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Giving Back: Kamal Bell and Sankofa Farms

Young men digging and filling a wheelbarrow

Kamal Bell isn’t your stereotypical North Carolina farmer, and his Orange County farm isn’t your everyday farm. There, he’s not just farming, he’s also teaching — and doing both in ways aimed at raising the quality of life for people in his nearby hometown of Durham.

Dee Shore (00:07):

Kamal Bell isn’t your stereotypical North Carolina farmer, and his farm in Orange County isn’t your everyday farm. There, he’s farming and teaching – and doing both in ways aimed at raising the quality of life for people in his nearby hometown of Durham. I’m Dee Shore, from North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and in this season of giving, we devote this episode of Farms, Food and You to Bell and his desire to give back to his community, to create a sustainable living for himself and his family and to help young African American men forge a bright future for themselves and others.

Dee Shore (01:00):

An overnight rain has cleared out and on the 12-acre tract near Efland in Orange County, the bright morning sun casts long shadows alongside a handful of plastic tunnels that protect, tender leafy greens like lettuce and collards. Four teens are as busy as the bees in the farm’s, 40 wooden hives, loading wheelbarrows full of compost to spread in rows in the tunnels.

At the center of that activity is 28-year-old Kamal Bell, a farmer, a former middle school teacher and a doctoral student in agricultural and extension education at NC State. Ask him how he got into farming and you’ll hear a winding tale of how a love of animals and the out-of-doors led him to study animal science at North Carolina A&T State University, which in turn led him into agricultural education and then to his farming vision.

Kamal Bell (02:02):

So I did not want to just have a regular farm where we just produce food and went to a farmers’ market. I wanted to have more of a meaningful impact. I wanted to make sure that the farm served to assist those in food deserts.

Dee Shore (02:14):

Today, as chief executive of Sankofa Farms, an operation he started in 2015, Bell combines his interest in helping alleviate food insecurity with his interest in teaching. The produce Bell harvests goes to organizations like Fight for 15 and Root Causes, which both help address food insecurity. For Bell, keeping the environment alive and healthy so it continues to support life and a livelihood is also a priority.

Kamal Bell (02:47):

We’re no-till, using compost. We’re limited spray. We really believe in our regenerative agriculture – so giving back to the environment. The bees are a part of that too.

Dee Shore (02:58):

But as Bell points out, sustainability encompasses far more than agricultural practices. For farming to be truly sustainable – indeed, for society to be truly sustainable – we need a next generation of caretakers, thinkers, role models and contributors. And that’s why having a school at the farm is his highest priority.

Kamal Bell (03:24):

My long-term vision was if we want to create a sustainable food source, you have to integrate the youth into that. The people aspect is the most important. It’ll be sustainable once we get our education center out here. That’s our ultimate goal, and once we have that, it’ll be a sustainable model.

Dee Shore (03:40):

Right now, Sankofa Farms is making progress toward that goal. The farm is home to an educational beekeeping program known as Bees in the T.R.A.P. — short for “teaching responsible apiary practices.” And Bell also offers a fledgling agricultural academy for African American youth ages 11 and up. These young men are learning more than practical agricultural skills. Thirteen-year-old Jamil Ali put it this way:

Jamil Ali (04:13):

He really taught me everything. He taught me all the farming. He just teaches us life lessons, talks to us. He’s taught us a lot.

Dee Shore (04:22):

The biggest life lesson Jamil has learned:

Jamil Ali (04:25):

I think it’s that nobody is really going to hold your hand through everything and that you really need to boss up and help yourself. It’s good to have help, but it’s good to know that you are your own help. Also, having the tools you need to help yourself and others.

Dee Shore (04:42):

Jamil’s brother, Mikal Ali, a 10th grader, agrees.

Mikal Ali (04:47):

I think it’s opened my eyes to the importance of helping your community and helping others. I think a lot of people forget that we need to help other people, and that’s where the rewards lie. Everyone is trying to get rich, but you get all the things that you want from helping other people.

Dee Shore (05:04):

In part because of his experiences at the farm, Mikal has changed his career goal. He used to want to study human behavior and be part of the FBI.

Mikal Ali (05:14):

So I changed it to wanting to build a school that can help black people feel more inclusive in the classroom, and not only that, so instead of the human behavior, I changed to school psychology. That way I can be a psychologist in the school and help the kids with trauma that they have and different problems they have that are at home or just in life.

Dee Shore (05:36):

Eighteen-year-old Kamron Jackson has been working on the farm for as long as anyone. He says that studying with Bell has taught him perseverance. He remembers his first visit to the farm when it was just a stand of trees. He wanted to quit.

Kamron Jackson (05:53):

We developed a system in order to get food to people that are in food-restricted areas, and we have an apiary full of bees. We all became certified beekeepers, so now we can teach others about beekeeping. And we use that knowledge to extract our honey and sell it to people over the internet.

Dee Shore (06:17):

Jackson’s farm experience has helped shape his childhood fascination with animals and his desire to become a biologist into a career goal.

Kamron Jackson (06:27):

I really took an interest in marine biology when I found out about aquaculture, because then if I understand how fishes were in marine life in general, I can understand how to take care of them, understand what they need, and I can just implement it here at the farm.

Dee Shore (06:44):

Kamron, Mikal and Jamil also say that Bell has helped them appreciate their African American heritage. The farm’s name comes from Twi, a language spoken in Ghana. Sankofa is associated with a proverb that means it’s not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot or to go back and look for wisdom, power and hope. Bell explains why he adopted the name for his farm:

Kamal Bell (07:11):

I was listening to a lecture by a psychologist named Amos Wilson, and he stressed the importance of African Americans using their history and our culture to build institutions for ourselves. That’s where the change for us lies – in understanding our culture.

And if we don’t understand our culture, we can’t understand the context and why things are going on in the present day. When we know our own history, we can take power back over our trajectory and where we want to go and what works for us.

That’s not happening in society right now. Someone else has been telling our story, someone else has been dictating how we maneuver, how we develop identity of ourselves. And if we look at it, we can see that those ideas don’t work for us at all. And the only way that we can begin to recreate and reimagine ourselves is if we learn about who our people are and learn about our ancestors.

Dee Shore (08:02):

The contributions of Africans to agriculture are a powerful example for Bell. He notes that Africans were instrumental in the development of practices such as the beekeeping that he teaches on the farm.

Kamal Bell (08:16):

How we contributed to the landscape of agriculture has often been lost and been left out. We have such a connection to the land and contributed so much, and I think a lot of the issues that we face today can be solved if we start looking back at agriculture.

Dee Shore (08:34):

For Bell, agriculture is a perfect springboard for education of subjects ranging from history to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

Kamal Bell (08:46):

So agriculture is the basis of everything. So all the concepts at some point come back to STEM. Engineering – students have had to develop and design these tunnels. So we’ve had to physically build them as well and think about how can we improve upon them.

The technology – we have the drone out here now, and we’re looking at how we can automate more of the systems at the farm.

And then the science – we’re talking about microbiology. We’re talking about microorganisms.

It’s about producing food. And there’s also a social context where the students learn how to benefit and help their community.

So all those things are intertwined to me and create a context where STEM fits in perfectly.

Dee Shore (09:25):

In teaching these concepts, Bell takes an informal, hands-on approach.

Kamal Bell (09:30):

I don’t say I want to specifically teach you A, B and C. I just offered a space to expose them to opportunities, then they take it from there. I don’t take credit for the insight that they develop and the ideas that they begin to have from working at the farm. I just hope that they can start to develop a context of what tools or what activities or principles that are valuable to them here they can use in their daily lives.

Dee Shore (09:54):

Just like his students have, Bell, says he’s learned a lot and has found the farm experience motivating.

Kamal Bell (10:01):

Patience is definitely the biggest lesson, outside of that just the youth are the future. They need the foundation to be able to grow, and we have to give them, and education is not going to look the same anymore, especially in the pandemic. We need to start challenging ourselves to restructure how education looks for black children. It needs to be in black-led, black-run, in controlled spaces. We can center education around solving problems for our people, because education is not doing that. We need to develop a system of education that fits our people, and we need to be in control of that perspective. That’s the only thing that’s going to work for us.

Dee Shore (10:35):

If the students who are part of Bell’s agricultural academy now are any indication, his vision for Sankofa Farms and its role in education is working. The work has been challenging both for the teacher and the students, who call themselves Sankofites. As Kamron said, there’ve been daunting days, but they aren’t giving up. Mikal elaborates on what keeps him going.

Mikal Ali (11:02):

I think a lot of times, things that keep people going is when it’s outside of just doing for yourself. So when you have so many people that are counting on you, that you want to help and you can’t stop. It’s just ever-running energy. And Mr. Bell truly is dedicated to helping other people. His influence and his ideas and what he stands for has a big influence on me and all my other Sankofites. Mr. Bell is the person to go to.

Dee Shore (11:38):

Thanks for listening today, and I hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of Farms, Food and You. To learn more about the college of agriculture and life sciences and our podcast, visit go.ncsu.edu/farms. While you’re there, share your thoughts. We’d love to get your ideas and to hear what topics you’d like for us to explore in the feature.

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.

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