Prophetic Black Ecologies: Liberatory Agriculture on Beulah Land Farms

*This post is part of our series on Black Ecologies edited by Justin Hosbey, Leah Kaplan, & J.T. Roane.

Beulah Land Farms, Calhoun Falls, South Carolina, February 18, 2010 (Photo: Courtesy of McCutcheon fieldwork)

“The forced planting of blacks in the Americas is coupled with an awareness of how the land and nourishment can sustain alternative worldviews and challenge practices of dehumanization.” — Katherine McKittrick 1

“On the other hand, Black ecologies names the corpus of insurgent knowledge produced by these same communities, which we hold to have bearing on how we should historicize the current crisis and how we conceive of futures outside of destruction.” — J.T. Roane and Justin Hoseby 2

The Pan African Orthodox Christian Church (PAOCC) completed the purchase of Beulah Land Farms in 1999 with a cash payment of $10 million. This land acquisition was the result of the longstanding efforts of church leaders and members, which included a struggle to even purchase the land from property owners, one of whom was vehemently opposed to selling land to Black people. However, the church persisted and in doing so, insisted on a model of sustainability rooted in self-determination.  The PAOCC pooled the church’s resources and paid off the land in full, committing to a longstanding tradition among Black farmers of cooperative agriculture. This over 1,000 acre piece of land sits on a lake in Calhoun Falls, South Carolina, a small town that borders the state of Georgia. On the farm, church members are dedicated to growing sustainable fruits and vegetable, sustainable catfish farming, and raising grass fed cattle. The church also has horses on the land, which contributes to the awe-inspiring feeling that one gets when stepping onto the land.

Beulah Land Farms is a vision, a place where the past, present and future coalesce onto the same landscape. I contextualize the PAOCC’s work at Beulah Land Farms in the context of Katherine McKittrick’s “Plantation Futures,” where the plantation becomes a site to interrogate Black resistance. McKittrick contends that “these alternative worldviews were not sealed off from or simply produced in opposition to the plantation; rather, they were linked to the geographies of the plantation economy and the brutalities of slavery.” 3 While McKittrick does not center present day agrarian spaces in this work, her explanation of alternative worldviews is instructive to my conceptualization of Black agrarian spaces and the work at Beulah Land Farms. Black self-determination, as evidenced by Beulah Land Farms is occurring within the context of and on the site of oppression and land dispossession. Simply, this is not a liberation story that operates in isolation from the fraught history of Black agriculture. Rather, it operates within it, making the distinct ideology that guide the PAOCC’s work even more enlightening.

At Beulah Land Farms, the past is based on strong ideological beliefs in Black liberation, beliefs that are written onto the material landscape of the farm. The Shrine of the Black Madonna was founded by Rev. Albert B. Cleage Jr., a former Presbyterian minister who was disillusioned with the church’s hesitancy to directly confront racial injustices and white supremacy. When Cleage formed the Shrine of the Black Madonna, he envisioned an institution where Black leaders preached the liberation of Black people. Simply, he did not see Black liberation and God as separate, but rather preached through Black Christian Nationalism that Jesus is Black, God called Black people to be free, and also called Black ministers to preach Black liberation. In 1970, the Shrine of the Black Madonna was changed to the Pan African Orthodox Church to reflect the church’s strong held beliefs that the experiences of Black people in the United States are intricately connected to the experiences of Black people across the Diaspora. Cleage also changed his name to Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman. Agyeman preached that Black people should fight for and deserved freedom and liberation on earth. Importantly, Beulah Land Farms is a material representation of freedom and liberation. The history of the church and the farms suggests a careful attention to how each moving and breathing organism relates to one another. Working in harmony requires respect for the land, and how this ideology of freedom and liberation is imbued into the land.

The farming practices at Beulah Land Farms are not just concerned with a sustainable food source for future generations, but ensuring that people are able to reap the benefits of the farm in the present. This is difficult, in part, because farming is a delayed process that requires that one wait for the material output. However, the rewards for those who work on the land are not only material, but also psychological and cultural. In a recollection of my own fieldwork experiences at Beulah Land Farms, I note a feeling of freedom and peace that came the moment that I stepped foot on the land. This feeling never left me, even when the work was difficult. Beulah Land Farms is a farm that embodies self-determination among Black people. In their story of the farm, the PAOCC says:

Our goal is to build a productive, sustainable and positive model of self-reliance and self-determination that can inspire a generation to learn to live as a free people by seizing the opportunity afforded them in a competition society in which no one is going to help us, we have to help ourselves.  We can and we will. — The National Farm Project of the Shrines of the Black Madonna of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church

Self-determination is a key component of sustainability at Beulah Land Farms. In many ways, the farm is representative of what Dr. Ashanté Reese defines as a “geography of self-reliance,” which “centers Black agency, particularly considering how this agency become spatialized within the structural constraints of food inequities.” Beulah Land Farms is self-determination, and reflective of the ways that Black people and Black communities have created life in the context of a hostile rural southern landscape.

Perhaps the most instructive ideological feature of Beulah Land Farms is that it is a landscape where the present and future converge, as church members dream, in the Black radical tradition, of a better food and land future for Black people. In Freedom Dreams, Robin D.G. Kelley discusses his mother’s ability to see with her third eye. He says “she dreamed of land, a spacious house, fresh air, organic food, and endless meadows without boundaries, free of evil and violence, free of toxins and environmental hazards, free of poverty, racism, and sexism…just free.” Kelley’s mother’s dreams of the futures are concrete, and include dreams of environmental sustainability. Beulah Land Farms necessarily has utopian dreams and this dreaming is based in a knowledge of a broader agricultural system that is not sustainable. My time at Beulah Land Farms taught me that members were growing food in the present, while preparing a sustainable food source. They knew that the present system was broken, and what to them were obvious cracks in the system, would one day become apparent to all of us. In their present work, they are creating what J.T. Roane and Justin Hosbey define as “alternative worldviews,” which are based in a nuanced understanding of Black agrarian history, grounding in present day food and land needs, all the while creating plans for a distinct future.

Beulah Land Farms, and Black agrarian spaces are important focal points of Black ecologies. It is within these spaces that Black farmers seek to work within the constraints of nature to sustain Black life and create Black futures of liberation. It is important that we acknowledge living and breathing landscapes; agrarian spaces are the perfect avenues to do so. If the land is viewed as dead or lifeless, then the people and their work to build community on this land are rendered lifeless. In Black Food Geographies,  Reese argues against the use of the term food deserts as it renders these places absent of the people who live and make community in them.  Likewise, while Black farmers are characterized by their well-documented struggles of land loss, groups like the PAOCC continue to utilize such spaces to produce food through sustainable growing practices that center liberation.

  1. Katherine McKittrick, “Plantation Futures,” Small Axe 17, no. 3 (November 201 3): 11.
  2. J.T. Roane and Justin Hoseby, “Mapping Black Ecologies,” Current Research in Digital History 2, (2019): https://crdh.rrchnm.org/essays/v02-05-mapping-black-ecologies/ .
  3. Katherine McKittrick, “Plantation Futures,” Small Axe 17, no.3 (November 2013): 11.
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Priscilla McCutcheon

Priscilla McCutcheon is Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Kentucky.

Comments on “Prophetic Black Ecologies: Liberatory Agriculture on Beulah Land Farms

  • the relatives freedoms/decencies that coops allow for are to be celebrated but of course no place is free from the wider ecologies at work (pardon the pun) of pollution (air, water, herbicides, etc), markets, healthcare, etc. such that the fantasy of liberation/escape can become a kind of Berlant-like cruel optimism.
    There is no exit from the anthropocene/plantationocene but certainly doing what we can with what/whom is at hand to remain humane is vital and we need to cultivate all of the Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments that we can

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