First in a series of occasional stories looking at BIPOC farmers in New England.
When Hameed Bello moved to Springfield to attend Western New England University in 2015, he and his wife, Ayo, quickly noticed what the Massachusetts Public Health Association identified in 2017: that Springfield — which has the second-lowest per capita income in Massachusetts — is one of the state’s most severe food deserts, where low-income residents struggle to easily access fresh, healthy foods. The Bellos regularly saw residents on public buses hauling groceries from Walmart, constrained by the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority’s three-bag rule.
Hameed started to occasionally drive his elderly neighbor to the store. “If they’re not at the age where they can walk and carry those bags home, they have no access to that food . . . then when you do get to the store and you want to buy organic, it’s really, really expensive. They’re faced with — do I eat organic for one meal? Or do I go to a bodega and buy all this other food for the same price and eat for three meals?” The couple soon got involved with the Springfield-based food justice organizations Gardening in the Community and the Springfield Food Policy Council. Their outrage at the inequity grew until they asked, “How can we be a part of the solution?” Their answer? Agric Organics Urban Farm.
Farming isn’t the profession they originally envisioned for themselves. Ayo is a cybersecurity consultant, and Hameed, a pharmacist (he graduates this May from Western New England University with a PharmD, MBA, and MSc Law). And yet farming is not unfamiliar to either. In Nigeria, agricultural science was part of his elementary and middle school education. In the classroom, he studied crop and soil science, horticulture, harvesting techniques, and organic pest and weed eradication methods, then put that knowledge into practice in fields on the school grounds. On weekends, he learned from family members whose livelihoods depended on their cocoa, corn, yam, and plantain crops.
After Hameed immigrated to Houston at 15, he volunteered at friends’ commercial farms, learning such practicalities as how to operate a tractor and where to place a hoop house. He continued to learn from a mentor with a farm in Maryland, whose guidance helped him further develop his understanding of organic practices.
Like her husband, Ayo was born in Nigeria. She immigrated to Maryland when she was 6 years old. Her mother and grandmother taught her and her siblings how to tend to the family’s backyard garden, where they grew Nigerian vegetables like okra, efo ewuro (bitter leaf), efo tete (African spinach) and ewedu (jute) for their table, showing the children how to grind the jute leaves to make traditional Nigerian ewedu soup. Like Hameed, Ayo learned to grow using organic practices.
After they decided to launch Agric Organics in 2018, the Bellos began to observe Western Massachusetts weather with growers’ eyes, planting, experimenting, and documenting in a small plot next to their house. They were dealt a hard blow when a plan to use land at a Springfield school fell through last spring, costing them not only thousands of dollars in soil, nutrients, and an irrigation system but also a season of potential income. A frustrating search for land followed, during which time they faced roadblock after roadblock, at one point considering asking family and friends for money to buy land. They abandoned that idea once they understood the harsh reality most farmers — especially farmers of color — face when it comes to land access: finding a property they can afford.
Fortunately, last November, the Wilbraham Agricultural Commission introduced the Bellos to a farmer just outside Springfield who was retiring and willing to rent them his 10 acres. The arrangement, Hameed says, has worked out well for both parties. “He’s always excited to talk to us about [the farm] and to learn what we’re doing. . . . He and his wife call us their younger selves.”
The Agric Organics business model differs from those you might find in more affluent communities. In addition to the opportunity to purchase traditional CSA shares at the beginning of the season, a community member can use their SNAP card to buy a CSA box each week. This allows low-income residents to participate in something that is usually not available to SNAP users. In Massachusetts, when you use your SNAP card to buy produce and vegetables from a HIP farm vendor, extra money gets added to your SNAP debit account. (HIP stands for Massachusetts Healthy Incentive Program.) Making their produce affordable and accessible for Springfield residents is crucial. Case in point: A 4-ounce bag of arugula, tatsoi, spinach, baby kale, or microgreens is just $4. And, as part of their “personal conviction [that] we serve the underserved,” they will collaborate with the Springfield Food Policy Council to donate at least 10 percent of their vegetables to community members in need.
On the eve of the 2021 season, their first, Agric’s viability seems tenuous. The Bellos have sold a portion of their CSA shares and have a few restaurant clients lined up. For now, they are relying on word of mouth and Facebook for their marketing. While they work full time and grow seedlings for microgreens, beans, carrots, okra, and other vegetables, they wait to see which area farmer’s markets have accepted their applications. They haven’t yet secured enough funding for all of the infrastructure and equipment they need and want: greenhouses, hoop houses, irrigation hoses, a hand tractor, and a myriad of other equipment, including their dream: a truck to deliver their produce to the underserved. And so they are searching and applying for grants. And yet, despite these obstacles, Hameed and Ayo are remarkably confident and energized, poised to fulfill their pledge to be part of the solution, determined to achieve the longevity only financial stability can give them. Hameed says, “Years from now, we want to be able to continue to serve our community.”
Jocelyn Ruggiero can be reached at jocelyn@jocelynruggiero. Follow her on Twitter @jocelynruggiero.