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Thursday, March 14, 2019

The Freedom School Demonstration Farm: Breathing New Life into Black Farming

Freedom School Demonstration Farm

Nationwide — Reverend Floyd D. Harris, leader of the New Light for New Life Church of God in Fresno, founded a year-round vegetable farm and agricultural development program for at-risk youth. His quest to instill values and reclaim farming as part of the African American tradition is crucial for Fresno’s minority community.


The Freedom School Demonstration farm takes inspiration from the Freedom Schools of the 1960’s who fought to provide a progressive curriculum to disenfranchised African Americans and poor whites. Similarly, Reverend Harris counsels’ young students in urban farming and other viable job skills like construction, landscaping, photography, and journalism. The school consists of a group of 37 children, each mentored by adults in the community with a passion for farming. The group meets year-round, holds 3 farmer’s markets in the summer, and provides produce for seniors in the community.


The Freedom School Demonstration Farm offers hope and career development in a city plagued by poverty and low-income levels. The Black median income in Fresno is $25,895 and the Black poverty rate is 41.2%. The effects of poverty and high unemployment make Fresno a breeding ground for drug abuse. In fact, this city is in the midst of a drug epidemic (nearly 29% of its residents’ abuse crystal meth) fueled in part by its proximity to drug routes favored by the Mexican cartel. In the midst of such dire straits, Reverend Harris along with other leaders provide stability and a path away from drugs and poverty for impressionable young kids.


Many Black communities face particular struggles on the issue of food security, which makes this agricultural program especially germane. Maria Else joined in the Freedom School Board in 2017 to develop the school’s curriculum. Emphasizing a relationship with the land and fresh, healthy produce has been instrumental for their students’ success. Else also educates her students on certain chronic illnesses that disproportionally affect African Americans, such as diabetes and high blood pressure; she teaches them how to adopt a healthy lifestyle in order to decrease their odds of having these issues. The program teaches kids about the value of nutrition and food by instilling joy and care in growing, handling, and preparing food. Every year the kids prepare their own dishes—their most popular being a watermelon chutney – for the Big Fresno Fair, and some have even taken home big wins.

Farming teaches discipline, patience, and responsibility – this program has given its participants some much-needed confidence. Harris has noted remarkable improvements in behavior, school grades, and proudly remarks that many of the students in their program have received college scholarships and have even begun careers under the USDA. An integral part of Reverend Harris’ mission is to introduce agriculture as a viable and rewarding career, as well as changing the narrative of Black farming in the United States.

Fresno farmer, Will Scott, says, “… we need to get young people of color back to the farm, not just so they can grow their food, but so they can participate in the food system.” This perspective is vital since Black farming is marred by a history of slavery, sharecropping, and Jim Crow. But, within that history lies a culture of responsibility and living off the land, which is integral to Black identity.

Reverend Harris remarks that “We want these children to grow into health Black men and healthy Black women, and to change society to be a healthy place for them.” Reverend Harris’ farm is leading the way in that vital change.