Sankofa Farms Is an Education: Five Questions for Kamal Bell

A photograph of Kamal Bell at Sankofa Farms

When Kamal Bell was a schoolteacher in North Carolina, he noticed his students gravitating towards the garden. Now the CEO of Sankofa Farms, Bell continues to mix farming and education through programs that bring younger generations onto the farm. His focus on connections between generations is evident in the name of Sankofa Farms, which, as Bell explains, is an encouragement to “remember your African ancestry as you move forward in life.”

A person stands in a furrow of a field on a sunny day at Sankofa Farms
Sankofa Farms.

The process of building Sankofa Farms has been an education for both Bell and his students. As he tells it, when his students first saw the 12 acres of land that would become Sankofa Farms, it “looked like nothing.” Now the farm has grown, thanks to the work of Bell, his partners, and his students. One program that especially excites Bell is Bees in the T.R.A.P.—Teaching Responsible Apiary Practice—which focuses on hive health and entrepreneurship. And the hives are thriving; last year, Sankofa Farms produced over 40 jars of honey and published a guide for beekeepers.

I spoke with Kamal Bell during his visit to Madison, Wisconsin in November 2019 as an invited speaker for the Science Policy Symposium. We discussed the legacy of African American farmers and systemic racism, his current efforts to educate the next generation about agriculture, and the future of Sankofa Farms.

1. What brought you to farming?

My interest in the outdoors. When I was young, in elementary school, I loved animals. In college, I was on track to be a veterinarian, but I ended up changing my major to animal industry. That taught me about the animal production side of farming. Then, when I was at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, I got to get experience on the research farm, learning about crops, and I interned with a farmer in the area as well.

But what ended up getting me really interested in farming was seeing what it could do to revitalize communities. That’s ultimately what made me say, you know what, I want to go into farming and into agricultural education.

2. Your farming practice is focused on education and sharing knowledge between generations. Could you talk about your approach to farming?

Kamal Bell showing a chicken to two small children at Sankofa Farms
Kamal Bell at Sankofa Farms.

There’s a really big divide. I think the average age of a farmer is 65, and I’m only 28. That’s a large span of years. So, I think about sustainability. Because a lot of times when we talk about sustainability, we talk about resources, but we leave out people in that conversation, and people are a resource. I have been able to incorporate the younger generation and work with youth to make sure that these practices go in the future, and also to educate my own kids, all our kids, about sustainability. That way there’s not such a large divide, and new methods are being taught, and the transition can be easier from one generation to the next, so we can keep things alive.

3. How has your own education—whether your degrees or outside the classroom—shaped the way that you farm and the way that you teach?

What really helped shape the way that we farm is realizing that we’re in the age of information, and then trying to make research-based or information-based decisions when we’re at the farm. Because when we first got it, we were in a mode of, we just have to clear the land. If you know anything about the history of how people of color, specifically African Americans, have been pushed off the land, we’re just coming back into farming now. A lot of times the resources aren’t there for us to restart after being pushed out of the industry completely.

So, we got into the mode of trying to get things done quickly, and we weren’t making informed decisions. I mean, rightfully so. We didn’t have someone standing over us telling us how to get land. That process we had to learn ourselves. After we acquired the land, we saw in the first few years how what we were doing, what we thought would work, didn’t work. Then we started to seek information and look at the farm differently, more as a platform than just a piece of land. We started to look at it like a laboratory, in a sense.

4. Your farm not only changes the lives of the students who go there, but also pushes back against centuries of dispossession, disinvestment, and land theft of African Americans in the US. Could you talk about how justice plays into the way that you farm, whether land justice, food justice, or social justice?

There’s so many justices that our farm covers: land justice, environmental justice, food justice, Black youth justice. There are so many things that the farm encompasses. We’re starting to see those things more as we start to develop the infrastructure to do more on the farm. I didn’t think going in that there was going to be so much intersectionality with the farm, and then we started seeing these different things. To me, it’s just me giving back to my people. But everybody else puts it in categories that I wasn’t aware of, and that I’m learning now. That has shaped how I disseminate information to students.

I knew about racism within agriculture, and the history of it in this country, but to see how deeply entwined it is in the system is eye-opening.

The farm is more than just a place to produce food. Actually, our approach switched off of food production this year and focused on the bees, because it came naturally to the students and myself. That was something that we were able to really build upon this year. In my mind, the bees can provide economic opportunities for us all. Economics is a big factor that can change things in our communities. We focused on that because we’re dealing with human lives too. I don’t want the students to get interested in the farm and then leave because they need money. This is to show them you can make that money. You don’t have to keep worrying from day to day. You can break cycles in your family.

Kamal Bell stands next to a box of bees in a classroom, demonstrating beekeeping techniques.
Kamal Bell discusses beekeeping with students.

5. You’re here in Madison for the Science Policy Symposium. How does public policy shape possible futures for the farm? You mentioned funding is a big concern, and how federal and local policy has pushed African Americans off the land historically and currently. How have you navigated that relationship between public policy and the farm?

What we try to do is form partnerships with people and organizations. We’ve received grants from the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), Pi Alpha Xi at North Carolina State, and a community fruit fund in California. The USDA just announced a National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) grant that we received with Duke University. What we’ve tried to do is navigate around a lot of the things that would slow us down.

We’re hoping to create a fundable model for ourselves, so that we don’t have to keep going out for resources, and show other farmers, especially African American farmers, how to do the same, if they’re able to do this in their space.

Because the policies do change. The NIFA funds haven’t been administered yet, because of the administration that’s in power now. I was like, we got this guy, he’s doing a, b, and c, just ignore it. But then you start to see how these things directly affect you. You can’t ignore it, as much as you try, because it has a broader effect.

There has to be a responsibility on our end, as well, to try to educate people on those things. I didn’t know that was part of the job, getting in. I knew about racism within agriculture, and the history of it in this country, but to see how deeply entwined it is in the system is eye-opening. And it manifests in different ways.

It’s actually motivation for us to keep doing what we’re doing. But it’s up to us to communicate how the younger generation can break it, because systemic racism is not going anywhere, as much as we would like it to. We have to educate ourselves the best we can, and put ourselves in a position where we can curb the effects of it.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Featured image: Kamal Bell in a greenhouse on Sankofa Farms. All photographs courtesy of Bell.

Kamal Bell is CEO of Sankofa Farms and a doctoral candidate at North Carolina State University in the Agriculture Extension Education program. He holds a B.S. in Animal Industry and a M.A. in Agricultural Education from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. He is also a founder of the Sankofa Farms Agricultural Academy, a year-round, intensive STEM-based program. Website. Contact.

Laura Perry is Managing Editor of Edge Effects and a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research interests include animal studies and the public humanities. She is also an organizer of the interdisciplinary research group Environmental Justice in Multispecies WorldsTwitterContact.