To quote activist and one of the previous first ladies of the United States, Michelle Obama, “History has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own.”
This Black History Month, we honor our nation’s growing Black history — those past Black historical changers and makers in the agricultural industry who courageously sowed the seeds of hope for millions of others to come after. Even though the road has been challenging for our Black farming community, young Black agriculturalists haven’t let the challenges hinder them, but have been inspired to achieve excellence for themselves and for our agricultural communities.
Meet Artha Jonassaint. Now, when we talk about being inspired by history to achieve excellence — y’all Artha is it.
Artha was very young when she moved from her home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to Okeechobee, Florida — discovering quickly that there were more cows than people. Actually, people were outnumbered about 4:1. Though initially not interested in agriculture, Artha found herself reluctantly joining her middle school FFA chapter at the guidance of her FFA advisor, Mr. Buddy Mills. He initially recruited her believing she would be a great addition to his career development team.
However, Artha would find her passion for agriculture being cultivated by her mother, a dietitian, that works in the intersection of policy and the food system.
“As I learned more about my mom’s work and how important it is to solving and mitigating food insecurity — a topic I was introduced to in my agricultural education classes and FFA contests — I became interested in strengthening the food value supply chain for consumers, particularly the socioeconomically disadvantaged consumers that my mom interacts with daily.”
Coupling her cultivated passion for strengthening the food value chain and her love for student development within the FFA Organization, Artha bolstered her experience within agriculture and agricultural education through her involvement in local, state, and national leadership positions within the youth organization. Today, Artha continues to seek out opportunities — just as her mom had — at the intersection of food system, people, development, health policy, and equity.
When writing this article, I asked Artha a couple of big questions centered around the topic of the next generation of Black agriculturalists. In celebration of Artha’s story, light, and leadership, the next few sections of this article are from Artha’s eloquent, personal, and graceful words.
What major contributions, in your opinion and experience, does the next generation of Black agriculturalists have to offer the future of the agricultural industry?
In one of my very first Business and Industry visits as a National FFA Officer, I interacted with the U.S. Poultry alongside the Arabia Mountain FFA Chapter of Georgia. In that visit, students from Arabia Mountain shared their experiences with poultry production and the industry in totality in Atlanta. They found a form of agriculture that works well for them and found an incredible corporate sponsor to facilitate their experiential learning. These students are just a microcosm of the incredible ingenuity that the entire future of agriculture holds.
Black agriculturalists of the next generation will be creative — just like the students at Arabia Mountains — in order to solve the agricultural issues of today and tomorrow. The next generation will use their creativity to ensure that their agricultural endeavors are reflective of who they are and where they are. As a result, we can anticipate a more inclusive and accessible agriculture industry.
Agricultural pursuits will be found in rural, suburban, and urban areas throughout the nation and world because of the next generation’s agility, flexibility, authenticity, and creativity. Black agriculturalists of the future will not only have access to spaces in agriculture that have been gate-kept, but they will also make these spaces accessible to all. That is what makes the new era in agriculture so exciting to me; we are on the brink of a shift in zeitgeist that will create space for all who desire to have an active role in agriculture to do just that.
How were you or other agriculturalists inspired by their past to engage in the future of the ag industry?
From scholars who advocated for vocational education like Booker T. Washington to the generations of sharecroppers who were skillful stewards of our land to the agri-scientific breakthroughs in sustainability at the hands of scientists like George Washington Carver, agriculture’s past has unequivocally influenced my longing to be a part of its future.
I am inspired by past Black agriculturalists’ desire to enrich the earth, ameliorate and innovate the agricultural industry, and create conditions conducive for future generations’ success.
Washington’s philosophy and foresightedness gave way to one of the most influential modes of education: experiential learning. The idea that academia alone is inept in preparing young people for the future if not coupled with the development of practical skills mirrors the model of agricultural education that exists today.
Carver’s various peanut innovations were rooted in sustainability: he wanted to incentivize peanut production in order to restore the soil in the southern United States and construct a profitable market for the nitrogen-fixing crop. Whether it is on the farm or in the classroom, Black agriculturalists have done astounding work in leaving spaces more productive, more sustainable, and more functional than they found it.
I find myself wanting to do the same things: enriching the earth through equitable and sustainable systems, ameliorating and innovating the agricultural industry by shattering the status quo and finding inventive solutions to new challenges, and by creating opportunities for the next generation to find success.
How was that inspiration cultivated, fermented within you or ones you know, and then applied out into the world to make a difference in your life, the lives of others, or the lives of the ag industry?
One of my life’s mantras is a quote by Tupac Shakur, “I’m not saying that I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I spark the mind that does.” I’m paying forward the inspiration and contributions of past agriculturalists through my studies and by sparking the young minds that will change our agricultural world.
I currently study Government and Global Health/Health Policy at Harvard College, and in my studies, I have evaluated inequitable systems, institutions, and policies that have served as obstacles for Black people, both in agriculture and towards upward social mobility in totality. I hope to use this knowledge to correct the errors of the past through deliberate policy initiatives and to galvanize folks into an active role in the agricultural sector.
The most fruitful application of the past’s inspiration, for me at least, comes in the form of mentorship. My time as a state and national officer coupled with my experiences working with youth in Boston has positioned me to connect and grow alongside a myriad of aspiring Black agriculturalists. I have relished the opportunities that I have had to build these incredible young people up, and to encourage them to continue finding and excelling in their respective agricultural pursuits.
I know that mentorship alone cannot remediate the effects of systemic barriers to access altogether, however, I hope that I can lift others as I rise, and that I can support those who seek to occupy space in agriculture. I strive to be emblematic of the fact that you don’t have to compromise any part of your identity — your blackness, your values, your beliefs — to find success in agriculture, and I have every intention of encouraging others in their pursuit to do the same.
History tells us that Black folks are an integral part of American agriculture. History tells us that Black people are foundational to the American rural landscape. I have no doubt that our future participation and contributions in agriculture will be reflective of our existing legacy of greatness because, in the words of Lin Manuel Miranda, history has its eyes on us.
This writer couldn’t agree more. History has its eyes on us.
And as we celebrate Black History Month, we have the opportunity to spotlight the stories of young, present, and past Black agriculturalists who have made an everlasting impact on the world of the United States and international agriculture and be apart of making history come alive for our young ones and the future generations of Black agriculture industry leaders. This can take form in our conversations, in our homes, in our readings, in our classrooms. We can strive today to do what we can to celebrate stories like Artha’s and the thousands more that are here or yet to come.
We are all a part of the growing history, the courageous actions, the cultivated hope for our young Black agriculturalists coming up. All eyes on us now.
Bre Holbert is a past National FFA President and studies agriculture science and education at California State-Chico. “Two ears to listen is better than one mouth to speak. Two ears allow us to affirm more people, rather than letting our mouth loose to damage people’s story by speaking on behalf of others.”