On a Wednesday morning earlier this month, Tiffany Washington walks around her East Austin farm, shoveling compost into the long row that will soon be filled with fall crops.
Some of the vegetables — butternut squash, beets, late-season zucchini — are already in the ground, soaking up the light rain that had started to fall.
Washington has just taken an unexpected visit from a man who worked in urban farming in Chicago and wanted to offer his help, and minutes after, she received a package from Jester King’s resident farmer, Peppy Meyer, that included a big bottle of farmhouse ale.
It’s a calm, sleepy morning, but Washington, a mom of four and a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan 15 years ago, hasn’t slept in more than a day. Insomnia keeps her up. Memories of her late stepfather, too.
Bells ring from a nearby church, marking 10 a.m. Two women ride by on their bikes. "Looking good," they shout. "Hey, thanks y’all!" Washington replies. These small, unexpected joys help keep her going.
The rain starts to fall a little harder, pushing Washington to take a break under the awning next to the rental house that’s also on the property. "This is my favorite time of year," she says.
Finding the farming lifestyle
It’s been a long two years since she broke ground on this part of Dobbin-Kauv Garden Farm, a quarter-acre urban farm off the corner of Manor Road and Rogge Lane in East Austin that takes its name from two of her ancestral families.
Two weeks after officially taking over this lease-to-own property in 2018, her stepfather, who had been helping her start the business, was killed by a neighbor in Elgin. The grief was overwhelming, but she persisted. To help cover the startup costs, she set up a GoFundMe that has raised nearly $41,000 of its $50,000 goal.
The coronavirus shifted her plans for hosting a year’s worth of events on the farm, and then Black Lives Matter protests brought a new wave of interest into her research into the history of Black farmers in Austin.
Not all the comments have been positive. "It bothered me because some people were like, ‘It’s like you’re a slave,’" she says. "No, this is how I feed my kids. This is how I sustain my family."
This fall, she’s working on 20 50-foot rows, as well as some raised beds, and she also has beds at her house in Pflugerville, where she and her husband and their three young children live. (Her oldest lives out of the state with his father.) Washington grows food for her family, for a growing customer base and for anyone in her neighborhood who needs it.
Although Dobbin-Kauv is a business, Washington says, farming isn’t a job. "It’s a lifestyle," one that connects her with her neighbors and her ancestors, and when she’s working the soil, moving mulch, planting seeds and feeling the first cool air of the season, she remembers why she started.
Washington struggled after she left the military in 2006. She was homeless at a point, living with family and friends and trying to figure out what her life after the Navy would look like.
The USDA offers programs for veterans who want to farm, but Washington didn’t learn about them until more than a decade after she left service. "Civilian life was different; I had been militarized. Not knowing that there was this (assistance program) led me to a dark place," she says. "I woke up one day and knew I needed something to change my lifestyle."
She got back on her feet with the help of HUD-VASH, a housing support program for veterans, and she and her kids moved into a place and started building a new sense of normal. Part of that normal, Washington says, was getting a pet. She wanted an animal that moved at a pace that could help soothe her nerves, so she got two tortoises.
The tortoises required a lot of lettuce, which she found herself buying over and over again. That was her "aha" moment — she could grow the lettuce instead of buying it, so she started planting different kinds of lettuce at her house. One day, she wasn’t home and her husband, Roc, went into the garden and picked a salad, and Washington realized that she could just as easily grow food for her family, too. She started planting crops at her mom’s house and her grandmother’s house.
She turned to Google to find out the basics and how to connect with other people who could teach her more. That’s how she found Farmshare Austin, an 18-week farmer education program that has a teaching farm along the Colorado River between Austin and Bastrop. She enrolled in that program in early 2018, and the following year she also participated in BattleGround to Breaking Ground, a yearlong Texas A&M AgriLife Extension program to help veterans get into farming as a business.
"A lot of people, when they finish the program, they go back home and it takes a year to two to get into this, but because I went from Farmshare to BattleGround, I kept up the consistency and applying what I was learning," she says. "That’s what got me here."
Digging into the history of Black farmers
While working toward getting her own plot of land, Washington started digging into her ancestry and the history of Black farmers in Central Texas, particularly how Black families rebuilt their lives after emancipation. She searched for slave schedules online and went to the Austin History Center to look at local records.
She asked her grandmother for details about what she remembered about their family’s farming roots, which included a plot of land in Mexico. "My grandma was like, ‘Get out of here. Why do you keep asking me about this stuff?’" she says.
Washington recently gave a two-hour presentation to the Austin Organic Gardeners association, where she talked about how when talking about the history of farming in this country, we have whitewashed the contribution of Black agricultural traditions.
"(During slavery) it was easy for a white man to take the credit for having the farm," she says. "But (enslaved Black farmers) were here for their agricultural knowledge. They were ripped from the shores of Africa based on white men seeing how fertile the soil was and how hard these Black men worked to sustain their territories."
Enslaved workers were the farmers, she says. "They were doing the cattle work and the horse work and feeding their families and kids from crops that their forebearers brought from Africa," she says.
And in Texas, those agricultural workers were kept enslaved for two extra years before finding out about their emancipation. Two extra years. She pauses in her virtual presentation to let that sink in.
Sure, we might know about George Washington Carver or Booker T. Whatley, a sustainable agriculture professor at Tuskegee University and author who is credited with first suggesting what would later become the community-supported agriculture model.
"When I think about Black people in agriculture, I think about these men first," she says, but there were pioneers in Central Texas, too.
Her own ancestors were part of a group of 10 to 15 families that established Antioch, a freedman community in Hays Country that predates nearby Buda by a decade. They pooled their money to buy land at $5 an acre to grow corn, sugar and molasses. Her great-grandparents, Elias and Clarisa Bunton, donated land for a school, and her other great-grandparents, the Rev. George and Missouri Kavanaugh, contributed land for the church.
"Even though my great-grandparents were able to purchase land, or they were able to build these colonies on their own, they were still subjected to horrendous atrocities," she says. "These people were sustainable enough to build these communities that have a post office and a grocery and a school because it was dangerous for them outside the Black towns. In 1871, these people were leaving the slavery environment. Their masters were still watching them. Those feelings didn’t just change in a year."
Washington, the oldest of seven siblings, thinks about what it might have been like as a formerly enslaved Black farmer to have to restart from scratch. "It’s like, ‘I’ve been taking care of myself at home and now I have to go out and find somewhere else to live?’" she says. "’Why do I have to get out?’"
Her family eventually migrated from Antioch to East Austin, where they continued to build businesses and prominence. Her grandmother Dorothy Turner was a noted civil rights activist who spent decades on the Black Citizens Task Force and was instrumental in starting countless programs to support Black Austinites.
"She gave her life to the city of Austin. We got to love her, but we didn’t get to love her in the same way as if she hadn’t been so burdened to make all these changes," Washington says. Watching Turner give so much of herself to the city gives her granddaughter pause before fully diving into another lifetime of public activism. "I battle every day with this. I want my grandma’s memory to be preserved and protected, and I want people to remember those people who have pioneered and who are really heroes. I did my time in the service, so I have to think about how what I do now will affect my kids, my marriage, my family."
Rethinking Austin history
Washington’s family moved to Pflugerville when she was 13, but everywhere she goes around Austin, she thinks about the lives of the Black families who once lived there, from her own ancestors to the people whose stories have been lost in the narrative of Austin’s food history.
When she thinks about Boggy Creek Farm, she focuses her attention on the 19 enslaved workers who farmed the land and who built the farmhouse that still stands. She thinks about the slaveholder, James Smith, and how records show he rented out slaves to other farms around the area. "It’s the slave trade in Austin, and nobody talks about it," she says.
"It wasn’t just farming. They would teach them how to be paralegals. They were training them to be couriers and do these skilled professions. You could hire them out as a locksmith. It was ‘rent a person.’ My 5-year-old could have been rented out to fan a white lady while she was drinking tea, and I’d have to tell him to behave while he was there or else I’d have to clean him up. Think about that."
Driving north near Duval Road, she remembers the names of Rubin and Elizabeth Hancock, former slaves who were property of judge and U.S. representative John Hancock and who later owned a farm in Northwest Austin. Their daughters kept the farm until 1942, when they moved the house off the site, and Washington is still trying to find out where it was relocated.
Clarksville is one of the better-known area freedman communities, but Washington also thinks about the men and women who called the nearby Pease plantation home, including a 15-year-old enslaved woman, Maria, who had at least one child fathered by Elisha Pease. She wonders where their descendants are living and if they know their connection to the former Texas governor.
Thomas Kincheon, one of Austin’s preeminent Black farmers at the turn of the century, is another one of Washington’s ancestors. After emancipation, he founded Kincheonville, located around present-day Menchaca Road and Davis Lane, which was notable because it was a community where Hispanic, Anglo and Black families lived together.
Kincheon and his wife, Mary, operated a farm that supplied milk and butter to Austin's all-black Tillotson College. In 1928, the Black and Hispanic residents of the community were forced to move out when Austin’s new master plan forced minority families to move to the east side of town.
Washington, who is a member of the newly formed Travis County African American Cultural Heritage Commission, has been working with Kymberly Keeton, African American Community Archivist at the Austin History Center who created a presentation in 2019 called "The Black Farmer Files: A Retrospective Look at African American Farming in Austin, Texas from the 1800’s to Present" that was on display at the Texas Farmers' Market.
Keeton’s own interest in learning about Black farms came from researching her family history. "All my ancestors had something to do with farming. ... After emancipation, the vast majority of African Americans in the South became tenant farmers or they outright bought their land from their former slaveowners."
But even with the prevalence of Black agriculture, it’s been cut out of the historical narrative, and Washington’s work is helping change that. She’s also modeling farming as a career, which Keeton says she hopes will inspire others. "She really cares about what she’s doing," she says. "A lot of people would love to farm, but how do you go about it? What kind of support do you get?"
‘There’s nobody out there who looks like me’
Even though many Black people have farmers in their own family tree, the number of Black farmers declined drastically after 1930, in part due to the Great Migration when many families moved out of the South and into cities in the North, Midwest and South.
But that’s also when cities, including Austin, used master planning to force Black and Hispanic families to move into certain parts of the city, sometimes forcing them from their farmland. Business owners of color, both in rural and urban areas, also faced discrimination in gaining access to land and capital.
All these years later, these problems continue, Washington says, and she doesn’t think it’s by accident or oversight. "My goal is to help people of color understand our relationship with food and understand the disparities in the food system," she says.
"Look at food deserts. Food deserts don’t exist," she says, referring to the term often used for geographic areas where access to healthy, fresh food is limited. "There’s enough food to go around. It’s food apartheid. Apartheid is by design."
Access to education about healthy food has increased at schools through gardens and nutrition programs, but Washington wonders why young people of color aren’t getting a message that agriculture is a viable way of life.
"We had gardens at the school, but they didn’t sit you down and say, ‘Here’s how you’d become a farmer,’" she says. "When you look around a farm potluck table, there’s nobody out there who looks like me."
Farmshare is a good resource for the know-how, and community gardens are a place to get the experience, but you can’t sell the produce grown there for profit, so it still leaves the question of how to get access to land.
Washington often sends people who want to start growing their own food to the Rooted in Melanin Initiative, a burgeoning gardening club for people of color that recently launched its own crowdfunding campaign.
She asks people who want to learn more or who want to offer their help to think deeper about these issues. "Is society feeding one another? Are we feeding one another with education, love and common decency that allows everyone to prosper together?"
Alex and Anne
Washington grew up reading "Anne of Green Gables" and getting lost in the pastoral scenes of Prince Edward Island, a place so unlike Central Texas. The story features a protagonist with a story quite unlike her own, but the feeling of being an outsider who finds a sense of belonging in nature fed Washington’s love of the land. She and her daughter are watching the rebooted series on Netflix.
"That’s the book that made me love reading," she says. "Now I spend all my time reading research on all this history or listening to Audible books while I farm," usually historical fiction from authors such as Alex Haley.
Despite the insomnia that still keeps her up at night sometimes, working so closely with the soil has been tremendously healing, and learning all this history is also helping heal some wounds that predate her time in the military. Under slavery, "Black people couldn’t take a break to get water," she says. "Now when I take a break, I take a break for my ancestors."
One of her symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder is binge eating, and Washington says that farming introduced a different relationship with food. "I took those unhealthy eating habits and turned them into healthy ones where I can snack on baby veggies as I work on the farm."
This fall, she’s expanding her community-supported agriculture program where customers can get produce delivered directly to their homes, but it’s also important for her to keep some produce for her daughter to sell at a farm stand in front of their house. "Kids get to learn how to be entrepreneurs, too."
She hopes to host more formal events there in the coming year. For Juneteenth, she hosted a blanket theater with a projector, a homemade Slip ‘n’ Slide and a crawfish boil.
Eventually, Washington imagines her corner of East Austin as a food hub complete with a commercial kitchen to prepare value-added food items and to work with other food entrepreneurs.
Her dreams don’t stop there.
"Agritourism is going to be a big deal for me because it crosses over into Black heritage tours," she says. "When people are starting to learn about their roots, they start to seek this out. I want to have a large enough space to have a library and a Black farm heritage museum, somewhere to put those artifacts that people dig up."
Her property used to be a vacant meadow that people in the neighborhood would use as a cut-through or a hangout. They still cut through the property and gather, but now she’s there. "We talk, hang out, listen to music," she says. If someone needs food, she gives it to them.
"Being in the Navy taught me to care for my country and to care for my neighbor," she says. "It didn’t matter what color they were or where they were from. It matters that they were in my community."
As Washington continues her research, digging deep into her own Ancestry.com records and into the digital archives that preserve the lesser known parts of Austin’s history, she tries to stay focused on reclaiming the narrative for future generations to build upon.
"These are the stories. It’s not meant to be, ‘Woe is us,’" she says. "It’s meant to be, ’Let’s celebrate our successes.’"
(Correction: An earlier version of this story mentioned a possible cemetery at McKinney Falls State Park. Washington has come across unmarked cemeteries around Central Texas, but not at McKinney Falls, although local historians say it’s possible that there is one there.)