Reclaiming a connection to the land
A view of the future site of the SUSU commUNITY farm.

Reclaiming a connection to the land

New initiatives incubating in Brattleboro at the Retreat Farm seek to empower people of color, connecting them ‘back with the gifts that the Earth provides for free’

BRATTLEBORO — Today, only about 17 of Vermont's 6,000 farms are owned by persons of color. Fifty years ago, approximately 50 Black-owned farms operated in the state.

A grassroots effort has been growing here to help heal a history of racism and disparity - in Vermont and in the overall U.S. - and soon, it's hoped, a 37-acre community farm will be a vibrant part of the solution.

“Part of what we really believe is that food should be seen as a birthright and not something you work for, or is commodified and that you have to pay for,” says SUSU Healing Collective LLC Co-executive Director Amber Arnold. “A lot of our work is about connecting people back with the gifts that the Earth provides for free.”

The SUSU CommUNITY Farm initiative (SUSU), is a Black-led, nonprofit farm in Windham County and the nonprofit arm of the SUSU Healing Collective LLC that offers “life-affirming spaces for BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] people to thrive and experience safety while healing from the intergenerational trauma of systemic oppression.”

Now SUSU CommUNITY Farm is in the process of buying acreage just about 12 minutes outside Brattleboro, raising the funds to do so through a GoFundMe page and private donations to come up with the needed $500,000.

Support has also been forthcoming from the Vermont Community Foundation (VCF) and family foundations under the VCF umbrella.

To date, the group has raised almost $280,000, with $175,000 of that for the land buy and the rest for tools, inspection fees, and other related expenses.

“We're really excited about it,” says Arnold, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic redirected the group's vision since it began just last year.

“We were open for two weeks and had to shut down due to the pandemic. We reformed to align better with what our community was asking from us,” she says.

Major help has come from Retreat Farm (SUSU's fiscal sponsor) and the Vermont Land Trust, which has been instrumental in helping SUSU obtain a one-year land option and to hold the land while the money to buy it is being raised.

The overarching commitment of SUSU CommUNITY Farm is inherent in its name, which is derived from “SouSou,” representing a West African communal resource-sharing practice wherein everyone in the community pools money that's then divided among all each month.

“We believe everyone has something to contribute to and receive from the community, so it's that reciprocal relationship of give and take,” says Arnold.

A large part of SUSU's commitment is education and the endeavor includes an educational center, temporarily virtual, “for all who are interested in racial and healing justice and interested in learning how to take care of their bodies and connecting people back with the Earth and repairing our relationship with the food we eat,” Arnold says.

This year, SUSU will grow food on about an acre at Retreat Farm and offer it throughout the season as a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, farm share. Unlike a regular CSA share, these are free for recipients. By next year, SUSU hopes to be on its own farm and increase CSA offerings as well as offer a space for educational programs on-site.

SUSU currently has two collaborative directors, including Arnold, and this year hired a farm manager. It also employs an administrator/farmer and is hiring someone to run the CSA.

“Everyone has their own roles, but all are also involved actively in the various aspects of tending the land,” Arnold says.

From hospital farm to land preservation

SUSU is not the only entity addressing acres of years of disparity and discouragement to people of color - not only those aspiring to farm but who also just live here.

Since 1837, the Retreat Farm has been “a source of food and fuel, productive work, nature-inspired restoration, knowledge, recreation, and innovation,” according to the website of the young nonprofit that has owned and operated the property since 2015.

Its founding came within a year of the founding of Brattleboro Retreat, the first mental hospital anywhere to operate an asylum farm.

The Retreat Farm ultimately amassed more than 2,000 acres of farm fields and trail-crossed forest land. During the last half of the 19th century, Retreat Farm built its iconic Farmstead, a complex of eight then-state-of-the-art barns.

Over the years, the farm provided food, fuel, occupational therapy, and activities in nature for its community of patients. But late in the last century, changes in mental health practice, food service provision, and government policy changed its viability.

In 2001, the Windham Foundation took ownership of the property, joining forces with the Retreat, Vermont Land Trust, Preservation Trust of Vermont, and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to preserve in perpetuity the remaining 612 acres of farm and forested land, iconic farm structures, and founding principles.

A new Retreat Farm Ltd. nonprofit, founded in 2015, took over the stewardship of the property from the Windham Foundation. And the new organization is looking at the ownership through “two new initiatives that will directly connect people of color to the land,” the organization says on its website.

Retreat Farm, built on ancestral Abenaki land, “seeks to foster a just, healthy, and sustainable community in southern Vermont” and to connect land and people in organic relationship. With philanthropic help and new vision, the organization is expanding its outreach in several ways.

A driving force for both SUSU and Retreat Farm is to help combat racism and discrimination, starting locally at the grassroots of Windham County. The commitment to eliminate racism is key to the nonprofit's focus.

“We at Retreat Farm are heartbroken and outraged by racist violence and the pain people of color endure in America,” reads a statement on the Retreat website. “The devastating effects of systemic racism, police brutality, and COVID-19 on communities of color are a national disgrace.”

“We grieve with the families of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others,” the organization continues. “These horrific events are not isolated to the past few weeks, months, or years. Racism is endemic in our economy, our institutions, and our governance, and is foundational in our health, finance, education, food, and justice systems. It is an existential threat to our democracy. We must do everything we can to eliminate it.“

“Retreat Farm stands in solidarity with Black Lives Matter,” the statement concludes, “but we recognize that we must do much more ourselves to build a healthy, just, and equitable society.”

Restoring the Native relationship to the land

One initiative to help do so at Retreat Farm is the Atowi Project, named for an Abenaki word meaning “together in space and time.” The project, now being formulated, is intended to “establish places for Native voices to be amplified, celebrated, and respected” and “help restore the Native relationship to the land and its inhabitants and communicate these vital perspectives to the broader community.”

“Our partnership with SUSU and Atowi seeks to redress inequities and reclaim provenance over land as a source of spiritual and physical sustenance and cultural identity for BIPOC communities,” says Retreat Farm Executive Director Buzz Schmidt.

Atowi Project Director Rich Holschuh says Schmidt approached him last year and asked if he'd be interested “in taking the work I've already been doing in service to the indigenous community and turn it into a full-time position to build capacity and increase our ability to reach the public and accomplish more for the Indigenous community, to be more enabled and empowered to do that.”

“Now we're in the process of figuring out how to go about that,” he says.

The initiative was brought about because “Retreat Farm wanted to expand its mission to connect people with land,” says Holschuh, and “realized it could be more inclusive by bringing in indigenous people and people of color.”

Since the project started to focus in autumn, Holschuh has been waiting for pandemic-related public health restrictions to ease to begin a series of cultural programs “to inform and teach people in this area and connect Indigenous people with non-Native people.”

Until the Atowi Project is in full swing, Holschuh and his group will work with the facilities and landholdings at the Retreat, but eventually the plan is for Atowi to “have something of our own.”

“It's kind of a springboard,” he says. “I hope that people begin to learn all the stories they've not been told before and the reasons why that's the case. It's not accidental.”

The Atowi Project “will build public awareness and support to address those damages and so Native folks can be enabled to be themselves in their homeland, reconnecting them with land here,” Holschuh continues.

Food from the land

Responding to those in the BIPOC community, working for systemic justice, ensuring the farm is hospitable to those of color in all ways, honoring the Abenaki people, and helping build support, trust and respect in the community are chief among Retreat Farm's tenets to help.

Growing food to share and offering gardens, fields, forest trails and historic buildings to the public at no charge are ways the farm helps make all those goals happen.

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and rising food insecurity, the farm started the Community Food Project (CFP), supplying 65 families each week with produce, eggs, milk, and healthy staples.

Additionally, 3.5 acres of field crops and 8 acres of pastured animals are helping local families in need. At the close of the 2020 season, the farm had grown more than 10,000 pounds of produce for the CFP as well as for the Vermont Foodbank, Westgate Food Shelf, the SUSU Farm Box of Resilience, and family summer meals.

In addition to the Atowi Project, this summer two more Retreat Farm programs are emerging. A “pay what you can” farmstand is set to launch July 1, and free CSA farm shares will help make healthy, local produce, meat, and dairy accessible to the entire community, regardless of ability to pay, beginning Wednesday, June 2.

Overcoming oppression

Deeply ingrained in SUSU's farm culture and central to its mission is helping “people of color and white people explore the history of white supremacy in our area and how we can help build a culture where that doesn't exist,” says Arnold.

“There are many challenges and hoops that make it really difficult for Black and Brown people to start farms in Vermont. It's hard to keep people of color here because they experience a lot of discrimination, like microaggressions.”

Asked how that manifests, Arnold says it can be literal. And ugly.

“There are a lot of people here who are actively racist or want Vermont to stay the way it's been, which is kind of a code word for not wanting Black people here,” she says.

“And people also experience a lot of hate crimes, like people drawing swastikas on their properties,” Arnold continues. “But it's also on the town and state levels.”

At the town level, Arnold cited “a lot of racism and issues in the Selectboard decision-making processes.” And as for state government, she pointed to Kiah Morris, who was a state representative from Bennington “who stepped down because of the discrimination she underwent.”

“It's definitely a hard state to live in when you're a person of color,” Arnold says.

“We're really trying to track everything we do so we can support other Black and Brown people who come here so they don't have to do all the work we've had to do, and so they will stay here,” Arnold says.

“We're trying to create a space where people can feel safe and connected, their needs are met, and they can feel empowered to create spaces where people will feel they want to stay here,” she adds.

Righting a wrong

Steffen Gillom, NAACP president in Windham County, is a huge supporter of what is being done to right a centuries-old wrong.

“I think it is phenomenal, I think it's needed, I think we have to have it, and I think we have to do more of it,” Gillom says. “I hope the SUSU farm is not one-and-done and that a lot of other people, especially people of color, are inspired and able to create farms and own homes and do it in a way that not only uplifts them, but also allows them to give back, as SUSU is doing.”

Vermont, says Gillom, “can be a hard place to live.”

“It comes with its challenges for everyone, but especially people of color. There are a lot of things that are not here infrastructurally that are in other places. Even in rural Carolina or Illinois, you're gonna be able to find the places to buy the food you're used to buying, to get your hair cut, to get skin products, to get spices, to go places to have a drink and see people and hear music that's culturally related to you.

“One of the big things in Vermont is a lot of folks of color here run into a real nativist-built society. If you're a person of color and coming here and you're younger - and most are - you don't have your family, you don't have your resources, here.

“And you get hit by this barrier of who is and isn't a native Vermonter, with access to things that allow one to survive here. It just feels like too much.

“Vermont is not special in any way in this, and actually I feel Vermont is behind when it comes to housing and land access and ownership for people of color. Most other states, in my opinion, are willing to do better. People count generations. . .who does that?! I'm from a pretty Black, mixed, community in the St. Louis area, and never, ever have I heard in my entire life, 'I'm a seventh-generation St. Louisan.' There is a sentiment here that says, “we don't want you here,” and it's soft and hard.”

Gillom views soft barriers as mostly cultural, while hard ones relate to necessities such as land and housing and even food.

“Places like SUSU kind of open up a little bit of an ecosystem or niche for folks of color who come here and want to find community and access to land,” says Gillom, who has been in Vermont for six years. “And that's important, and I do commend them for what they're trying to do,”

“Can't nobody tell me I'm not a Vermonter, because I decided to be one and I stuck around,” he says with a laugh. “Now, that doesn't mean I have to stay here forever, either.”

Gillom also sees that when people of color choose to live in Vermont and Windham County, they make sacrifices and accommodations of necessity.

“The change that a lot of people of color make in this stage, in the very short time they're here, is astronomical. The structural, cultural change they create makes up for every generation that people can brag about. If you look at the majority of bills before our state today, the majority that have really put Vermont on the map; a lot have specifically Black perspectives or were led or heavily championed by people of color.”

“Folks of color have been Vermont's conscience for a long time and that can't be ignored any more,” he adds. “You can only ignore your conscience for so long.”

“I think what we're seeing is a transcendence movement now,” says Gillom.

“I'm happy to talk about my trauma, but I really want to talk about my joy and how people are transcending it in their everyday lives,” he says. “If I let myself, I could really get down in the dumps, but I can't operate like that in my life.”