‘Welcome Blacks to the Land’: Inside Sonoma County’s First Afro-Indigenous Permaculture Farm

Two important people in this line are the parents of Thomas. His mother, Frances Louise Short Thomas, was raised as a sharecropper in South Carolina until she was three years old. Her family moved to a small town in Pennsylvania, where Pandora herself would eventually be born and raised. Thomas now takes care of his mother, who holds the title of “EARTHseed Elder” on the farm.

The Carver Tubman House, dedicated to the memory of Lawrence “Jelly” Thomas. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Pandora’s father, Lawrence “Jelly” Thomas, was a factory worker who loved being outdoors and taught Pandora to fish and value all life, not just humans. The farm’s Carver Tubman House—named for black historical figures George Washington Carver, an agronomist and inventor, and Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist—is dedicated to his memory.

When it came to naming the farm, Thomas turned to another important figure: acclaimed science fiction author Octavia E. Butler, whose image adorns a mural on one of the buildings in the farm. The name is a nod to Butler’s fictional “Earthseed” religion, in which one of the key tenets is to educate and support oneself and the community.

“When Octavia Butler wrote ‘Parable of the Sower,’ she was really leaning on her kind of ancestral wisdom and knowledge to tell this story, this dystopian future,” Thomas said. “So it feels like it’s been happening. There will be several more EARTHseeds. I feel like part of my job is to support the next EARTHseed which will have even more impact than this. So it feels timeless, but also timely.

A mural honoring Octavia E. Butler by Artist-in-Residence Radioactive is on the EARTHseed farm. The black science fiction writer’s books inspired the name of the farm. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Thomas, who first moved to Northern California 24 years ago, has worked and lived in more than 12 countries, including Venezuela, Senegal and Germany. She views EARTHseed as the culmination of her lifelong work to honor the legacy of land stewards of African descent.

The Making of an Afro-Indigenous Permaculture Farm

The EARTHseed team of approximately 20 predominantly Black and Latinx staff includes an array of interdisciplinary roles, including farm stewards, herbalist, artist-in-residence, and culinary artist, among others. Beside them is a small group of animals, including two composting Kunekune pigs, Humphrey and Benny.

a smiling black woman kneels while feeding a big pig on a farm with greenery in the background
Pandora Thomas, founder of EARTHseed Farm, feeds two Kunekune pigs, Humphrey and Benny, at the Sonoma County Farm and Orchard. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For now, the farm continues to grow the crops it is known for, while Thomas and others listen and observe the land. For example, they noticed mullein, a weed known to reduce inflammation and treat respiratory problems when smoked or made into tea, growing naturally.

“Right now it’s an organic farm where all the systems are working so we can do a lot of fruit that basically leaves the site, which isn’t a bad thing,” Thomas said. “But the goal of Afro-Indigenous permaculture is what will it be like when we see mullein growing like a weed here and learning more about the heritage of mullein. Maybe mullein came into our lives because of all the respiratory issues and swelling that are happening in our communities right now.

a basket with freshly harvested mullein, a green plant, sits on a table with a green tablecloth
A basket of mullein leaves at EARTHseed’s “Black to the Land” gathering. (Ariana Proehl/KQED)

The term permaculture, a combination of the words permanent and culture — or agriculture, depending on who you’re talking to — was coined by Bill Mollisona white Australian researcher and scientist, in the 1970s. Permaculture is defined as the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient, an approach strongly derived from indigenous science and land practices.

The term “Afro-Indigenous permaculture” may therefore seem redundant given the roots of the practice. But it’s part of a bigger complaint and recognition of the agricultural contributions of indigenous peoples and people of African descent.

a latino man in jeans and a pink sweatshirt walks through an orchard
Farm manager Antonio Paniagua walks through the EARTHseed farm orchard. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Thomas and his team recognize the ancestral Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo lands on which the farm sits and have received the blessing of the local Graton Rancheria tribe to operate using the principles of Afro-Indigenous permaculture. Antonio Paniagua, the farm manager, who has worked the land for more than 17 years, wears a hat that reads ‘YOU ARE ON NATURAL LAND’ as he reflects on the impact of transferring ownership of the farm so far.

“Barely a year has passed and the change is already being felt. I watch it,” he said.

Farm steward Fernando Gonzalez, who is skilled in carpentry and animal husbandry in addition to farming, echoed the philosophy of Thomas’ vision, saying it’s important to “know how the land works and understand trees” as they continue their work.

a latino man in jeans and a green shirt poses near a tree in an orchard
Farm steward Fernando Gonzalez works at the EARTHseed farm. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Farm Fiber Arts Fellow Grace Harris Johnson says she is working on making a natural dye using EARTHseed’s mullein, as well as exploring processes for other dyes using the fruits of the farm.

“I’ll probably take the plums and a few pears that end up getting a little too old and I’ll probably make a fructose fat for indigo,” she said.

Thomas seeks to foster a spirit of exploration and creativity around EARTHseed resources among all who visit, especially black people, whether or not they work in environmental science.

“We want black people to be able to come here and tap into ‘what is their role,'” Thomas said. “Maybe you are a fashion designer. Maybe you do hair. You may be a doula. You may be a therapist. We want you to come here, be inspired and learn what you do and report back to your community.

a woman walks in an orchard with a dog, her back to the camera
EARTHseed Farm founder Pandora Thomas takes a walk with the farm dog, Jackson Black, in the organic orchard. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As California’s severe drought continues and the effects of the climate crisis worsen across the state and the world, practitioners of Afro-Indigenous permaculture principles, like Thomas and EARTHseed, can offer lessons on adapting to circumstances and building a relationship with the land.

“We’re on a farm that’s an orchard, but it’s like it’s the classroom that we were given, that the land gave us,” Thomas said. “And the lessons aren’t just, ‘OK, tell everyone how to farm.’ It’s more, how can our communities learn to be in alignment with the boundaries, but also the bounty, that the Earth has to give us.

Welcoming members of the “Black to the Land” community

EARTHseed’s regular “Black to the Land” gatherings provide opportunities to experience being on the land, with a mission to reconnect Black people to the roots of Afro-Indigenous wisdom. At the last EARTHseed gathering, held on a hot Sunday afternoon in July, a DJ played music while more than 30 predominantly Black and Latina Bay Area guests munched on tacos and sipped farm-fresh apple, pear and persimmon juices.

two smiling black women are sitting under a tree in an orchard
Photographer Devin Ariel, left, and artist Féven Zewdi hang out under the trees at EARTHseed’s ‘Black to the Land’ rally. (Ariana Proehl/KQED)

Some guests took self-guided tours, while others wandered the rows of organic raspberries to pick and eat berries in an informal version of EARTHseed. U-Pick program.

Doris Kiambati, environmental educator and teacher-in-residence at Ranch Slide in Muir Beach, said the rallies are “a good opportunity to meet other black farmers and environmentalists in the area.”

two black women are picking berries in an orchard
Doris Kiambati, environmental educator, left, and Kenya Wright, healer and doula, pick raspberries at EARTHseed’s ‘Black to the Land’ gathering. (Ariana Proehl/KQED)

Abi Huff, an herbalist who resides in Santa Rosa and serves as EARTHseed’s Herb Diva, recalled her first encounter with EARTHseed when she attended one of the first “Black to the Land” programs last summer.

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