By Morgan Edwards
Michael Carter Jr. has a lot on his mind.
He jumps from subject to subject but manages to weave each topic into the narrative of his life and the history of race in Virginia. It’s an impressive feat. Peppering his answers with self-deprecation and humor, it’s easy to tell that Carter is a natural storyteller with a mind for the big picture. He doesn’t shy away from examining his place among Black farmers in the state and abroad. To him it’s a necessary and vital topic of discussion.
Seated at a picnic table on his family’s 150-acre plot of land just outside of Unionville, Carter is wearing a face mask adorned with a farming vista. Next to him is a traditional Nigerian hoe used to till soil for planting crops. It’s one of those late winter afternoons where the sun hangs around longer, but the wind stings at your skin like a swarm of bees. The first buds are beginning to appear on trees and the world threatens to burst into bloom at a moment’s notice. Planting season is still weeks away, Carter remarks, his eyes twinkling
On Jan. 27, Carter was recognized as the Small Farm Agent of the Year by the Virginia Cooperative Extension. He jokes about not letting the award go to his head, while admitting he’s honored by the acknowledgement.
Carter, 42, officially established Carter Farms in 2017 after he returned from a five-year stay with his family in the west African nation of Ghana. His ultimate goal is to create a teaching farm that educates visitors on the numerous achievements of African American farmers and inventors. Incorporating many of the native vegetables and crops he studied in Ghana, Carter is hoping to make the concept of Africulture mainstream in the United States.
“That’s when I began to look into agritourism; something that we could do to highlight the African and African American contributions to agriculture,” he said. “For my family’s sake. But then I started to explore even more and it became a passion to learn as much as I could and retell a story that gave honor and precedence to my grandfather, his brothers and to my grandmother. That became the inspiration for Africulture and Carter Farms.”
Before he could get to this point, Carter had to go through an awakening of sorts. Coming from generations of farmers, educators and agricultural experts, he initially didn’t give much thought to carrying on the family legacy. For one, he didn’t even grow up in the area. Carter was born and raised in Caroline County north of Richmond.
“I mean I came here all the time as a child,” Carter said. “Sometimes a cousin my age would be visiting and we would run around and have fun. If not, I would just play basketball and ride bikes. I didn’t think about the purpose of the land itself.”
A close family friend, Roland Terrell, affectionately referred to as “Uncle Roland,” watched Carter as young boy explore his family’s property but didn’t expect him to return one day.
“The Carter farm is just a couple of miles down the road from our farm which is the Terrell farm,” Terrell said. “Michael’s father and I attended the same high school, Orange County High and also attended Virginia State University as well. Michael Carter Sr. took a job in Caroline County as an agriculture teacher. I stayed at home and taught agriculture in the Orange County School system.”
More interested in basketball and hanging out with friends during his teenage years, the younger Carter never asked many questions about his ancestry or his family’s background. After finishing high school in 1996 he went on to attend North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, where he graduated four years later with a degree in agricultural economics. For nearly a dozen years, Carter lived and worked in Washington D.C. with his wife and kids.
“Having younger sons I was concerned about D.C. living especially for teenagers,” Carter said. “I never wanted to receive a call of either ‘come pick your child up, he’s done something’ or ‘come identify your child.’ It was a scary moment raising a young Black male in the city. There were a lot of other social pressures there. The police were usually the least of my worries. My oldest, Bakiem, who was 16 at the time, was just a lonely kid in the middle of everything. I didn’t want to have that for him. So, we opted to leave in 2012.”
Deciding to move to Ghana with the idea of living at a slower, more relaxed pace, Carter soon found work advising various farms and businesses.
“Once there I started working with some agriculture companies or firms as a consultant in organic agriculture. I would travel to different places about six to nine months out of the year where I would aid different farmers that were typically transitioning from conventional agriculture to organic agriculture.”
Gradually, Carter became more and more knowledgeable about Ghanaian crops such as yams, plantains, sorghum and pineapples.
“It worked out well and gave me some experience in terms of dealing with the ethnic vegetables there,” he said. “I grew them commercially and as a hobby. I ate them and learned to prepare them. So, I became very familiar.”
Throughout the five years in Ghana, Carter criss-crossed all over the country for his job with his family in tow.
“I was everywhere. There was no particular place I stayed in for long. Initially, I was in Cape Coast which is by the sea [on the Gulf of Guinea] and they grow a tremendous number of pineapples there, which taste amazing. So, it’s essentially pineapple orchards.”
Following his time in Cape Coast he relocated to Ghana’s western Bono region. The country is made up of 16 administrative regions.
“We moved to a place called Wenchi, which is in the breadbasket region of the country. I worked in a tomato factory there. We did some greenhouse production of tomatoes, sorghum and cowpeas or black-eyed peas. There were also cashews grown on that farm and seed corn known as obatanpa. They kind of roast their corn, so it’s more of a field corn than a sweet corn.”
Carter also spent brief periods in Kenya around the same time. Although his experience in Ghana was a highly enriching one, he couldn’t shake the feeling of being a fish out of water.
“I had the fortunate or unfortunate experience of kind benefiting from what I call a certain amount of American or Western privilege. It could very well be described as white privilege, where now I was at the top of the pecking order. It was such a psychological dilemma I was facing when I was working at that farm.”
As the months passed, Carter began to wonder if he was missing out on the opportunity to carry on his family’s legacy in Orange County.
“My parents had come to see me in Ghana at least three times while we were there. During their last visit, my father gave me some paternal wisdom. What I learned when I was in West Africa, is that when your father calls you back home, you go.”
The hints from his father that he needed to return were only amplified by occurrences on the farm where he was employed.
“I had experiences in Ghana with people who were 20 to 30 years old working for me and one day they would tell me that their father is coming home,” Carter explained. “I didn’t read too much into it at first. But they would say ‘no he’s calling me home, which means today is my last day.’ That was eye-opening to me. My father didn’t put it in exactly those terms, yet it still really resonated with me. He began pitching ideas about things I could do here like transitioning the farm and developing workshops.”
Sobered by what he had witnessed, Carter concluded that the best choice was to return to Virginia with his family. Upon arriving home he immediately began delving into his family tree and lineage, hoping to make up for lost time.
“When they did an analysis, they said our people came from Scotland,” Carter said. “I found out later during my own research that these were actually Black men who were shipped to America following a rebellion that happened in 1745 or so. I have some documentation talking about the Mackintoshes where my family lineage comes from.”
Additionally, Carter was searching for ways to build a business on his family’s property. The problem at that point was securing funding to get a farm up and running.
“I was looking for grant opportunities and funding,” he said. “After going to the [Orange County] courthouse and doing some research we found out that my great great grandparents, Catherine and Jefferson Shirley, purchased this property in 1910.”
After settling in Orange County, Carter took a job as the state program assistant for Virginia State University’s Small Farm Outreach Program. He also acts as the Small Farm Resource Center Coordinator and designed the center’s website.
Despite staying incredibly busy with his other work, Carter continues to be devoted to Carter Farms and has big plans for the next several years.
“In the process of setting things up, we received a couple of grants to help tell the story,” he said. “We’re going to plant trees on behalf of the family across the property and set up a walking tour as well as telling the stories behind some of the farming implements near the entrance to the property. Additionally, we plan to grow ethnic vegetables farther down on the farm land and talk to people about their place in agriculture as a whole.”
According to Carter, although he wants to set his business up for success, he is equally concerned about helping people grasp the severe disadvantages Black and minority farmers face.
“There is a racial deficit in this country,” he said. “We never really paid the balance on it. As you go further and further down, each generation says ‘it’s not our fault’ yet the other generations are impacted. Africulture focuses on this problem because we hold workshops, training, and counseling on racial equity and understanding. You have to put it in terms that people can understand. For me, I like to engage individuals who might be ignorant, because the best way to treat someone who is ignorant is to give them knowledge.”
Carter explained that the average median age of most farmers in the United States is already quite high at 59 and that for Black farmers the median age is 63. By the time most Black farmers start to turn a profit on their business, they are close to retirement age and unable to pass down their wealth to the next generation. Because of this dilemma, many young Black men and women opt to go to college or pursue a different career path other than agriculture. Combined with increasing automation and factory farming, this drop in participation in the industry has led to a steep drop in Black farmers in Virginia.
“In the 1920s, we had about 50,000 Black farmers in the state,” Carter said. “Today, there’s about 1,300.”
Nevertheless, Carter said that he has been able to form a solid network of Black-owned and operated farms across Central Virginia.
“My work with Virginia State exposed me to the small but growing network of Black farms in the region and state,” Carter said. “From there we started to build relationships. We’re learning to work together. I definitely try to provide them with a lot of different business outlets. So, I have relationships with 4P Foods, Local Food Hub and Fredericksburg Food Co-Op. A whole bunch of stores and restaurants. I want to be kind of a conduit for markets. Some markets are limited because of certifications and food safety.”
One major problem facing young Black farmers all over the country is a lack of access to land. Carter is tackling this head on in his own family by teaching his three youngest sons how to run their own company before they turn 18 and head out into the world. Carter Brothers is a small online seed shop set up by Mekhael, Yahir and Shmael with their father’s guidance. They sell many of the seeds used at Carter Farms back to him all while learning about the value of work and forming business connections.
This is part of Carter’s mission to balance the scales and boost economic engagement by African Americans in their communities.
“We, as a country, often talk about social equity, but never truly talk about economic equity,” he said. “That’s really what levels the playing field in society.”
COVID-19 has introduced fresh challenges for Carter; however it also has opened the door for increasing black farmers’ profiles in some unexpected ways.
“During the past summer, people began to really pay attention to Black farms and farmers,” Carter said. “It’s becoming a sustainable movement.”
The question now is how to maintain that momentum. Carter has ideas ranging from adding more acreage to the farm to utilizing social media and the burgeoning state hemp industry to convince younger farmers to take a chance and open their own enterprises. No matter what, Carter is excited about what the future will bring.
“Supporting Black farmers is a good start,” he said. “Find some Black farmers in your area and buy vegetables from them. There are always opportunities where we can make a difference.”