Ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality to the historical ties of institutional agriculture to slavery, Houston’s farmers are getting political in the midst of a truly unprecedented year.
Typically, the only time that restaurant diners hear about farmers is when they look at a menu — they’ll see that their steak was sourced from the wildly popular 44 Farms in Cameron, Texas, and that the goat cheese in their salad comes from Blue Heron Farm, a Waller County goat dairy. Now, though, they’re hearing directly from these farmers on social media about the issues that mean most to them.
Blue Heron owner Lisa Seger has been particularly vocal over the past four years. Following the election of President Donald Trump, Seger ripped the administration over the deaths of immigrant children while detained in ICE custody, and publicly denounced the murders of Black Americans at the hands of militarized municipal police forces across the country, among other issues.
Not surprisingly, Seger’s public politics were, originally, centered mostly around agricultural policy and food justice, which makes total sense for a farmer. “Initially the only politics we talked about were food politics which, you know, are pretty important and also varied and uncomfortable like all politics, but that was it,” Seger says. “I was comfortable with ‘This is our lane, this is where I can comfortably sit and challenge people,’ but you know, 2016 really changed everything for me — I think for a lot of people in this country.”
While Seger was initially careful to differentiate her personal political platform from her and her husband’s goat dairy, she decided that in the wake of Donald Trump’s election the most important thing she could do with Blue Heron’s social media following was challenge people’s perceptions of the political realities in Texas.
“We have to speak out about whatever we see before it’s too late,” Seger says. “Watching people denigrate the state and act like somehow because our elections go a certain way all the people here don’t deserve good things is frustrating — it’s really frustrating — and it’s not helpful to getting people human rights.”
Over the past several months, Blue Heron’s Twitter account has featured Seger both at recent protests against Houston’s ICE detention centers and documented her arrest last year. The account continues to draw attention for its subversive, progressive-leaning political stances in rural Texas, which is often stereotyped as a blood red conservative stronghold.
Current political discourse has also struck a chord with Plant It Forward Farms, a Houston nonprofit that works to teach resettled refugees how to start their own sustainable urban small farms and earn a living in their new home country. Liz Vallette, president of Plant It Forward Farms, said even before the complications of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the small nonprofit farming organization had already begun to publicly challenge Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott’s politicization of African refugee resettlement in Texas.
“For the last 20 or 30 years refugee resettlement hasn’t been a politically charged issue, really,” Vallette explained. “It has become so under the current administration, and so it was a little scary for us to feel like we were really sticking our neck out there but it was a no-brainer. We didn’t have an option because that’s literally our mission — to help resettle refugees.”
The Texas refugee resettlement crisis came to a head earlier this year when Abbott announced Texas would not enroll the state in the federal refugee resettlement program. It was a surprising move to many, considering that Texas has welcomed thousands of refugees dating back decades, with both Republicans and Democrats in charge of the White House.
Abbott immediately received backlash after the decision was announced. The Texas Democratic party criticized the governor for weaponizing human suffering for partisan politics during the unorthodox Trump era, along with Texas refugee resettlement advocacy groups like Plant It Forward Farms.
“For four decades, the government was in favor of refugee resettlement regardless of the party of the administration,” Vallette said. “Regardless of who was in office we resettled Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, we resettled Iraqis and Afghans, and multitudes of other nationalities just because it was the right thing to do.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has been of particular interest to farmers enrolled in Plant It Forward’s programming as many of them are Congolese refugees who have resettled in Houston with their families. Houston has a long documented history of welcoming African immigrants and, as a result, is home to one of the most vibrant West African dining scenes in the country.
“All of our farmers are Black, new Americans so the Black Lives Matter movement is very important to them and their kids,” Vallette added. “They all look like Black Americans and can be targeted by the police in the way that American-born Black people are so it’s just something we decided we need to be more vocal on.”
Further complicating the Houston farming community’s political connections has been the novel coronavirus pandemic which has to date killed nearly 200,000 Americans, with 14,000 Texans now among the dead — and that number is still considerably rising. Republican leadership stemming from state governments all the way to the White House has been widely criticized for its bungled, unevenly applied patchwork approach of mask mandates, restaurant closures, and public gatherings, and Gov. Greg Abbott’s office has been no exception to these criticisms.
Another Houston farmer, Jeremy Peaches, has a more nuanced approach when speaking of the politics of farming. Peaches, an agricultural consultant, farmer, teacher, and advocate for underserved communities in Houston via his company Fresh Life Organic, believes that the intersection of politics and agriculture are inseparable. During a global health crisis that has crippled supply chains, the anti-immigration rhetoric spouted from the Trump administration has further destabilized the nation’s ability to produce and distribute food at a time when more than 30 million Americans wake up not knowing if they will eat that day.
“Most of our labor, in terms of agriculture, comes from Hispanics,” Peaches said. “Dealing with Trump and what he’s done at the border — our labor is steadily declining but more people have to eat. So there’s new technologies like aquaponics, hydroponics, controlled and vertical growing — these are new industries where African Americans and also Hispanics can create new technologies and create a new labor force that’s not as harsh as the traditional way of growing out in the fields.”
The government’s role in shaping Houston’s food realities, specifically for underserved and food insecure communities, has largely been shaped by traditional narratives of who farmers are and what they look like. Since 1920, more than 98 percent of Black farmers in the Mississippi Delta have been forced to forfeit their land due to predatory government policies aimed at securing those farms for southern whites, constructing a narrative that the American farming profession is a profession for white people.
“The USDA nine times out of 10 is not gonna give funding to smaller, minority organizations,” Peaches said. “The view of African Americans in farming goes back to the pipeline to prison — working on prison farms and prison labor — and it goes back to slavery. America was built off agriculture from the hands of our ancestors two, three generations ago.”
For Peaches, food sovereignty and security in Houston and the Black Lives Matter movement are merely different threads of the same issues that have come to a head after the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed. Without institutional recognition of the government’s historical role in limiting Black farmers’ abilities to cultivate their own food for their communities and the agricultural contributions of Black peoples’ ancestors who were held in bondage for more than 300 years, the issue cannot be resolved.
“The government has stolen land that was once owned by African Americans and at one point we was thriving, so that has to be acknowledged,” Peaches said. “African Americans and minorities do, in this 21st and 22nd century of farming and growing, actually have the power to create change and create a new industry that actually saves America and the environment. I feel like we’re not gonna do none of these things until institutions and organizations finally acknowledge that we were cheated and discounted.”