A few weeks back home from an agroecology encounter in Puerto Rico, Urban Farmer Xavier Brown, 31, is more energized than ever to change the food culture in D.C., particularly in Black communities.
A Parks and Recreation Small Parks Specialist by day, the D.C. native and current Southwest resident founded Soilful City a few years ago as a way to bring justice and heal the sacred relationship between communities of African descent and the earth.
As one of the premiere urban farming organizations in the District, Brown has his hands full with Soilful City programming, pursuing a masters in Sustainability and Ecological Leadership from the University of Vermont and lending his expertise to other farming collectives.
In between jobs he still manages to catch a day party or two in the District, but then it’s back to planning marches, speaking on panels and gardening — the hustle he enjoys the most.
What is Soilful City?
Soilful is like an adjective that describes the feeling you get when you’re connected with nature. Hopefully, 10 years from now it can be around the world. Say you’re down in Rocky Mountain somewhere and you go for a hike after that you’re feeling “soilful.” It’s a lifestyle. The way we live, relating and connecting back to the natural world.
What activities do you guys do?
Right now we do a ton of urban agriculture in D.C. growing vegetables, composting and educational things. We are part of a Black Farmers Collective and I work with them to host larger Black farmer gatherings. Also working with two of my homegirls, we got a fellowship last year with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. So, we are trying to create a new culture of health around the city with food, changing policy around cooperative economics and centering food and Black people with the land.
How did you get into farming?
I would like to say it found me. I went to school at North Carolina A&T, and I was living in Greensboro getting a masters, but the program shut down, so I ended up having to move back home living with my parents. My father told me I should take this D.C. master gardening class at UDC. I took the class 4 or 5 years ago, and around the same time my friends Ryan and Joel were starting an organization called the Green Scheme, so I joined and started doing urban agriculture with them. During that same time period I was interning at other farms, meeting other people growing food and taking advantage of any learning opportunities I could. I traveled to classes in Baltimore and other parts of Maryland, just learning.
What was your motivation to be an urban farmer?
It gave me something to do. I had gone to a tree planting with my father and he had taken the master gardening course too. It was a bunch of white people there planting trees in predominantly African American communities and I was like yo I want more Black people to be here. So that was my motivation in the beginning. I enjoyed the way it made my spirit feel, like my ancestors were talking to me because it is a part of our culture.
What do you enjoy about farming?
I enjoy the process of working with the land, nature and the people. It’s easy to start a garden, but it’s harder to work with the community to sustain that garden. It’s a whole process of organizing people, having discussions, building and connecting with folks to get the garden going. I enjoy that process.
What’s next for Soilful City?
Compost training is going down this year. This year we will have a compost training class, dedicated to returning citizens or people formerly incarcerated. It will be a compost program just for them. We are trying to partner with Tightshift Laboring Cooperative, God willing, to start a compost business. Working on starting that up in June. On Thursdays, I host this thing called Soilful Thursdays in Southeast, a community garden day where people can come, work and get vegetables.
We are working on having a few Soulful products on the market like pepper jelly. Also, going to start growing micro greens. Most people use them as garnishes, but they are like tiny greens or plants. You cut them when they’re between 7 and 14 days young. They are super nutrient dense and flavorful. I want to sell them as a healthy snack for people.
How does it make you feel to be the face of Black farmers in D.C.?
I’m humbled, but it’s definitely other people who grow food in the city, but I’m humbled. We’re just trying to give the city a new look. Urban farming to me is like Black people from D.C. being able to reach back and connect people with the land. I would suggest to all to definitely start growing your own food or buy food from a local farmer, preferably a Black farmer, woman farmer or a Black woman farmer. Get organized and start thinking about your relationship to the earth. Definitely as Black people our relationship with the earth has been … my homegirl said it in Puerto Rico. We’ve confused what happened to us on the land, with the land itself. [Earth] will continue to give to us if we give back to her in everything we do.