Jamila Norman knows farming holds secrets of our past and future
‘Homegrown’ star talks about food sovereignty and finding inspiration from her family’s farm in Jamaica
Jamila Norman is the star of Homegrown, a Magnolia Network show where Norman helps families start their own gardens for sustenance. She hopes that the lessons she teaches in urban farming will have a ripple effect on the surrounding community.
An environmental engineer by trade, Norman pivoted to farming in 2010 when she and her business partner, Chef Beee, started Patchwork City Farms in Atlanta.
She became an environmental engineer because she wanted to solve sustainability and climate problems, and farming is no different. “Atlanta has a lot of bad air quality. So having that lush green helps to contribute to positive air quality. Farming in the city was also a way where we were able to divert a lot of wood chips and compost, things that would’ve gone to landfills.”
She said, “Farming wasn’t just about addressing one thing, but creating an ecosystem of health and wellness.” Norman’s father is from Trinidad, and her mother grew up on their family farm in Jamaica, where Norman’s great-grandmother made coconut oil and her great-grandfather raised bulls. “I have reverence for how my great-grandparents lived their lives — living off of the earth.
“One of the things I came across in the community that I moved into in Atlanta was access to fresh food. Access to fresh food was practically nonexistent. There was lots of fast food, lots of corner stores, all that,” Norman said. “I saw an opportunity to take an unused space in the city and use that to grow food, utilizing that space in a green and sustainable way.”
Patchwork City Farms sits on 1.2 acres in Atlanta, and when Norman and Chef Beee started it in 2010, they were leasing the land from a local public school. But both owning the land she farmed on and turning a profit were critical. The relationship Black people in the African diaspora have with agriculture is long and rich. Still, it’s a relationship marked by Europeans forcing us to work the land as enslaved people, stealing the profits of our sweat as sharecroppers, and starving us of nutrients as many of us are pushed into food deserts.
The Black-owned farm is also in critical danger. In the past century, the number of Black-owned farms dropped from around 925,000 in 1920 to 35,000 between 2012 to 2017, a decline of 96%. Norman shows how agriculture can be a thriving business for Black people and encourages others to farm while highlighting the history — and present — of Black farmers. “I am not the first, I am not the last,” she said. “I have no problem being visible, but I will always acknowledge and uplift the fact that this is a lineage of work that we’ve been doing for centuries.”
We caught up with Norman to discuss how gardens empower communities, the history of Black farmers, and how her great-grandparents’ commitment to food sovereignty has inspired her.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some of your favorite times you made people feel empowered to create their farm or garden, and how did that create a ripple effect in their community or lives?
I have a partnership right now with the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance. They’re a Black-led environmental conservation group here. We’ve been using the food we grow there to do mutual aid distributions of fresh produce to the community. Seniors in the community are being fed weekly with fresh produce. It would be lovely to have them engage in the garden, but mobility is an issue, so we’re growing and delivering it directly.
And student gardens are totally fun because the kids get so excited about fresh fruits and vegetables once they engage in the garden. It’s very hands-on and tactile for them to see something grow from a small seed. It’s like they’re pulling a secret out of the ground that they can eat.
It also helps them tap into family knowledge, like they remember, ‘Oh, my God, my grandma kept a garden and she would be really proud of me for doing this.’
How does family knowledge impact your farming and gardening?
My great-grandmother lived to be 103 years old. I met my great-grandfather, too, but I was small. The stories that I know of them come from my mother. My great-grandparents raised her until she was about 16, when she came to New York to meet up with her mom.
My great-grandparents believed in getting everything they needed – their sustenance — off the land. They raised chickens, but the main product that she made was coconut oil. That’s what my great-grandmother took to market, along with the fruits and vegetables she grew. She also used to go around different parts of Jamaica during mango season and bring mangoes to market. That was the life that helped her sustain 10 children.
And she raised many of her grandkids, too, as her children emigrated to set up a better life overseas and eventually reunited with their kids later on after they set stuff up.
That’s an important lesson for us to tap back into now as we see the climate crisis become increasingly catastrophic. Does focusing on food sustainability help you feel less powerless?
It’s not an individual problem. However, it will take individuals engaging in addressing the problem. These are also not new issues. I got into environmental engineering in 1997 because these issues existed then. And they existed long before. My work has helped catalyze many other people to sort of return to the land and steward it in sustainable and beneficial ways. When you steward land sustainably, you’re helping to address the climate crisis. Agriculture is such a broad field, but it also has a significant impact on the environment. If we can get more and more people to transition into a more sustainable way of doing agriculture that impacts food, forestry, and clothing.
What’s your favorite place you’ve traveled to, and what did you learn about their food culture?
Every time I travel, I seek out the food and farming culture. I can’t get away from it. My favorite place I’ve traveled to was Zanzibar in Tanzania. The country is tropical and reminds me of my Caribbean heritage. They grow so many of the foods that are familiar to me as well as lots of other foods. The cuisine is amazing, incorporating African, Persian, and Indian traditions. Zanzibar has a long history of a robust trade in spices, which is reflected in the food culture.
How have you felt your impact as a Black woman who is visible in farming, a field we have always been present in, but one where we have not had much positive representation?
I’m not an ‘in front of the camera’ kind of chick. It stretches the imagination that I’m even doing this. But I accepted the opportunity from the network because of the visibility my business partner, Chef Beee, and I had meant people gravitated towards the work of urban farming. They hadn’t seen themselves doing this work, so they were like, ‘Wow, this is possible?’ I wanted a platform to inspire a larger audience and get information about urban farming and gardening. I don’t take it lightly that I am visibly in a role that’s not expected of women and has not been celebrated in the past.
People try to imply that I’m the first or that what I’m doing is radical. But there are Black women here in the city of Atlanta that have been farming for decades. I look up to them. The race to be the ‘first’ Black person to do something in food drives me crazy.
It plays into the false idea that Black people haven’t done much of anything in this country. For me, it enriches the work you’re doing to say, ‘I come from a lineage of people who have done this, who know how to do this. I am just carrying that torch,’ as opposed to saying you’re the first. I get why people do it and what they’re going after, but I constantly challenge them to unpack that. You don’t have to deny history to uplift yourself. Like my dad says all day, ‘Ain’t nothing new under the sun.’
I notice you use the word “stewarding.” What does it mean to steward the land?
I’m intentional about the word stewarding because we’re here for a moment. Even though there’s this concept of land ownership, you don’t own the land. You own the right to access it and carve out a space for yourself.
But the land was here before, and the land will be hereafter. I am just here stewarding it — working on it, and doing my best to do right by the land and nature. Ownership and who has control are fluid. I am all about the Land Back movement, giving land back to Native people in whatever way that means. The land is just something I’m stewarding for the moment, and after I’m gone, I hope someone else will steward it in the same way or in a better way.