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Field is Fertile in Delta for Black Farmer

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Ron Kelley's 50-acre farm skirts the Sacramento River.  Kelley snaps the stems off big, floppy mustard greens that taste like … is that Grey Poupon? Now, Kelley comes to the turnips.

Farmer Kelley: Here's a nice big one right here, I'll just pull it out.

At age 65, Kelley has farmed nearly 60 years. He began as a child weeding his mother's garden in his hometown of Courtland.

Farmer Kelley: That was my first introduction to what has now turned out to be farming a small parcel. 

R. Kelley Farms began as a 3-acre patch 19 years ago.

Farmer Kelley: It was something to keep me occupied on the weekends.

Today Kelley's farm is a profitable enterprise. His story is unusual, though. Black agriculture is struggling to reverse a decline in ownership over the past century. Ron Kelley says that for many young urban blacks farming is a reminder of slavery.  

Farmer Kelley: I think the experience of the African-Americans on farms isn't one of  'my grandpa used to take me fishing in the farm pond.' It's 'my grandpa used to pick cotton and get whipped on the farm.'

For many African Americans, the legacy of slavery overshadows pride in farming as a profession.  That's according to Drue Brown. He's the CEO of Blacks in Agriculture headquartered in Sacramento.   

Brown: I notice some students who equate farming with slavery, still today and that's been definitely a deterrent. 

Another deterrent was discrimination by the federal government when it came to giving out farm loans to black farmers. The USDA settled a class action lawsuit over this issue in 1999. Glitches in payouts caused more lawsuits. Most recently, President Obama allotted $1.15 billion dollars to black farmers who hadn't been paid in the original settlement.  Brown is counting on black youth to gradually enter farming after exposure to school gardens.

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Brown: Once they get involved, they get really turned on and some go in for a career as it relates to a technical science career.

For Ron Kelley, farming and being outdoors has always appealed. By summer, his fields will fill out with okra, black-eyed peas, gypsy peppers, cranberry beans and his specialty -- fresh speckled butter beans. Kelley says that just because he's black, his crop selections are not the ingredients for soul food.

Farmer Kelley: The largest clientele that I have for my fresh southern peas are Fujian Indians. And also Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese and African-Americans and Caucasians that are from The South. I think that's what makes me a little unique.

His crops end up in restaurants from Sacramento to the Bay Area and in the hands of local African-American chef Richard Pannell.

Pannell is chef at New Moon Bed & Breakfast in Freeport. Today, he works a large knife over the greens just picked at Ron Kelley's farm -- collards, two kinds of mustard greens and turnip tops that are peppery, like arugula. He's using all the greens raw. It's a joke in Pannell's family that he doesn't like cooked greens.

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Chef Pannell: Some people say I'm not of the culture…

He puts each of the greens through the chiffonade technique.

Chef Pannell: You stack your leaves, you roll the leaves up like a cigar, then you slice

… to make ribbons. A dressing lightly sweetened with macerated strawberries offsets any bitterness in the greens.

The result? Greens grown by a black farmer and prepped by a black chef become a salad for all. Pannell named his dish for the farmer - Kelley Greens Salad.

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