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Young Black Farmers: Where are they now?
Words by David Jesudason
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 3: You and I Eat Differently.
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Today’s newsletter is the second in a row on the subject of land, and who owns land (you can read the first one by Mary Fawzy on the ownership of agricultural land in Cape Town here). If you read it and thought these issues were unique to South Africa, then hopefully today’s newsletter by David Jesudason should convince you that these problems are far closer to home than you reckoned.
I won’t take up any more space as today’s newsletter is longer than usual, but if you do happen to have a spare 90 minutes then I highly recommend watching the series Young Black Farmers discussed at length in it. You can watch it for free in the UK, on Channel 4 here: https://www.channel4.com/programmes/young-black-farmers. As soon as I finished it earlier this year, all I wanted to know is how the contestants lives had turned out. Some answers will be revealed today, but this isn’t the full story; we are all only ever in the unfinished process of ‘turning out’, and there is always time for change.
Young Black Farmers: Where are they now?, by David Jesudason
When Young Black Farmers was first shown on British TV in 2006, it was almost missed by everyone it had been made for. The series was commissioned by Jamaican-born lawyer and then-head of education at Channel 4, Dame Heather Rabbatts, who wanted to make a documentary series aimed at young people to address why so few people of colour, particularly Black people, lived and worked in the countryside. Unfortunately for Rabbatts, the first episode happened to clash with the England vs Ecuador last-16 World Cup match. Despite the tough time slot, the show became a sleeper hit, winning awards, and is now used as a diversity tool in British schools.
The show plucked nine young contestants from inner-city and suburban areas, like Peckham and Edmonton in London and Handsworth in Birmingham, and transported them to the south-western town of Launceston, where they competed for an internship under Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, or ‘The Black Farmer’. The group lived and worked on Emmanuel-Jones’ farm in an Apprentice-style set-up which will be recognisable to anyone who has watched early-noughties reality TV. Yet the show managed to transcend its trappings, and in many ways Rabbatts’ commissioning was ahead of its time in tackling the issue of racism in the countryside. Not only does Young Black Farmers portray the countryside as a white preserve, showing how locals react when they come across Black people, it also highlights how difficult it is for anyone of colour to sustain a meaningful career in British farming.
After a conversation I had with the Black brewmaster Garrett Oliver, who spoke of the energy needed to be anti-racist, and how you often have to reach out to people of colour to hire them, I decided to revisit the show. I particularly wanted to know if any of the participants had sought careers in agriculture and, if so, how they had fared.
I learnt that, in terms of TV metrics, the show was a success: all of the participants I spoke to say that they were recognised long after it aired, and Emmanuel-Jones reveals he still gets emails praising the way the show presented Black people. Yet fifteen years on, not a single contestant works in the farming industry, nor has becoming a Black farmer got any easier. ‘The tragedy is, since that programme was made not really much has changed’, Emmanuel-Jones tells me. ‘[The countryside] is still seen as a foreign land.’
Gifty Amofa was just seventeen during the filming of the show. She grew up in Mitcham, an outer-London suburb that borders the countryside. ‘Even though I was brought up in Surrey,’ she says, ‘I never went to the countryside except on a school trip.’ Amofa’s experience chimed with many of the other children, who had no experience of life outside their cities. In one of the opening scenes, the youngsters travel on a train to the South West and squeal with delight at seeing fields and cows for the first time. It’s a bittersweet moment that the show’s director Amanda Blue admits she was unprepared for. ‘I remember being completely shocked and thinking “that's a really important thing to show” because the truth is pretty dark. It’s a shameful truth. Why is this not being addressed?’
It was Rabbatts who realised that Emmanuel-Jones was the perfect fit for the miniseries; he is a ‘self-made’ entrepreneur who grew up in inner-city Birmingham and strongly believed that it was the duty of children from immigrant families to move out of ‘ghettos’, as he called them. ‘He wanted to bring people that had very little exposure to rural England to see if they fell in love with the land’, says Blue.
Watching the show again, it very quickly becomes clear why the countryside is so closed off as an option; the programme does not flinch away from capturing the racism Black people have to endure in rural settings. Amofa remembers her first feeling of being out of place in an area where everyone was white. ‘We went to a big Tesco,’ she says, ‘and from the time we got out the car it was literally all eyes on us and I thought “what the hell?” The time I felt most uncomfortable was when we went to [Duchy Agricultural] College and one of the students said that he’d only seen Black people on the TV.’
Amofa now manages a children’s home in inner London, looking after youngsters who would be the same age and of the same position in life as she was when she appeared on the show. The idea of having been on TV as a teenager is something that Amofa finds hard. In fact, when the show was repeated a few years after it first aired, her work colleagues discovered that she was on it – watching it on the TV in their office, they all asked her ‘why the hell she hadn’t told them about it’. ‘The way I was portrayed and the way they edited – I wasn’t feeling it. It’s not a programme that I’m proud of’, Amofa adds.
One of the eventual winners of the show, Chantelle West, was also frustrated at her portrayal. Having been expelled from an Edmonton school at the age of twelve, West was seventeen when the show was filmed. She was picked by Emmanuel-Jones to be his apprentice and work for him, but when the programme aired, she couldn’t watch it and found it ‘cringey’. The producers had focused on her expulsion and painted a picture of her being a drug dealer when the reality was far more nuanced – by now, she had become a regular churchgoer.
Much like Amofa, West’s strength of character on-screen eclipses the reductive boxes that reality TV is so intent on creating. It’s clear from watching her on the show that all she needed was someone to believe in her, to help channel her anger at the way life had turned out into something transformative. Speaking of one of the tasks she had to complete on the show, West recalls ‘when I was a tour guide in a castle, that was the first moment when I looked at myself and said: “Chantelle, you’re more than what you think you are.”’
She ended up working at Emmanuel-Jones’ London office but admits she struggled to make the farming apprenticeship pay stretch to cover city living costs. She left for better-paid office jobs and then worked at a rehab centre for ex-offenders, until she had a daughter and became her carer (her nine-year-old has a severe visual impairment; both were featured in a recent Channel 4 documentary on Black motherhood). While looking after her daughter, she found time to study at the Open University, and now gives lectures to the Prince’s Trust and runs a cushion and pillow design company, Sew Lit, which she set up in frustration that employers would not hire a single mother with a child who needed additional care.
Although West credits Emmanuel-Jones with teaching her about discipline, it was neither the show nor the apprenticeship that helped shape her resilience of character; rather, she thanks her brother Dean. West recalls the siblings’ schooldays – when Dean was in his early teens, he had the gumption to rebel against the curriculum, asking classmates to sign a petition requesting for Black history to be taught. West tells me her anxiety at school was down to a lack of connection to what she was learning; Dean knew this connection was crucial to education, and carried this knowledge with him into later life. He became better known as the rapper Black the Ripper, and was a huge advocate for Black people eating healthily and growing their own food. He had planned to make a documentary about this before he tragically died of a heart attack in April last year at the age of thirty-two, before he had the opportunity to fully pass his knowledge on to the next generation.
It is the issues of education and lack of diversity ─ whether that of students, role models or the curriculum itself ─ that partially explain why it’s so hard to get people of colour into the farming sector in the UK. Even this week, a report about Harper Adams, one of the top agricultural colleges in the UK, uncovered a culture of racism, as well as sexism and homophobia. From his farm in Devon, Emmanuel-Jones tells me of Cirencester Agricultural College, or ‘the Oxbridge of the agricultural world – all the landed gentry send their children there. It’s an indication of the change that needs to happen because you go there and it’s like the Britain that existed eighty years ago.’
This change is being catalysed by small, Black-led farmers groups across the UK. Sandra Salazar D'eca is chair of Black Rootz and runs Go Grow, both of which specialise in teaching horticultural and farming skills to children, young people and families. Her goal is to help Black youngsters see the importance of the environment. However, Salazar D'eca is an outlier – she tells me that she was the only Black person at college when learning horticulture skills ten years ago. ‘It was strange’, she says. ‘I saw that people felt uncomfortable around me because of the way that I looked . . . People would call me a very trendy gardener. I used to work in my white trainers and my tracksuit, with my hoodie, my red lipstick and my big earrings. I did not look the part! But that enticed the young ones.’
The big question, then, is: Where are the Black farmers that she’s taught? ‘Local allotments’, she tells me. ‘A lot of these people are of colour, and they’re farmers. So that then leads to the questions about land. Really, it’s all about land.’ This is a problem similarly acknowledged by Emmanuel-Jones “We don’t have a right to land” he says. ‘There is a lot of land out there that is owned by big institutions and those lands are rented or leased to “traditional families” – no one's going out there and looking for people from other communities’
According to Natural England, non-white communities in the UK are 60% less likely to be able to access green space and, although limited racial demographics of land ownership exist, just 1% of the population owns 50% of its land. Although there are other Black farmers in the UK, Emmanuel-Jones’ trademark name ‘The Black Farmer’, with its definitive article, does not seem such an exaggeration, when the government’s own stats on non-white farmers are so limited that they’re officially too negligible to be statistically significant.
It was this exploration of land ownership that planted a seed in Josina Calliste, one of the youngsters who watched the show at the time. ‘I felt a lot of the things that the young people on the show were feeling’, says Calliste, who is the co-founder of the Black-led collective Land in Our Names. Calliste remembers how the show struck a chord with her when it was broadcast a few months after her father’s death; it was her father who first taught her about nature, once explaining cocoa cultivation from start to finish when he saw her eating a Snickers bar.
Calliste is critical of rural demographics and attitudes, noting that these factors are huge barriers to entry for Black farmers. She tells me that she knows of Black farmers who have simply left the countryside – that from her experience of being Black and moving within queer circles, she feels that there are places in Britain that are simply no-go areas. When I ask her what the next step is, the notion of land ownership returns. ‘We need land, full stop. We need land so that we’re able to teach these children that they can actually come out of their normal environments and go elsewhere, where they can breathe. London is a very diverse city, yes; but some people don’t [ever] come out of their area.’
It is on this issue of land that Emmanuel-Jones, who once stood to be a Tory MP, finds unlikely shared ground with Calliste’s radicalism. If anything, he is even blunter: ‘If you have land, you have power,’ he says, ‘and until Black people have more access to land, they’re always going to be in a position where there’s no power.’
Of all the contestants on Young Black Farmers, there was one who seemed destined for a job in farming from the start. Syrus Baker was arguably Young Black Farmers’ most compelling character ─ a loner who flew falcons in Manchester’s suburbs, and whose ambition was to one day own a farm of his own. Initially presented as the frontrunner, Baker’s tendency to withdraw into himself soon put him at odds with Emmanuel-Jones, who pushed him to integrate more. It was perhaps Baker’s lack of confidence speaking to others ─ something Emmanuel-Jones saw as crucial in his experience of winning over white locals ─ that meant he was overlooked for the apprenticeship.
Baker was the one contestant who did initially go down the farming route. The Duchy College in Cornwall offered him a course and he studied countryside management, hoping that one day he might own land or become a gamekeeper. After college he worked as a milking assistant in Lockerbie, a time he recalls with fondness, and coincidentally started a relationship with a woman whose dad was a farmer. They met, appropriately, at Dobbies Garden Centre in Carlisle.
However, Baker needed a steadier income, so he studied gardening, and now works for a large contractor in London, doing tasks like clearing shrubbery. He lodges with his uncle in Hounslow in West London. After watching the show, it is perhaps not the place you’d expect Baker to have ended up. He is now thirty-four years old, and much more laid-back than the silent and serious teenager we see in the show. After a few conversations, he seems at ease telling me about his life, despite being a very private person. He explains how the scent of Himalayan balsam ‘instantly transports’ him back to being a child going on ‘long, mad’ country walks with his father. His obsession with nature has never dimmed, despite his recent urban life in London. When we speak he hasn’t seen his son for six weeks due to Covid restrictions and says he misses him ‘like crazy’; the only regret he has is not seeing his son, who he says has ‘farming in his blood’.
Baker dealt with racism in the show in a different way to the other youngsters. Already used to racism and schoolchildren calling him a ‘paki’ for his mixed-race heritage, when a pig farmer compared the contestants to slaves he didn’t react angrily, instead putting it down to an almost innocent ignorance. When I ask him now about this incident, his response is even more measured. ‘Him calling us a chain gang was like a slip of the tongue, which I didn’t mind. The producers interviewed us [after he said it] and I was like: “If he was racist, we wouldn't have been on his farm.”’
Emmanuel-Jones wanted the youngsters to defy bigotry by presenting themselves as upstanding role models (which requires a lot of energy) and Baker feels this doesn’t work: ‘What Wilfred was saying [came] from a privileged, powerful position. There needs to be more inclusion but it’s going to take a long time to get there.’ It is this tension – between the lived experience of the contestants, and Emmanuel-Jones’s utopian vision – that is at the heart of Young Black Farmers. Emmanuel-Jones’s entrepreneurial view, that individual hard work was needed to precipitate change, often put him in conflict with the youngsters, who were immersed in structural racism.
‘One day I reached out to him,’ Amofa told me, ‘because I thought: ‘you called me lazy and since leaving your show I’ve done a lot of stuff and worked my arse off to get to where I am. I wanted to say to him: “fuck you and your comments, fuck how you made me look on the show, this is what I’m fucking doing with my life at the moment.” And it was funny because he was like, “Wow, well done.”’
When Amofa discovered Emmanuel-Jones had been diagnosed with myeloid leukaemia in 2014, she called him up straight away. ‘We remained in contact and when I saw that he was ill, the way that he treated me didn’t even matter. I just wanted to know if he was OK.’
Questions remain about Young Black Farmers. Did it work? Did it change the youngsters? Like Michael Apted’s seminal documentary Seven Up!, the show wanted to demonstrate how mobility ─ or lack of it ─ was such a huge issue for Black British youngsters, particularly those trapped in inner-city lives and blighted by a lack of access to green spaces. After speaking to Amofa, Baker and West, it’s clear that, although appearing on the show affected them deeply, it did not alter their trajectories towards a life in the countryside. It has been systemic issues – land ownership, lack of money, and racial inequality – and not lack of hard work, that has meant that the participants’ journeys have seen them all move back to cities.
Calliste is hopeful about the small gains that have been made since the show was broadcast, and points towards a growing interest in farming from a younger generation in the UK, one that connects them with other movements globally.
‘Black people are doing all sorts of wonderful, amazing things all around the world.” she tells me. “People of colour are leading the way in so many fields...and aren’t really getting their dues. This is something that I hope is a big shift that we’ll see in the coming years because Black people are farming.’
On Baker’s part, there’s no bitterness about how his life turned out. He tells me he likes his job because he ‘gets to work with plants’, and that he still has hope that, in one possible future, he will be sitting in a tractor teaching his boy about the countryside, with the scent of balsam in the air. ‘Being a farmer is still one of my many dreams,’ he sighs, ‘it’s one of the doors that’s just never been possible to open.’
David Jesudason is a freelance journalist writing for national newspapers including the Guardian and Independent. His work also has appeared in October, BBC Culture, Kerrang! and Retro Gamer. You can find him on Twitter at @davidjesudason
Thank you very much to Gifty Amofa, Chantelle West, Syrus Baker, Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, Josina Calliste, Sandra Salazar D’eca and Amanda Blue for their time, and for additional photos. Thank you also to Donnovan Harris for photos from the show.
If you wish to support any of the organisations mentioned in today’s newsletter, please click below:
Land In Our Names https://landinournames.community/
Black Rootz https://www.ubele.org/black-rootz
Building an anti-racist food movement, by Sam Siva https://www.resilience.org/stories/2020-06-24/building-an-anti-racist-food-movement/
A New Generation of Black Farmers is Returning to the Land, by Leah Penniman https://www.yesmagazine.org/social-justice/2019/11/19/land-black-farmers-reparations/
Soul Fire Farm https://www.soulfirefarm.org/
The Tradition, by Jericho Brown https://poets.org/poem/tradition
A conversation with Dee Woods and Josina Calliste https://www.ateamfoundation.org/blog-1/2020/3/4/dee-woods-interview-womens-empowerment-and-food-justice
Race and Farming in the UK Webinar
Land Ownership and Racial Justice (a talk with Josina Calliste)