitchell said it’s hard to gauge the size of the seed keeping community today because the community is larger than the people who talk about it, but she said it spans nations, is as old as agriculture itself, and is open to everyone.

“Any person who grows a couple of collards in their backyard and saves some seeds every year is a seed keeper,” she said. “They may not be coming to the conferences and they may not be using the language, but that doesn’t diminish their action or their practices.”

This story was originally published December 13, 2021 4:00 AM.

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