In last week’s Footnote we looked at a typical agricultural school for African-Americas in the early and mid-1900s. Today, we will fast forward to a potential new approach to agricultural education for African-Americans. This will conclude our month-long series of articles that were designed to help us remember and commemorate the New Farmers of America (NFA) during the month in which National NFA Week was celebrated.
Sankofa Farms LLC
The principal said NO! That is how the story of Sankofa Farms started.
Kamal Bell was teaching middle school earth and environmental sciences in Durham, North Carolina. One of his goals was to help African American boys develop life skills that eventually could help them support themselves and their communities. However, the climate in a middle school classroom was not always conducive to learning these concepts.
Kamal came up with an idea. The school had a garden area and Kamal asked if he could work with students on the garden through the summer. They would learn valuable life skills by working in the garden., But the principal said no; so, Bell went looking for another way.
In 2016 Bell borrowed money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy 12 acres of land to the west of Durham. The land was not exactly ideal farmland. It was overrun with weeds, brush, and trees and had been used as a trash dump. Bell and the students spent most of the first two years carving three fields out of the property. It was not until 2018 that the first crops went into the ground.
Kamal uses grants from nonprofits to pay for its operation. Even though Bell has a bachelor’s degree in animal science and a master’s in agriculture education from North Carolina A&T State University he calls on former professors and Extension specialists for advice. Kamal is currently working on a doctoral degree in agricultural and extension education at North Carolina State University in addition to operating Sankofa Farms.
Figure 1. Kamal Bell
The farm grows a variety of produce and also cultivates chicken, quail, and duck eggs. It operates a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enterprise. Lately, there has been a major emphasis on beekeeping and honey production. Not only was the farm to serve as a learning lab for students, but it was also to serve as a model for urban areas where food deserts existed and food was in short supply. Their website can be accessed at https://www.sankofafarmsllc.com/.
Figure 2. Plant growing structures at Sankofa. They were designed
and built by the students in the Agricultural Academy.
The Sankofa Farms Agricultural Academy
In an interview with Bayer US, Bell told about his creation of the Sankofa Farms Agricultural Academy at Sankofa Farms (Bell, 2018):
I created the Sankofa Farms Agricultural Academy, a STEM-based program that seeks to educate inner-city youth about leadership, discipline and teamwork through agriculture. By introducing my students to basic farming techniques, together we can explore solutions to help increase access to fresh produce for their families and neighbors.
The Agricultural Academy is currently a summer program and Saturday academy that uses a local church for the classroom portion. I hope to make it year-round once the farm expands in the near future. Introducing livestock, including chickens, ducks, and quail, has also created a strong incentive for the students to work hard and behave well both in the classroom and on the farm.
We’re showing our youth how simple it can be to grow food if they have access to even just a little bit of land in our communities. On top of teaching them how to feed their families, the change in behavior we see in our students has been incredible.
The agricultural academy targets African American youth ranging from the ages of eleven to seventeen years old. The aim is to improve the perception of STEM and agriculturally related professions, increase the dollars earned, improve career readiness skills, and improve school performance for the attendees. The ultimate goal is to have a school building on the farm.
Figure 3. Kamal with some of the Academy students
The Sankofa program takes six 11-to-16-year old students, who work at the farm year-round—specifically every other weekend while the kids are in school, plus breaks. During summer vacation, they’re there weekdays. Most, though not all, of the students are from low-income families.
Ultimately, Bell doesn’t expect the kids to become farmers; he wants to give them the tools to do what they want with their lives and also bypass the food desert trap, becoming self-sufficient (Field, 2019). “They’re doing this because they love the work and they want to see changes in their community,” says Bell.
Figure 4. Academy students learn to operate tractors.
Kamal Bell doesn’t like the term “at-risk” to describe some of the students he works with. He likes to use “at-possibility” to describe students from disadvantaged backgrounds (Overdeep, 2020). The first two graduates of the Academy are headed to college and will be majoring in fields related to agriculture.
At Sankofa students are taught about everything from teamwork to the problem of food deserts, plus beekeeping, chicken coop mending, operating tractors, tilling the land and building animal pens, to name a few duties. The students are certified beekeepers.
Figure 5. The Academy students are certified beekeepers and honey is sold to the public.
Figure 6. Kamal researched crops that could connect the students to their African roots, including guinea fowl.
Photo from the Raleigh News and Observer.
The name of the farm, Sankofa, is used in West African languages to refer to going back and getting what might have been lost. The Sankofa Farm is helping African-Americans to reconnect to their agricultural roots. Even though the word Sankofa refers to the past this program is looking to the future. Perhaps this is the beginning of the NEW New Farmers of America.
There are several videos about the Sankofa Farm you might share with your students and get their thoughts.
Bayer US (May 29, 2018). Get to Know the Grower: Kamal Bell, Sankofa Farms, Efland, NC. https://bayerus.medium.com/get-to-know-the-grower-kamal-bell-sankofa-farms-efland-nc-5a4042ce97f2
Field, Ann (May 27, 2019). A Farm That Teaches Low-Income Kids About Food Deserts — And Self-Sufficiency. Forbes.
Ovedeep, Meghan (June 29, 2020). Teenagers Gain Confidence Raising Bees and Growing Crops at North Carolina Farm. Southern Living.
Quillin, Martha (July 31, 2019). Young African American men raise food, bees and self-confidence at Sankofa Farms. Raleigh (NC) News and Observer.