During a grocery store run at the onset of COVID-19, Gabrielle E.W. Carter ran into a close friend whose family owns a restaurant in downtown Durham, North Carolina. Carter's casual greeting quickly turned into an intense conversation.
"It wasn't meant to be something deep, but we went there real quick," said Carter. "I just remember like leaving the moment kind of heartbroken. I immediately texted Derrick to say—'I just ran into [our friend]… This pandemic is serious. We need to figure out how we are supporting our people.'"
Carter, a self-described "grower, designer, and preservationist," brainstormed tangible ways to give back to her community. She started with a newsletter highlighting local restaurants to encourage take out orders. That service transformed into something more creative and impactful.
"As I started drafting this newsletter, I remember when I was writing, I was like, 'wait a minute… the chain supply'. Where are these restaurants getting their food from? Who are the people who are vulnerable beyond vulnerable… beyond the restaurant? I started thinking about the farmers… we were like, we should just call, see how things are going."
According to FoodTank, "the total economic cost of the coronavirus outbreak on local and regional food systems, such as farmers markets, farm-to-school programs, restaurants, and food hubs, could total $1.3 billion between March and May of ." That impact is likely to be far more detrimental to Black farming communities. Today, there are less than 50,000 Black farmers nationwide, and about 2,100 in North Carolina. Loss of land and the harsh impact of systemic racism have made it inaccessible for Black people to own and maintain ownership of land, making farming too difficult for most.
Along with her two partners—Derrick Beasley, a Durham artist and cultural organizer, and Gerald Harris, Senior Director of Campus and Student Engagement at Duke University—Carter birthed Tall Grass Food Box, a Durham-based organization centered around sustaining Black farmers by targeting restaurants and consumers to buy local healthy food from them.
Through twice-monthly food subscription boxes, the dynamic trio distributes fresh produce from North Carolina's Black farmers to businesses and residents across the state's Triangle region, including Durham and Raleigh.
"Our aim has been consistency with the group of farmers we work with," Beasley said. "Another aim has been keeping a pulse on the needs of the farmers we are working with and to spread our ordering in such a way to ensure smaller farms can benefit even if they aren't able to complete a full order of a given item."
The name "Tall Grass" is an extension of an experimental documentary Carter produced, highlighting the intergenerational familial bonds she developed through farming and gardening.
"It just felt right to extend that [project] and make this a leg of that work," she said. "[The documentary] was very much rooted in us building relationships and how like through land we build relationships… through these practices and traditions and through feeding ourselves, it's in the kitchen, it's in the garden that we build these really strong bonds with folks… that felt right."
Local farmers were receptive from the beginning; for many, the timing of a partnership with Tall Grass Food Box felt like divine intervention. In October 2019, Anna Huckabee launched Moonlight Farms, a woman-owned family-operated farm that produces an array of seasonal mushrooms, herbs, and microgreens. Within a short amount of time she secured contracts from chefs and local restaurant owners who were attracted to her unique offering of pink, blue, and golden oyster mushrooms. By mid-March, as restaurants closed, all of her contacts had canceled.
"I kept receiving calls like, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I have to cancel,'" Huckabee said. "It felt like it happened all within one or two days. I was getting emails and phone calls. And they had no choice to shut down. I couldn't get mad at them. That's what they had to do… I couldn't even afford my mushrooms. But now, I was stuck with all these mushrooms. I ended up giving some out to friends, family, and neighbors… and then out of the blue I received a call from Gabrielle and Derrick. Things are much better."
Huckabee's partnership with Tall Grass led to an ongoing partnership with John Herbert, the Food and Beverage Director at The Durham Hotel, where she will grow oyster mushrooms specific to their needs.
"We've requested 10 pounds of mushrooms a week. Right now we're doing these beautiful pink oyster mushrooms. We're utilizing them in a vegan pasta dish, smoked mushroom Cristini appetizers, we'll be doing mushroom meatballs, you know, we're just going to find ways to use them," said Herbert.
Herbert first offered Tall Grass free storage and packaging space at The Durham Hotel. Once the hotel reopened, he connected them with other local restaurants with whom they could coordinate the logistics to prepare boxes for the food subscription.
"[T]heir method of providing retail pricing for the farmers directly, because they don't pay wholesale… and are not looking to make a million dollars out of what they're doing, really enriches the lives of the people that receive the food that wouldn't normally have access to it," Herbert said. "Then, of course, to the farmers, some of them with the smallest, you know, two acres of land growing these vegetables is really remarkable and a beautiful process."
Since their launch in March, Tall Grass has paid over $34,000 to Black farmers in North Carolina, who had seen major challenges since the start of the pandemic.
"Every time I see those numbers when we're doing our payouts… I think of it as power money and system changing money," Beasley said. "You know, some of our farmers are already engaged politically in different ways. We're just excited to be a part of that conversation with them and to bring our own skill sets, tools, ideas, experiences and connections to the table to just to amplify the work that they are already doing."
Co-founder Gerald Harris defines the creative trio as "bridge babies," a special group of millennials who relied more on the outdoors for adventures growing up, but are still active in today's tech-centered culture, two traits that make them useful for 21st century small farmers.
"We are probably one of the last groups to really be outside playing until the lights came on, but we are also very connected to new technologies like social media," he says.
Carter, Beasley, and Harris all possess artistic talents that they bring to Tall Grass. From the website's sleek modern design and user-friendly navigation to the clean unified aesthetics of their marketing—all the way down to the typography used on promotional graphics. The trio have modernized the way multiple generations can have access to Black farmers and learn about Black farming as a necessary practice. Beasley creates all marketing, graphics and designs for the business. Social justice efforts are incorporated throughout their work and online social media engagement. A T-shirt with the simple call to "Pay Black Farmers" aligns with their mission.
Tall Grass also connects to its subscribers and larger public through their digital publication—"Tall Tales: Food Stories and Recipes." From guided demonstrations on how to make peach preserves and sweet potato flatbread, the group has hosted virtual conversations that centers recipes relevant to the ingredients in their subscription boxes.
"I think getting an opportunity to give back to this work is partially my debt that I owed to my ancestors," Harris said. "Being able to do this work with two other individuals that come from the same generation as me… we all have our different own ramps and pathways to this work, and to be able to form a collective and come together to create these opportunities with Black Farmers in a lot of ways, is art."
Each member of the trio has family connections to farming. A descendant of Black Southern farmers, Harris' grandfather was the melon man in his rural Arkansas community. "He was the dude that went to the market… They had the Chevy that was filled with watermelons, cantaloupes, and sprite melons… he was that guy," said Harris.
Carter's family did not grow up on a farm, but her grandparents maintained a backyard garden that is still thriving today. As a child, the labor of farming—and/or the fear of it—disrupted any interpersonal relationships with land, gardening, and seed keeping she could develop. It wasn't until she moved back home to connect with her family's land and build stronger bonds with her grandfather and great uncles that she saw the unlimited possibilities through growing food.
"I moved back home just to basically tend to garden. I didn't have a job lined up… but while my grandfather's still here… while my uncles are still here and still working the land, I want to be a part of this and I can't do it the way I want to do it living [away from home]."
Like Carter, Beasley's grandfather also had a garden. The work he's currently doing with Tall Grass Food Box has sparked a renewed understanding of his personal connections to agriculture, planting, and farming.
"When we started off with Tall Grass, it really started from a place of like 'What do the farmers need?'" he said. "I think the farmers that we've worked with and continue to work with, see our commitment and acknowledge it. [They] really have lifted us up… we might be getting more help than they are."