Book Review: The Color of Food

The Color of Food by Natasha Bowens. New Society Publishers, 2015.

What is the most common mental picture of the average person in this country has when someone says “farmer”? One might see the traditional straw hat, bib overalls, perhaps a stem of timothy hay in his mouth or a pitchfork in his hand. Or it might be someone enclosed in the cab of a monster tractor. Perhaps it would be an Amish farmer working in a field with a team of horses. But there are two similarities in all these most common mental images. The farmers are male, and they are White.

This is what Natasha Bowens discovered in her quest to grow her own food. She found abundant resources as far as conferences and courses were concerned, and she learned a lot, culminating in a job on an organic farm. But she was bothered that she saw so few people of color, people like herself. This was the beginning of her search across America for farmers and market gardeners of color, and she found both men and women.

The Color of Food is the story Natasha Bowens tells of her 15,000-mile journey across the country over several months. This was her quest to learn about these other farmers—those who were not the stereotypical White male farmers who make up so much of the agricultural scene.

This author was in a unique position to do this research. She is biracial, giving her insight into the question from two angles. Astonishingly, she was in an even more unusual position. Both sides of her family had come from a little town near Greenville, South Carolina, where generations earlier, the Colemans—her mother’s family—had literally owned the Bowens, who were her father’s family. Her unique perspective made her wonder if her new love of growing food was a return to a strong connection to the land or, ironically, to a trade her ancestors had been forced to practice as slaves. In this trip across many states, talking to Americans of color—Black, Native, Latino, and Asian—the author discovered the rich contribution made by all these farmers to the American food supply and cultural life. And, along the way, her farmer-teachers taught her about the challenges each of them had encountered and what they are still dealing with today.

Natasha Bowens has divided her book into several sections with interviews of representative farmers from each category. And her book is illustrated by her own fine photography of the people and farms she met. What follows is a sampling of sketches of people she talked to as she made her way across the country.

In Part 2: “Rooted in Rights,” the reader is introduced to the Border Agricultural Workers Center in El Paso, Texas. This nonprofit organization offers services for the thousands of migrant workers in that area. Both NAFTA and internal corruption in Mexico resulted in loss of over a million agricultural jobs in Mexico, the pressure on the border increased, and centers like this one have been vital in helping migrant farmers navigate the political and practical issues in the United States.

A community farm on the Navajo Nation in Arizona afforded the author another view into the problems and successes of farmers of color—in this case, the indigenous Native Americans. In spite of government action that reduced the traditional land of the Navajo, and in spite of vastly increased pressure on their water rights, the North Leupp Family Farm persists as a community owned and operated farm with plots available to each of the thirty families.

Natasha Bowens learned much about Black land loss during her stay in Tillery, North Carolina. During periods of agricultural economic difficulty, systems in place tended to help White farmers survive the crises, but Black farmers had much more trouble. The USDA’s discrimination against Black farmers has a long, well documented history. The author gives a concise, but thorough, explanation of the method used to subvert Black farmers’ requests for loans and crop-disaster payments. These policies were, according to Gary Grant, head of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association in North Carolina, some of the reasons almost 70 percent of Black farm land was lost between 1920 and 1996.

Part 3 is subtitled “Seeds of Resilience.” In California’s Central Valley, the author talked to Pang Chang, a Hmong Laotian immigrant who fled his home country and is now growing tropical fruit trees in greenhouses in California. He wanted to follow his father’s advice that “vegetables allow you to survive from year to year, but long-term wealth comes from trees.” Pang sought the help of the extension workshops. The agent, Michael Yang, told the author that Pang came to workshops, went home and used those ideas, and then did more with that knowledge than the extension program itself.

Part 4 involves “Preserving Culture and Community.” Natasha Bowens was able to interview Kevin Welch from the Center for Cherokee Plants in Cherokee, N.C. He explained to the author that the exploitation of Native Americans has caused many groups to be very cautious of sharing information with the outside world. “One of the things a lot of people don’t realize is that the Cherokee are the original agriculturalists of this region. We’ve been growing food here for thousands of years . . . . We started raising squash several thousand years ago and beans and corn in the last 1400 years. But agriculture for us still includes wild gathering.”

Part 5 of The Color of Food is about “Fierce Farming Women.” The author discovered some highly competent and inventive women of color all across the country.

Nelida Martinez rents two acres at Viva Farms in Washington. Viva Farms is a farm business incubator that provides lots of services for its plot holders to use—cold storage, washing facilities, irrigation, and more. Nelida sells her beautiful berries and vegetables at farmers’ markets. She also makes fresh tortillas at the market. She sells them warm and also in quesadillas with squash blossoms, herbs, and peppers that she grows. Her son’s leukemia was the catalyst that made her quit working for other farms where pesticides and other poisons were used. She knew she wanted to raise organic food and not expose her family to the substances she had brought home on her clothes when she worked on conventional farms.

Part 6 explores the world of young farmers of color, millennials like Natasha Bowens herself who are returning to the land generations after their families had fled the country for careers in town. These young farmers are concerned about food insecurity, cultural identity, and solutions for fixing what is broken in our food system. They are leading the way in building community through food security.

The inspiring stories in Natasha Bowens’ The Color of Food are equaled by her wonderful photography. Her pictures focus the readers’ attention on the faces of the people in the stories she tells. The books should be an eye-opener for people who see farmers as only the White people they know. This book gives the reader a portrait of diversity, of competence in farming shown many ways, and a reminder that we are a society of many colors, many ethnicities, and many backgrounds, all dedicated to growing good food for ourselves and the people around us.

This review appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Farming Magazine. Used with permission.

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