“Food connects us and art tells the story of those connections.” – Black Soil: Our Better Nature
Black Soil, a social enterprise based out of Lexington, KY, launched in 2017 by Ashley C . Smith and Trevor Claiborn, her partner in life and in work. Their focus is to revive and reclaim the agricultural heritage of Black Kentuckians to build economic opportunities for 21st century Black farmers and producers through hands-on technical support and strategies including educational workshops, community events like Farm Tours and Farm-to-Table Dinners that showcase Black farmers and Black culinary artists, and by lifting up the stories and history of Black agricultural experience through art, cultural sharing, and community-building.
“If you reach back two generations or less, most African Americans will say they had a significant family connection to foodways by sustenance growing and farming, having stories of communities being so prideful of the harvest and the crop,” Smith says. “Our mission is to reconnect Black Kentuckians to their heritage, legacy, and agriculture. If you don’t know you’re a foundational pioneer in these industries, you can accept erasure, and we’re here to say ‘no more’ because when you break down the economic impact of agriculture, there are so many ways people can be included.” Smith plants names like seeds – Nancy Green, Booker T. Whatley, Edna Lewis – Black agricultural and foodways pioneers whose legacies are the roots of Black Soil’s work today.
Black Soil's efforts began by finding and building relationships with Black farmers. Smith says that was their first challenge – the barriers and obstacles Black Soil addresses include erasure, land loss, economic disparities, and structural racism. Census of Agriculture 2017 data show that Black farm products in Kentucky are valued at approximately $10 million, while white farm products are valued at more than $5 billion. Out of 77,000 primary operators in Kentucky, only 433 are Black - less than 1.4 percent. Across the United States, at least 12 million acres of land have been lost in the Black land-owning community in the last 100 years.
To combat these inequities, Black Soil’s strategy makes Black farmers and culinary artists more visible and their enterprises more viable by connecting them with consumers, bridging rural/urban divides, increasing income for farmers, chefs, and value-added producers, and cultivating leadership, entrepreneurship, and pride in Black farming heritage to sustain the field into the future.
Their pilot program included three tours to Barbour’s Farm in Hart County, KY where Black Soil exceeded their total engagement goal by the second tour and saw immediate results in connecting local farm products with consumers. From there, they expanded their farm tours across 10 counties and added Farm to Table Dinners with meals prepared by Black culinary artists using the products grown on Black-owned farms.
Black Soil added art, culture, and documentation components to their work in 2019, utilizing photography and videography to amplify the story of the farmers, producers, and culinary artists they work with. They were supported by Southern Foodways Alliance, a cultural nonprofit based at the University of Mississippi with a mission to document and explore the foodways of the American South.
SFA served as a funding network for Black Soil, and Oral Historian AnneMarie Anderson trained Smith and Claiborn to document the stories of the farmers and farms featured in their tours. “They were interested in telling the stories of rural Black folks for urban Black folks to know where their food came from and to understand the cultural heritage of Black farmers in Kentucky,” Anderson said. “I was impressed at the care in their work — they feel these stories matter and they want to show other folks the opportunities in farming, and share new stories while linking with older stories and how they’ve been impacted by institutional racism in the Jim Crow South and within the history of farming and funding.”
Smith says creative documentation of Farm Tours and farm life is essential to expand the market and inspire a new generation to carry on the legacy. “Seeing is believing - if the only representation of Black farming I have is Roots, 12 Years a Slave, or black and white photos in my textbook, we couldn’t do it,” Smith says. “The culture of resilience and resistance in farming paired with chronicling their on-the-farm experience through the lens and vision of another person telling the story through their artform is powerful.”
In 2020, Black Soil is expanding its storytelling by working with a visual artist who will document each Black Soil event, including a Paint Party at a Lincoln County farm tour to reimagine the American Gothic portrait as an African American family living in rural Kentucky. They’ve also launched a social media campaign celebrating African American history and contributions in foodways and agriculture, and they are consulting with Ashland, Kentucky statesman Henry Clay’s estate, to develop a signature African American experience tour highlighting the 122 enslaved people on the plantation who cultivated the tobacco, hemp, and grain that contributed to Clay’s wealth.
“That’s how we’ve grown to tell a story and reclaim a very painful story - by showcasing the people who are entrepreneurs, the superheroes amongst us, holding to traditions in spite of so many barriers and obstacles. We want to celebrate that through bringing people to your farm, commemorate that through art, and celebrate it through cultural expressions,” Smith says.
Black Soil: Our Better Nature Notables
2018 Southern Foodways Alliance Guardians of the Tradition Award recipients
2019 Laura K. Weinberg Entrepreneur Award Social Enterprise category
2020-22 Southern Foodways Alliance Smith Fellows
“The Soil of the Earth” Southsider & The Chevy Chaser, Smiley Pete Publishing
“Where are the Black Hemp Farmers?” Pew Stateline
‘A Return to Roots: African American Farming in Kentucky’ WBKO ABC 13, on air feature