Episode 5 | April 7, 2021 | Length: 41:21
Food is essential. Where food comes from and who has access to it makes a difference in the health of a community. In this episode, Angela Fitzgerald sits down with Robert Pierce, a farmer who works to address food insecurity in Black neighborhoods. They'll discuss organic foods, the importance of land ownership and the stereotypes Black farmers face.
Robert Pierce is an urban farmer and the owner of Half the 40 Acres Organic Farm in Dane County. He has been growing and selling products for over 20 years. In 2002 he started as a vendor at the South Madison Farmers Market and went on to become the Market Manager in 2003. He is a community leader and advocates for the development of sustainable locally grown food systems.
Speaker: The following program is a PBS Wisconsin original production.
Angela Fitzgerald: Hi. I’m Angela Fitzgerald, and this is Why Race Matters. Does it really matter where our food comes from? What about who’s growing it? Where certain food comes from and who has access to it can make a huge difference towards the health of a community.
In this episode of Why Race Matters, we’ll chat with Robert Pierce, a farmer who’s spent most of his life battling food insecurities within the Black community. We’ll discuss land ownership, organic foods, racial stereotypes and more. As we explore and dig into why race matters when we talk about food.
Angela Fitzgerald: Thank you for joining me today, Mr. Pierce.
Robert Pierce: Thank you for letting me join you.
Angela Fitzgerald: Of course. Can you tell us your story and what has brought you into the world of farming? If that’s a simple story to tell.
Robert Pierce: Well, it’s not that simple.
Angela Fitzgerald: Okay.
Robert Pierce: But I’ll simplify it. I came back from Vietnam, became allergic to a lot of stuff that was in food. At that point, I didn’t know what was going on. I just knew that I was eating stuff, getting sick. Had to go and get those shots in the hospital and stuff like that, so …
End up at Madison Business College, and I was going to go into corporate world. Ate something, got sick and was trying to finish up this test. The doctor said, I went to emergency room afterwards, he said “Don’t wait like that again.” He said, “You don’t know how close you were to death. You just quit. Quit doing that.”
So I was given an assignment to evaluate a business, and so as I was out in this field. I was watching them put human waste. Well, first of all, the farmer that I was interviewing told me, he says, “Young man, the body is an amazing thing,” and I said, “Yeah, yeah. Yeah, okay. Yeah. Whatever.” I’m listening to him and he’s going: “Yeah, but it don’t break down tomato seeds,” and I’m going, “Huh?”
Angela Fitzgerald: Wait a minute.
Robert Pierce: And I’m going, “Hmm.”
Angela Fitzgerald: Like, “What do you mean by that?”
Robert Pierce: Yeah, we’ll get to that. He said, “Hey, look.” I looked out in this field and there were all these tomatoes. He said, “Yeah, the body don’t break down tomato seeds.” And all of a sudden, here is this machine that came and set these plows into the ground and started tearing the ground, and they were putting this human waste on fields.
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow. That was their fertilizer, was human waste.
Robert Pierce: That was what they were using, yes. This was back in 1982, ’83. So I looked at him, I said, “You know, man’s the most greediest animal on this planet.” He says, “Yep.” I said, “What would stop somebody from taking those tomatoes and collecting them and put them in the store?” He said, “Nothing,” and he said, “How do you know they haven’t?”
Robert Pierce: So here I am, I mean, I’m already allergic to all the stuff that I’ve been eating. My wife was pregnant at the time with my first son, and I had decided I was going to grow food. As I was doing this, the person I leased this land from, he had 20 acres, 22.5, to be exact. So he said to me, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m going to grow organic food.” He said, “What’s that?” And I said, “I’m growing food without-
Angela Fitzgerald: That wasn’t known at the time?
Robert Pierce: Oh, no. No. “I’m going to grow food without poison.” He go, “Hmm,” and he says, “All you want is five acres?” I said, “Yep, only five. I’m growing food for my family.” So he said, “And you’re in the business college?” I says, “Yeah.” He said, “Don’t seem to me like you’re thinking,” and he went on.
Couple weeks later, he come back out to see what I was doing. I had no idea. I’ve grown and picked things that were in our gardens when I was a kid and stuff, and I always helped out the elderly people in their gardens and stuff like that. But never a operation like I was trying to do.
Angela Fitzgerald: So this was a new venture for you, just something you wanted to do out of like a health need.
Robert Pierce: Very, very new. Yeah, because I wanted to eat healthy. Yes. So he pop up again and go, “What’s that you’re trying to do again?” Kept messing with me. I said, “Organics.” And he said, “Don’t look like you’re thinking.”
So I had a conversation with one of my teachers and he told us, he says, “You’re a threat.” I go, “What do you mean?” He says, “Well, you think. You can think.” He says, “They’ll take you and lock you up in their office,” he said, “Rape you for all your information and all your stuff.” He says, “You’ll never make over 70, 80,000 a year.” He said, “Get out of here. Go live your dream.”
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow. He was discouraging you from what you really wanted to do …
Robert Pierce: Well, to go and do what I wanted to do was farming and stuff.
Angela Fitzgerald: And that’s because he thought other people would just want to take the approach that you were using, which, at the time, sounds like it was cutting edge. Because this whole organic-
Robert Pierce: Well, it was. I knew-
Angela Fitzgerald: …farming movement wasn’t a thing then.
Robert Pierce: No, not for African Americans. So I turned around and decided at that point that I was going to quit school and become an organic farmer. So I started Half the 40 Acres.
Angela Fitzgerald: Said you started with half of 40 acres?
Robert Pierce: That’s what I named it: Half the 40 Acres.
Angela Fitzgerald: Half the 40 … But that was your original five.
Robert Pierce: Well, I started with the five. I took on the whole 22.5, yes.
Angela Fitzgerald: Acres?
Robert Pierce: Yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: And that was all organic farming.
Robert Pierce: I decided to do an organic farm in there for like 10 years before they … DNR bought it from underneath him. I had a lease on it, and they bought it all up and decided they wanted to keep it. So after 10 years, I was looking for land again.
Angela Fitzgerald: Up until that point, was this still a family, more of a home venture like it was in a business in this sense? Or at that point had it expanded to …
Robert Pierce: Well, I mean, I was in the business college, so I assumed I was turning it into a business. Yes. I had taken one or two years of … Just marketing stuff to people. I did the old going to the neighborhoods and taking it to people’s houses and parking my old raggedy truck out in corners and stuff. Going to somebody’s house, they say, “Well, so-and-so down the street wants you to come by there.”
Robert Pierce: And we did the farmers market down in the Square. I was, like, single parent with four kids, four years old, two, one and three and a half months old-
Angela Fitzgerald: Oh, wow.
Robert Pierce: … there, all of us in a truck, we’re selling vegetables. So at some point, it’s like we decided that I wasn’t making enough money up at the farmers markets up here, which everybody else was. But I was the only Black man out there, so they would look at my stuff but not buy. You know. So it’s kinda, okay?
Angela Fitzgerald: Well, what was it even like for you in terms of stepping into an industry that may be, like you said, people didn’t easily associate you with the image that’s put in front of us of farming? So, how did you one, come to see yourself as this, but also navigate other people’s perceptions of what a farmer was?
Robert Pierce: Well, I’ve never really cared what people thought about me. You know what I mean? I do what I’m going to do. If I decide I’m just going to do something, I just do it. Down on the Square, they used to name things because I was not conventional as they were. I will put it that way.
But, it was something I seen I wanted to do, and I went after it. Organic wasn’t even heard of at those times. I mean, I was a Navy dream when I decided to do this, and there weren’t rules and regulations or any of these different things. It was a hope and a dream of something that I wanted to do, and I just went at it.
I mean, I didn’t even … I had bought a tractor, didn’t know how to plow. Right? I mean, I asked the neighbor next door, I asked him would he plow up my acreage for me. So he says, “Yeah, at $1,000 an acre.” I said, “Well-“
Angela Fitzgerald: $1,000 an acre.
Robert Pierce: Yeah, I said, “$1,000 an acre’s a little bit more than I want to spend, sir.” I said, “But tell you what.” I says, “I’m going to be here, even if I got to use a rototiller. I’ll be here.”
Robert Pierce: And so a friend of mine brought his rototiller out to the farm and we’re tilling a little area so we could test the soil. He looked and he said, “My god, he said he was going to use a rototiller,” so we were laughing at him because he thought this was what I was going to do.
So, I bought a tractor, and the guy said, “Well, I’m not going to plow it up for you.” He said, “But I’ll tell you how to do it.” So I went on and I did it and … Course, you know, farmers watch each other to see what they’re doing. My lines had … Although I must say if you’re going to plow, you got to have straight lines. My lines looked like a snake.
Angela Fitzgerald: Is that because you were still learning or that was intentional? That was just you were doing things?
Robert Pierce: No, no. That was just learning. Learning, yeah. I was trying to get it together.
Angela Fitzgerald: Gotcha.
Robert Pierce: Yeah. In time, I did handle it, but it took time to do this. It wasn’t just … It was trial and error, so …
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow. Okay. So you literally started off with the goal of five acres and grow food for my family to the 20-plus acres to-
Robert Pierce: As a business.
Angela Fitzgerald: … as a business.
Robert Pierce: Yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: And then it sounds like there was some mixed reception in certain spaces because …
Robert Pierce: Oh, yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: You were like the only Black farmer selling produce. I guess, how did you go from that point of maybe new on the scene, newly presenting this type of produce, organics, it didn’t even have regulations or a name for it quite yet, to where you are today? What’s the summation of that story arc?
Robert Pierce: Well, I mean, that was done on the Square because always it was the place to be. I mean, you got your face noticed. Even back then, when there were, back in the ’80s there were 40, 50 of us. I mean, people knew who you were and they got to know who you were by what you grew.
Robert Pierce: So I had to keep trying different things because every time that I’d do something, somebody else would do it and then they’d buy it from them and stuff like that. And my thing was-
Angela Fitzgerald: So you were setting the tone for other people.
Robert Pierce: Well, yeah. But I also, I would come back to my own roots of going back to South Madison or to farther on the west side where they had a concentration of African Americans. So I always sold to them after going downtown and not selling very much down there, but always taking care of my people.
I mean, after all, I’m from Madison so I knew everybody. After service, I mean when I was a kid, my thing was my grandmother sent me to all these elderly people to help them clean their gardens or pick their vegetables for them and stuff, so I was always in someone’s garden. So it wasn’t unnatural for me to do this. I mean, I always did it.
But I also noticed when I got back from the service, how the elderlies, their health was depleting. One of the reasons were we were the first McDonald’s in Madison. It was on South Madison, and, I mean-
Angela Fitzgerald: And seeing the Black community had the first McDonald’s.
Robert Pierce: And how the heck could you beat a 25 cent cheeseburger? Come on now. And ten cent fries? Come on. I mean, a dollar, you could get four.
Angela Fitzgerald: That’s true.
Robert Pierce: They stopped growing food and stopped cooking meals and stuff because they could always spend a dollar and feed the … You know, $5 could’ve feed the whole family quick. So, I noticed their health started to deplete and so when I took on this venture, that was one of the things I seen, that their health was depleting.
Robert Pierce: They weren’t eating like we were when we grew up. So that’s I started doing that, the greens and stuff like that and make sure that they were getting these things that we knew, that we grew up with.
Angela Fitzgerald: So even though there may have been access through someone like you, it’s like, “What do I do with this thing that’s not prepackaged or canned or whatever?” Wow.
Robert Pierce: Sure. Yeah. And seeing young kids that are 10, 11, 12 years old and can’t tell you the difference between a tomato or a potato.
Angela Fitzgerald: They’re not used to seeing real food.
Robert Pierce: Right.
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow.
Robert Pierce: Yeah. But they could tell you everything at McDonald’s.
Angela Fitzgerald: Because that’s what they were familiar with.
Robert Pierce: Oh, yeah. That was a familiar food to them, so … And we’ve seen so many different aspects of what the system has done with the food here that it’s unbelievable. Madison, South Madison’s always been a food-insecure area.
It’s one of reasons why my farmers market’s there is because certain organizations, University Extension, Project for Hunger and few other organizations, understood that there was a need for fresh food to be on South Madison. So they put together a farmers market that lasted a year.
Then the second year, they asked if I would take it over to become market manager. Now, at this time, I was bouncing around putting stands all over. I had stands on the west side, one on the south side, wherever I could put a stand, hiring people to work stands. Sell the corn and the watermelons and stuff.
So I said, “Well, it makes sense to … ” I quit down on the Square because I wasn’t making any money down there. I just said, “Forget that. That’s a waste of my time.” So the last straw was that was, I started growing blue potatoes. We’re getting on this publicity about the farmers market being the largest farmers market in the country, and there was a guy from the Chicago Tribune that came by.
He never said who the guy was. He just said, “There’s a guy at the Madison Farmers Market that grows blue potatoes.” We had this rash amount of people that came and they looked at my blue potatoes but they wouldn’t buy them.
Angela Fitzgerald: Because you were the one that was selling them.
Robert Pierce: Right. But they looked at them. They wanted to buy one or two of them. I’ve got piles of them, but they wanted to buy one or two of them to show somebody. It’s like … And the next year, the young guy that was next to me, he started growing blue potatoes, and they bought out, he sold out. He was buying them from me and selling them.
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow.
Robert Pierce: But he already sold his out.
Angela Fitzgerald: And he probably noticed that people weren’t buying from you, so he wanted to capitalize.
Robert Pierce: Well, of course.
Angela Fitzgerald: Oh.
Robert Pierce: Yeah. So that was the last, where I said, “I don’t need this.” I mean, right before my face that type of racism. You know?
Angela Fitzgerald: Right.
Robert Pierce: So I just said, “Nah. Enough of that.” So University Extension called me in and the man by Mr. Cunningham, he said, “Well,” he says, “You just inherited a farmers market.” I go, “What?” “I don’t want no farmers market,” he says.
Angela Fitzgerald: Was that always your plan, to basically have your own farmers market?
Robert Pierce: No. It wasn’t.
Angela Fitzgerald: No? Okay.
Robert Pierce: I was looking at running about 10 stands in different areas and stuff like that. So he said, “Well,” he says, “if you don’t take this, it’s going to go bye.” He said, “Because,” he says, “you know they need a farmers market.” He said, “You’re from Madison.” I said, “He says, ‘And you grew up over there?'” I says, “Yeah.” He says, “Well, you know all those people.” He says, “So if you don’t run this farmers market, Robert, it’s going to go.”
Angela Fitzgerald: There won’t be one.
Robert Pierce: “There won’t be one.” So I said, “Oh, okay.” So now he says, “Now you have complete ownership of a farmers market.”
Angela Fitzgerald: Right. Okay.
Robert Pierce: That’s what I said.
Angela Fitzgerald: And it sounds like there’s essentially putting that responsibility on you.
Robert Pierce: Oh, yeah, he did. He told me right away that it’s on me.
Angela Fitzgerald: Right. And because you belong to that community, you clearly have a passion for the work the farmers market does. You’re probably like, “Okay,” even if wasn’t initially seen as your lane …
Robert Pierce: Well, it wasn’t my plan, but it was there. It was thrusted upon me, so I took it on, and at one time, we had over 37 vendors.
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow. That’s amazing.
Robert Pierce: Yeah, we had 37 vendors until they found out who owned it.
Angela Fitzgerald: So were vendors, you think, also those who maybe did not have great experiences at other farmers markets and saw themselves as being better able to serve their community?
Robert Pierce: No. We’ve always have been a farmers market that taught people how to vend. At one point, my market was picked by Project for Public Spaces as one of their projects and it taught us a whole lot of different things, so how to run markets. We were sent out to California to look at other markets and stuff. So it gave me an idea of what market’s really about. That’s not a market though there. That’s tourism.
Angela Fitzgerald: Mmm.
Robert Pierce: Okay? A real farmers market is about food. This is not entertainment and all the other stuff comes along with it, but that is totally entertainment. That is not what a farmer market is really about.
Angela Fitzgerald: Hmm. So you said the real farmers market is about food?
Robert Pierce: Oh, yeah. It’s about food and it’s about community. I mean, most of the people that come to our market is our community. But yet other people seem to use or come by. They see it as a place where there’s food, but yet there’s that friendliness there that’s like a family-type thing. That you’re part of this group that’s we’re growing food for you and we’re doing the best we can to give you good food, and people understand that. When they taste it and deal with that, they always come back for more.
Angela Fitzgerald: Right. Absolutely.
Robert Pierce: Then now that we have this pandemic, we can’t … People want to just stay around and hang out and talk and stuff, so we can’t do those things any more, right now. But yeah, it’s more of a gabbing place. I mean, course, downtown you can walk around in a circle and get dizzy. But, I mean, come on.
Angela Fitzgerald: That was obviously one of my first stops when I moved here because I’d heard so much. It was just interesting to me just to see the culture. How even like literally everyone’s walking the same direction?
Robert Pierce: Yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: I was like, “Why doesn’t someone just go the opposite way? Like why is … “
Robert Pierce: Don’t try that.
Angela Fitzgerald: It just was puzzling me, like, “Why is every … ” There are these unspoken rules. I was just like, “This is fascinating.”
Robert Pierce: Let me tell you. They would go, “Hey, hey, you’re going the wrong way.” As just, “No, you’re going the wrong way.” Course, I mess with them. They mess with me.
Angela Fitzgerald: So how many years ago was it that you were basically like handed over your own farmers market on the south side?
Robert Pierce: 2001.
Angela Fitzgerald: Okay. So you have-
Robert Pierce: I’ve been there 19 years.
Angela Fitzgerald: So two decades ago.
Robert Pierce: Yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: And tell me about how the work has expanded since then. Because you have your farmers market that you still run.
Robert Pierce: Yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: Then there’s other offshoots too that speak to the importance of the work and farming.
Robert Pierce: Well, about five years ago, six years ago, I worked with University and University Extension and all those different people, and one of the professors wanted to have a project. There’s been quite a few projects done with South Madison. We wanted to find out the difference why people were buying food and from markets rather than we have a store that’s kind of 1,000 feet away from the market. And-
Angela Fitzgerald: That’s a good question.
Robert Pierce: So they ran different projects for it. They would talk to people and see and find out why. It was because of freshness and of just being able to have that where they can talk to know who’s growing that food and why they’re growing it and stuff like that. Rather than going into the store and seeing it all there and not knowing where it came from or how far it came to get to there or how long it’s been in the cooler.
Angela Fitzgerald: How fresh it is and …
Robert Pierce: Yeah. So those are some of the things they found out. Then they wanted to know how could they help me and we also worked with slow food around Madison or UW here. They buy food for the programs and stuff that they do. They wanted to know what they could do, so we put together a project where I wanted to see if I could help with the problem of warehousing, recycling African American in these cells.
Angela Fitzgerald: Mmm. So you’re talking about the prison-industrial complex.
Robert Pierce: Of course. Warehousing. That’s what it’s called, right?
Angela Fitzgerald: You said warehousing. At first I thought, “Food was being warehoused?” I was like, “I don’t think that’s what he’s talking about.” So people being warehoused.
Robert Pierce: You have to realize that food insecurity, it could be hunger, but it also could be not having enough money to able to support having good food. Some of things comes up with unemployment, health, where you live. And most definitely having that label “felon.” That will get you every time because, I mean, they let … Oops. Here you go, you know.
Angela Fitzgerald: And it sounds like UW Extension too was trying to … In their minds there was a connection between the farming work that you do and also the issue of, we’ll say Black men in particular are being overly-incarcerated.
Robert Pierce: Well, yeah. Well, we worked with one of the teacher’s TAs and we put together Neighborhood Food Solutions is what they named it.
Angela Fitzgerald: Said Neighborhood Food Solutions?
Robert Pierce: They named it Neighborhood Food Solutions, yes.
Angela Fitzgerald: Okay.
Robert Pierce: What it involved was taking and … The class helped me put together a … We started working with Nehemiah, and we were trying to find where we could find people who were getting out of prisons or had a felon that couldn’t jobs. We were trying to find a way of teaching them how to farm and teaching them how to do spreadsheets and stuff like that to be able to create a small business.
We did that for a few years, and so got to a point where it did take off, around … We had … Like I said, this is the third year. The first year we did five people, and four of those made it to completion.
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow. That’s a good contrition rate.
Robert Pierce: Oh, well, yeah. But the second year was like kind of higher. They were in and out. So many problems with the POs all these other different things, which is always a variable when a felon or a group that are basically on parole … The problem when they’re called in, to say, “Hey, you got to get here,” they’ve got to take off of work or whatever they’re doing to show up.
Angela Fitzgerald: Right. And drop everything.
Robert Pierce: Drop it and let’s go, you know. It’s a whole ‘nother world, and these people have more control over them than most people, so a couple of them went back to prison and other things. But two people made it through that.
This year here, we’re working with MUM, which is JustDane now. And what happened with those were a couple people didn’t make it, and then two didn’t make it through the very end, and they’re coming back next year to run their businesses. So it’s going to be nice to see that happen so they’s success in doing this.
Angela Fitzgerald: So it’s not only an introduction to farming, but through this small business side of generating income.
Robert Pierce: Well, yeah. It was a thing that, “Oh, don’t go to South Madison Farmers Market because Robert’s hard to deal with.”
Angela Fitzgerald: Said because you’re hard to deal with?
Robert Pierce: Yeah, I’m hard to deal with.
Angela Fitzgerald: Oh, really?
Robert Pierce: Yeah, yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: In what ways?
Robert Pierce: Well, I don’t know, but I hear that.
Angela Fitzgerald: Okay.
Robert Pierce: I hear it all the time. No, so we do have some people that sign up and come and are there for one or two days, then next thing you know, they’re gone. They don’t show back up, and they claim they don’t make enough money and all these other poor people don’t have money.
Well, poor people eat just like rich people. I mean, come on. Sometimes they spend their money on food when they can’t spend it on something else. So it’s out of survival. They eat, you know?
Angela Fitzgerald: Do you have people that graduated from the program you mentioned that then at your farmers market as well, it’s like the goal?
Robert Pierce: They’re going to be. That’s what’s happening for next year. Yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: Okay.
Robert Pierce: Yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: Awesome.
Robert Pierce: Yeah, we had a couple that it was really hard for them to make decisions, so they had other jobs. And the other jobs are really, I mean, pay for your schooling and all these other things. I mean, you can’t beat that. I would’ve quit and went back too.
Angela Fitzgerald: So that sounds like part of the challenge of being in the farming industry is that there’s competition maybe.
Robert Pierce: Well, you have to realize we just don’t have the access to land like they do. Myself, if it wasn’t for people I deal with right now, which is Groundswell Conservatory, I’d still be out here scraping for land. I’ve never had enough. They’ve never given me a loan to buy land once.
Robert Pierce: I had got to a point where I was going to be able to buy land. And this land that they were going to sell me, it was surrounded by streams.
Angela Fitzgerald: That’s not a good thing?
Robert Pierce: And it was a wetland.
Angela Fitzgerald: Oh.
Robert Pierce: So in order to cross a stream, you had to deal with DNR because you can’t deal with something over that stream or shape in any way, form because it’s natural. So it was like, “Well, if I buy this land, I’m landlocked. There’s no way really to make any infrastructure on this. So, nah.”
Robert Pierce: And I have created so many people’s land for organic it’s like, “Man, I’m tired of being used.” I mean, yeah. Have me out there for five years. See, within five years, they can be able to say this land had no poisons put on it, so they can be able to call it organic.
Angela Fitzgerald: Right. Which then comes, I’m sure, at a higher price.
Robert Pierce: And everybody knows that’s what I do, so if can’t be on your land, well, Robert was here.
Angela Fitzgerald: That’s a selling point in a way that benefits the owners of the land.
Robert Pierce: Yeah, not me. Didn’t benefit me, all right?
Angela Fitzgerald: So historically, do you think that’s been the biggest barrier or a thing that’s impeded-
Robert Pierce: Which one?
Angela Fitzgerald: Well the land part, the access to land part, which has a financial piece to it-
Robert Pierce: Well, yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: … in terms of Black farmers and why they’re so underrepresented.
Robert Pierce: Yeah, I think that having a sense of land is, it’s probably number one. Then the other part of that would probably be education. Well, it’s-
Angela Fitzgerald: You sounds like it has a lot of pieces to it, including just how the running-
Robert Pierce: Well, yeah. You’ll need to identify what you want to do, and then that’s for the part you need to work at. It’s like, I grew so many things in the beginning.
Angela Fitzgerald: Just figuring it out?
Robert Pierce: Oh, yeah, seeing what was good, what wasn’t. My idea was to grow something for every nationality so you couldn’t say I was prejudiced. You could say, “Wow, I want such and so-and-so.” Robert’s got it. And I did that; I grew everything so that I could be able to give anybody at any time something that they needed, and to a point it’s not worth it.
Angela Fitzgerald: Mmm. Because you’re overextending yourself by doing that, I’m assuming.
Robert Pierce: Very much, yes. You know?
Angela Fitzgerald: Yeah.
Robert Pierce: So I had to bring things down. So basically, I still grow a lot of stuff.
Angela Fitzgerald: What would you say your focused efforts are now centered on, terms of what you grow?
Robert Pierce: Well, no, I mean, basically-
Angela Fitzgerald: But that’s not giving off any trade secrets. I don’t want you to … There’s some out there, in a bad way.
Robert Pierce: … my main thing right now is teaching African Americans, so I really want to teach young Black kids that this, you need to learn how to access land, grow food because those two things are power. If you have your own land and you can supply your own food, you have power. Then you can also do the economic part of that of being able to sell it, make money.
So yes, I mean, we have a job to do. Those are more important to me than all of this other stuff that I do.
Angela Fitzgerald: So what’s the name of your program that is focused on youth and getting them at least interested?
Robert Pierce: PEAT. PEAT program.
Angela Fitzgerald: PEAT? And what does PEAT stand for? I understand it’s an acronym.
Robert Pierce: Program for Entrepreneurial and Agricultural Training.
Angela Fitzgerald: Very nice. So what age ranges can PEAT support?
Robert Pierce: Well, right now we’re working with a organization and we’re using kids from the ages of 14 up. That’s interesting because …
Angela Fitzgerald: 14 year olds are interesting?
Robert Pierce: They’re very interesting. And Commonwealth Development, we work with them, with Commonwealth. They’re the ones who send these kids to us. Then we deal with them.
Angela Fitzgerald: Well, what’s the response, too, of these youth who maybe they’ve never even met a farmer, much less a Black farmer?
Robert Pierce: What they do is, I’ll tell you. They actually get into it. I mean, and some of it, at one point we used to try to change their eating habits. Once we’ve done that, we’ve actually have had kids that changed their whole eating habits by growing food for theirselves and seeing the difference in taste and stuff. Really happy that with us, was in beginning.
Now its they’re still learning how to grow stuff and we’re doing different lesson points with them and stuff. But then right now this year here is the first year that we’re able to get them back into working at the farmers markets and stuff like that. So we’re using two of them every Sunday at the markets until the end of the month here. So …
Angela Fitzgerald: So I’m sure as to the enthusiasm for them, the opportunity to make money off of what they’re growing.
Robert Pierce: Well, for them, yes. It’s definitely the opportunity to make money.
Angela Fitzgerald: Yes.
Robert Pierce: And they understand that they have to work and understand that they’re here to also learn about food. I think they are learning something about it, that it’s something that essential and the better the food, the better it’s for them, so we stress that also. So they’re learning certain things out of it. And it’s-
Angela Fitzgerald: That’s an important lesson.
Robert Pierce: Oh, yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: We don’t always think about that. We may assume that if we’re eating the, quote/unquote, right things, not really knowing about or caring about where it’s from that we’re doing a good job. I think at a baseline we are.
But if we have the opportunity to take it up a notch and really focus on what are the chemicals and things that are going into our foods because that’s going into our bodies ultimately, that’s going to benefit our health. So the fact that it’s clicking for them it sounds like, is a great thing.
Robert Pierce: I remember we had one young lady that she … I interview these kids some. In the beginning we used to interview them. One young lady, she had told me that she had grew a tomato and it was the prettiest tomato she ever seen.
Angela Fitzgerald: Aw. She’s proud of herself?
Robert Pierce: Oh, yeah. But she wouldn’t eat it.
Angela Fitzgerald: Why? Because she had invested in making it? Or …
Robert Pierce: Because it came from the ground and it didn’t come from a store.
Angela Fitzgerald: So she didn’t trust the …
Robert Pierce: She didn’t like the …
Angela Fitzgerald: That is interesting.
Robert Pierce: Because it came from the ground and she didn’t know …
Angela Fitzgerald: What was in it.
Robert Pierce: Just wasn’t used to growing something. Everything had to come from the store. So I looked at her; I said, “You’re in the program.” So I asked her, I says, “Is there any other problem I’m going to have out of you?” She said, “Yeah, one other problem.” I said, “What’s that?” She says, “Well, if it rains and my hair gets wet, we got a problem.” I laughed at her, right?
Angela Fitzgerald: She’s like, “We need to be mindful of the weather when I’m out here farming.”
Robert Pierce: Yeah. Yeah, well, this is true. She had got to the point… her mother worked in my fields and stuff as a child too. And so she got to a point that she was going to the store. She said, “Mr. Pierce says that if you can’t understand what’s in the food, don’t buy it.” So she would read all the ingredients and put stuff back.
So, her mother came by one day. She said, “Robert, what did you do to my daughter?” I go, “Nothing to do with it.” She said, “We can’t go to a store without her. She reads all the labels to make sure that we get the best.” I said, “Well, I’m doing my job, huh?” She says, “Yeah, just keep doing that.”
Angela Fitzgerald: And how old is she?
Robert Pierce: Now? Oh, she’s 21 or 22.
Angela Fitzgerald: I mean at the time when she said it, annoying her mother at the grocery store.
Robert Pierce: Well, she’s 15, 16 at the time.
Angela Fitzgerald: That’s excellent, for her to even understand that that’s important to do. Right?
Robert Pierce: Oh, yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: Not all teenagers do that.
Robert Pierce: Oh, yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: So the fact that you were shifting her mentality around what you put in your body matters.
Robert Pierce: Yes. That was one we took away from McDonald’s one day, one bite at a time.
Angela Fitzgerald: I mean, that’s something. It’s a start.
Robert Pierce: Oh, yeah.
Angela Fitzgerald: It’s a start. I’m thinking about people that are watching our conversation and are hearing about the work that you do and even some of the challenges that other Black people in the farming industry face. I guess, what do you want people to take away from this conversation with all the different points that you’ve raised?
Robert Pierce: Well, it’s already good. I mean, these days if you’re going to eat organic or either eat good food, you need to grow it because otherwise you can’t afford it.
Angela Fitzgerald: I was going to say, what do you suggest for people who, there’s a desire but finance is a very real barrier, and maybe they don’t have the land to grow. So what do you suggest if they’re trying to be intentional about eating well but don’t feel like their finances will allow them to?
Robert Pierce: Well, use your farmers markets, are some of the places to start. There’s a lot of people out there that are, they’re about growing good food. Some of that stuff that they’re using with poisons is still fresher and better than what you’re getting it out of the store sometimes.
So I’d like to see where we start teaching ourselves that we need to start working and working together as a group. We should be able to come together as a group and become self-sufficient. Stop getting help which is real help from other groups if we can help ourselves.
Angela Fitzgerald: So really generating community around how do we support one another’s food and …
Robert Pierce: And one of those things is food.
Angela Fitzgerald: Yeah.
Robert Pierce: Number one.
Angela Fitzgerald: Yeah.
Robert Pierce: Yep.
Angela Fitzgerald: Absolutely.
Robert Pierce: So that’s what you asked, that’s what you can get out of me.
Angela Fitzgerald: Now, this is what I want you to know: that importance of community, especially as it relates to access to healthy food.
Robert Pierce: Yes.
Angela Fitzgerald: So thank you for that.
Angela Fitzgerald: Food is essential, and race does matter when you talk about it. The option to grow your own food is not a given for every community. Systemic factors such as land ownership, wealth, and location play a role in limited healthy food options for people of color, which then can lead to long-term health issues that spread across generations, proving that race does matter when we talk about food.
Angela Fitzgerald: For more info on Why Race Matters and to hear and watch other episodes, visit us online at pbswisconsin.org/whyracematters.
Speaker: Funding for Why Race Matters is provided by CUNA Mutual Group, Park Bank, Alliant Energy, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Focus Fund for Wisconsin Programming, and Friends of PBS Wisconsin.