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Connecting with the land is in our DNA! storytelling series. BUGs Q&A with a Black farmer from Texas

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

Blog post #2

Connecting with the land is in our DNA! storytelling series

BUGs Q&A interview with a Black farmer

Name: Justin Duncan

Home state: Texas

Work title: Sustainable Agriculture Specialist, National Center for Appropriate Technology

Justin works as a Sustainable Agriculture Specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology's Southwest Regional Office. He has a BS in Agronomy from Prairie View A&M University and an MS in Plant Breeding.

He’s spent years figuring out the nuts-and-bolts of successful organic farming in the humid South, concentrating mainly on sweet potatoes, strawberries, niche market ethnic specialty crops, cover crops and drought mitigation techniques. He is currently working on cover crop projects in the southern United States to help farmers there build organic matter in their soil, mitigate risk through crop diversification and reduce weed pressure.

How did you become involved in farming? What life experiences led you to this work?

My passion for plants led me to farming. As a young person I wasn’t exposed to FFA and the only thing I knew of 4H is they used to have those commercials, but I never knew of any of those programs being offered near me. I don’t think I really associated my love of plants with a career in agriculture.

Upon (college) graduation, I went out to my family’s land in Madison County to work. My dad had always told me that our family had land and he hammered that fact into me. While I had never actually been to the property, I would visit his grandmother (Big Momma) up in Madisonville and spend my summers with her occasionally, she too would tell me about her land.

Being from a family of landowners seemed to be important to them so as a child it was important to me too, but where did this land come from?

After slavery ended, they told my Big-Momma’s grandparents that they could have as much land as they could fence-off… well they had 17 children and they got to fencin’! All told they fenced off 2 sections, about 1300 acres on the Trinity River. We have 21 acres left of that. I look across the fence at land stolen from us and lament the lack of time travel technology then get back to work because there is always so much to do and so little time to do it.

In the entire country, Texas has the highest percentage of Black farmers and ranchers. Yet, I would bet that not many people are aware of this fact. Could you tell us a little bit more about Texas's Black farmer and rancher community?

Black Texas farmers, ranchers and landowners keep their heads down. There’s a lot of pain in that history.”

On the Young side of my family from what we call the ‘Island’ in Madison County because it’s a big piece of land surrounded by a little bit of water, the water being the Trinity River and Bedias Creek. Through hookery and crookery, they took our land because we couldn’t read the documents they were signing and ended up losing the bulk of their land.

On the Duncan side, we fought the Klan and according to the records in the Houston County Courthouse, we took out quite a few of them but not enough. I didn’t know this story until I became president of the Duncan Family Reunion and started doing some genealogical research. I didn’t really understand who my family was until I saw first-hand the cemetery in Vistula, Texas which was at one time called Little Africa.

If serendipity could ever be defined it was that moment when out of all the people in Crockett that I could have asked, the first would be my cousin. From the Crockett Duncan’s I started hearing this story of the Battle of Vistula. All of the various branches of the Duncan family had a pretty good start after slavery ended, my great-grandfather’s brother Jim was no exception. He owned the general store in Vistula and his wife’s family the Gaines (pronounced with two syllables) owned all the land in the area and their own cotton gin. They were well-off, prosperous people until the Red Summer.

Regarding the Red Summer: From what I understand from the fractions of the story I have been told is that the Klan came out in force to the town and the family fought all night, until the point where one cousin called to the other and said he was running low on shells and another responded that he was too and it encouraged those Klan cowards to come forward to try to wipe them out. We had one uncle up in the barn with a buffalo rifle, the ones like you’d see on display in the Alamo, acting as sniper. They’d run up, he’d lay them down. This went on until morning. When the Sun started to rise they told the women and children to line up single file and walk into the rising sun.

In this way the family survived, leaving with only the clothes on their back. My Big-Momma kept a shotgun behind every door in her house and was not afraid to use them. She was still out there blasting away snakes in her garden in her nineties, she lived to be 103 and I miss her dearly. It was her husband, my great-grandfather, who went out to Vistula to bury the dead. So no, you don’t hear a lot about us Black farmers and ranchers because we keep out heads down. We do the work and traditionally haven’t called a lot of attention to ourselves. Tell us about the first time you attended the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners National (BUGs)conference. My first BUGS was in North Carolina. I didn’t know what to expect. The last thing I ever dreamed would happen is that I would be in tears. I’m not emotional or wishy-washy or anything like that. I’m an Army man raised by an Army man from a family of men that take care of business. Since I was 12 years old I have cried only for my father, sister, grand mother and great grandmothers’ passing and once I got my lil’ heart broken by a girl who’s jealous friend lied on me and broke her heart. It’s just not a thing I do. But Leah Penniman had me in tears. As an academic I knew certain crops arrived here from Africa but I never really knew how. When she told me the story of how, damn… that messed me up. Read her book! Farming While Black, and yes I have a signed copy.

What were some of your best memories from the BUGs conference?

I think my best memories were from the Atlanta conference because there were quite a few PVAMU alumni that I hadn’t seen in a long while, we got to hang out together and have dinner, which was an epic handful of fun that we need to do more often but our busy schedules aren’t amenable to that sort of congregation.

What would you say to others who are still debating whether or not to attend the BUGs conference this year? I understand that many farmers are busy, and that stuff gets outta hand when we are away from the thing for too long. Its farming though… something always happens, and we just recover, storms, droughts, floods, fires, thieves, vandals, pests, disease, rabbits, squirrels and for those outside of Texas y’all even have groundhogs (we probably ate all those here).

We as farming folks don’t often take enough time for ourselves to retrain, learn new skills, and simply hang out with like-minded folks that look like us. Let me tell you… folks, there is a great sense of pride and love walking into one of the BUGs plenary sessions where there are hundreds of us in one place. Its good feeling. One that will never be experienced alone on the farm doing a task that can be done next week and things will still be okay.


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Alittle more about Justin Duncan:

Tell us about you and your organization {or life’s work}?

I am both a producer and a Sustainable Agriculture Specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). I raise a few cattle, sheep, and rabbits because the price of meat is steadily increasing by leaps and bounds but my main interest has always been plants. Friends or former coworkers, which ever comes first, like Brandon Hawkins call me ‘the Plant Doctor’. Present coworkers call me the ‘mad plant scientist’ and my producer clients like Milton Woods simply call me ‘guru’. I love plants and have done so since I was big enough to help my departed father win ‘yard of the month’ consistently in our Houston home in the Rushwood subdivision back in the day.

Back in 2010-11 when I was University Greenhouse Manager at Prairie View A&M University when all the fields were dried up and dead, I had crops in the field growing at heights of 6 to 7 to even 8 feet tall, with no irrigation, no fertilization and no need for pest control… because I know how to match the right crop with the right growing conditions.

After my stint in graduate school, I decided I did not want to spray and synthetic chemicals on anything I grew because my research was on cotton which is one of the most chemically treated crops you can find. As a poor, struggling graduate student I often went hungry and one of the weeds in the cotton field, what we call ‘smell melons’, which are just a diminutive relative of cantaloupes or honeydew melons, were the only meal I had some days. I knew they’d been sprayed with a buncha stuff, but I ate them anyway… it’s a reality I always keep in mind. Food shouldn’t be sprayed with anything that kills anything; work with Nature to provide abundance on the given piece of land.

I bring that philosophy into my daily work at the NCAT where I get to do my most favorite thing after growing plants which is teaching folks about plants. At PVAMU I was mentored by a cadre of caring extension, research, and academic professionals with the mindset of serving the under-served. It’s an 1890 Land-Grant institution and the Land-Grants were made to teach farmers by means of the Cooperative Extension Program. The way it’s supposed to work is that the researchers discover new techniques and the extension personnel translate the scientist’s lab work into something that the farmers can understand so that the community as a whole benefits from the research.

When I came to NCAT I brought that mentality with me and that’s reflected in my work and the grants I have been awarded. My clients have often told me that when I teach I don’t ‘gatekeep’ knowledge, I’m going to teach everything I know about the subject at hand because like those old commercials “If you (as my client) don’t look good, I (as your mentor) don’t look good.”

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