Racism and Backyard Farming

Urban or backyard farming has grown trendy in the United States, and the diy slaughter movement is starting to attract more mainstream attention. Not all of that attention is positive; several cities are considering proposals for bans or restrictions to limit livestock within city limits and ban home slaughter altogether. The result is a fascinating and sometimes acrimonious discussion about the role of backyard farming in our lives, and what the rise of the diy movement means as a whole.

One thing largely absent from the mainstream elements of this discussion is race. The faces of backyard farmers and home slaughter enthusiasts are overwhelmingly white. They are fresh-faced and friendly, and they putter around their gardens with reporters, showing off their chickens and turkeys and bunnies between their raised beds and compost piles. Home farming has become a hipster pursuit, and like other hipster endeavors, it is primarily represented by white people.

They tell viewers and readers that they enjoy being in touch with the land and being able to have a direct connection with the food they eat. There is much discussion of sustainability and getting food locally and learning to support yourself, rather than relying on big agriculture. People talk about fears of pesticides, antibiotics, and other contaminants in their food, and the sense of security they get from raising their own. None of these statements are entirely unreasonable, although they’re often wrapped in a holier-than-thou attitude that is a bit difficult to swallow, and urban farmers clearly are passionate about what they do, even if they also enjoy being able to have talking points like bees on the back deck.

In a way, backyard farming has also become a form of class signaling, like other ‘green’ pursuits. People vie to produce the best urban farm, and make sure to include expensive components like luxury chicken coops and fancy compost rotators and the nicest raised beds. They want to cultivate a rustic, funky look that is also very artful and affected, because backyard farming sometimes needs to signal something to other people, in addition to providing a food source. The media attention is reserved for people with pretty farms that look good on two-page spreads, and thus white people with nice gardens become the ‘ambassadors’ of a ‘movement’ that is actually very old.

Low-income people of colour and nonwhite people in urban areas have been growing their own vegetables and raising animals for decades, out of necessity rather than a desire to follow trend. Their backyard farms include a mixture of animals and gardening space and they rely on them as a food source. They are often not discussed in pieces on urban farming and trends, except, of course, when noble white people want to talk about their ‘community outreach’ and how they educate people in local gardens and provide ‘them’ with sources of fresh, wholesome food.

In this framing, white people are presented as saviours, riding in on white horses to save the hapless low-income people who were clearly struggling without them. Yet, this is not necessarily the case; while many low-income neighbourhoods absolutely do have food security problems and issues like contaminated soil that is unsafe for gardening, in others, there’s a rich tradition of growing some vegetables, and sometimes raising some animals, in available spaces. That tradition has been neatly appropriated without a nod, and is rarely covered in histories of urban farming, which seems to have sprung fully formed from the forehead of the Goddess Hipster by some accounts.

It’s also not widely discussed in the history of ordinances relating to backyard farming. People protest regulations that make it hard to raise livestock without talking about the origins of those ordinances, which are deeply racist. Numerous cities banned livestock not so much as a public health issues, but as a nonwhite/people of colour issue; they didn’t want ‘the wrong people’ in their communities. And that included people of colour and nonwhite people raising livestock in their backyards. Chickens were considered a problem in the yard of, say, a Mexican family, so a city would pass an ordinance banning chickens and then claim they were unsanitary or being raised for fighting or kept in unsafe conditions. A neat way to discriminate on the basis of race while having an acceptable excuse.

White farmers protesting these ordinances may not be aware of the history of racism behind them, but they should be. There’s a long history of using regulation to force people of colour and nonwhite people out of their communities, and this is one example. White farmers suddenly taking up the cause of backyard goats should know why those ordinances existed in the first place, and should be aware of the undercurrent of racism in resistance to attempts to legalise backyard livestock; some people fear that dropping or revising ordinances will allow ‘them’ to participate in backyard farming too, and we can’t have that.

Backyard farming is about a lot more than a new trend, something to show off to friends, and, yes, a way to get directly involved in your food production. It also has a complex racial, social, and political history that shouldn’t be ignored in discussions about the origins of urban farming and who is ‘allowed’ to engage in it. White people presenting ‘acceptable’ models of backyard farming are suddenly credited with the growth of a diy boom with a chicken in every yard, but they’re riding in on the back of a practice with a very long history, and one that hasn’t always been very nice.

In the course of supporting initiatives to legalise urban farming and allow the keeping of livestock within city limits, reaching out to communities that have been involved in backyard farming for much, much longer would be politically savvy, and might help to bridge some gaps between communities.