Meet Amirah Mitchell, a farmer from Philadelphia (to Boston) whose focus is on seed saving, the art and practice of saving seeds – and the stories and memories that accompany them – for future generations.
• Why she came to Philly: “I wanted to be part of a movement of farmers led by blacks and browns. I wanted to find a community that looks like me and that is also people of the land and people of the land.
• The stories of our seeds: “All seeds have a story. We might not know their story, we might not tell their story, but all the seeds do. Our seed stories tell us where our seeds came from, how they came to us, and all the people whose hands have crossed those seeds before.
When Amirah Mitchell chose to pursue her passion for farming as a career, it took some time for her loved ones to understand why she felt called to work with the land.
“Many of my peers immediately thought black farming was like slavery,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of this trauma in my community that links working the land to some really traumatic experiences in our history. It persists in our families and I am not exempt from it. “
But Mitchell’s mother also taught him that the story of their people didn’t start with oppression and slavery, that it had much deeper roots than that.
“I saw farming as an ancestral African practice that was being exploited and it was a way to connect with these farmers even before they were enslaved and oppressed for it,” she said. “And my instinct was correct – many Africans were purposely enslaved because of their agricultural knowledge and skills.”
For Mitchell, working with the land has become a way to mend this trauma and reframe farming as a “liberation strategy.” As she became more deeply involved in agriculture, Mitchell felt a special call to save seeds, the practice of not only saving seeds but also preserving and passing on the stories of the crops. from which these seeds come.
“It’s an important piece of resistance. The way these stories are told by anyone – a large seed company, an academia – is often told in a way that robs our communities of power or erases our community, ”she said. “Telling our own stories is an active resistance against those narratives that do. And the same goes for keeping our own seeds.
In the spring, Mitchell, 29, of Fairmount, graduated from Temple University with a horticultural degree. Next month, with the help of the over $ 27,000 she has raised through GoFundMe, she will start her small farming business, Sistah Seeds, in an agricultural incubator in Emmaus called The Seed Farm.
“What I intend to do with Sistah Seeds is cultivate, distribute and build a community around heirloom seeds from the African Diaspora, with a particular focus on African, African-American and African-American seed cultures. Afro-Caribbean, ”she said.
Mitchell’s connection to nature began as a child in Boston, when his parents took him for a hike in the Blue Hills Preserve, a state park outside of town. At home, Mitchell pretended she was a park warden in his backyard, stalking animals and collecting feathers.
Every summer in high school, Mitchell interned at 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 had grown.
“It’s just a really amazing program that has exposed me to so many different ways of working with the land and interacting with food,” she said.
And during difficult times, like her parents’ divorce, Mitchell has found it beneficial to dig her hands in the ground and work with the land.
“I got attached to farming as a way to stay together,” she said.
Mitchell spent three years studying environmental science at Spelman College in Atlanta, where she continued to farm, but returned home before completing her senior year to focus on her mental health. Back in Boston, she worked in food justice organizations, gave workshops and continued to learn about farming.
Then, in 2018, she decided to move to Philadelphia.
“So many organizations that focus on urban agriculture in Massachusetts are very, very white, white-led and white-led,” she said. “There is a community of black and brown farmers here who are involved in the work of the movement, who organize themselves around the land, and who support and build with each other.”
Within months, Mitchell started working part time at Truelove Seeds, a local seed company that works with small farmers and specializes in seed saving. She also worked full time at a nonprofit organization and started working after hours before enrolling in Temple in 2019.
Last year, she also got a job with Greensgrow Farms in Kensington, which led her to develop a seed saving scholarship program in which she taught eight people in the community how to save seeds from their own cultural heritage.
When it comes to saving seed stories, Mitchell uses rice as an example. While Asian rice is now the most ubiquitous in the United States, she said West African rice – which has been cultivated and domesticated for generations – was the first to be introduced to the Americas.
“The entry of rice into the Americas was in the braids of the hair of the women who glued the seeds together, arranged them, knowing they would be captured,” she said. “It’s a story that was passed on with these seeds. Wherever these seeds were kept alive, that story was kept alive…
“History tells us that the rice is ours, we can find a good relationship with this plant. This rice, this seed, connects us to our ancestors who passed it on to us in the hope that we survive, ”she said. “There is no better way to speak to my ancestors than through their seeds. “
With the opening of Sistah Seeds next year, Mitchell plans to continue running workshops and seed saving programs, while also selling his seeds. While her seeds are accessible to everyone, she also plans to launch a seed CSA for black, brown and native farmers.
Mitchell said it’s hard to gauge the size of the seed saving community today because the community is bigger than the people talking about it, but said it spans nations , is as old as agriculture itself and is open to everyone.
“Anyone who grows a few cabbages in their garden and saves seeds each year is a seed keeper,” she said. “They may not come to the conferences and they may not use the language, but that does not diminish their action or their practices.”
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