Virginia Shore farmer roots in nature and heritage

At Thelonius Cook’s farmer roots aren’t just connected to crops and orchards. They’re also connected to history. Cook uses certain plants to attract pests and keep them away from his crops. He also avoids tilling the soil and sows “cover crops” in the fall to reinvigorate fields — all techniques drawn from his African ancestors.

Virginia Shore farmer roots in nature and heritage

In such ways, Cook said he is honoring his heritage while protecting the environment.

“Everything I do, I try to encourage a natural ecosystem, a closed loop,” said Cook, founder of the Mighty Thundercloud Edible Forest on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

The share of farms operated by Black people nationwide has plummeted from 14% at its peak in 1920 to 1.7% as of 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Historians point to myriad causes for the decline, but chief among them is racism.

Persistent racist violence forced many African Americans in the South to flee to northern cities. For Blacks who remained, white-dominated loan boards often blocked federal aid from reaching their farms if they were members of the NAACP or other civil rights organizations.

Some never prepared wills, leaving their acreage to multiple heirs who ultimately lost the land to tax sales or real estate hucksters.

Cook is part of a small but growing movement within the Black agricultural community that recasts farming — which, for African Americans, has long been associated with forced labor — as a path toward dignity, empowerment and greening the Earth.

They are writing a new history, one newly sprouted farm at a time.

Cook grew up across the Chesapeake Bay in Hampton. Agriculture was in his genes. His family raised a garden of green beans, collard greens and other vegetables. His father once grew flowers for his own florist business.

But Cook wound up heading in another direction, studying information technology at James Madison University and jetting off to East Africa to work for an international development organization.

In places like Tanzania and Mozambique, he worked closely with farmers, showing them ways to run their businesses more efficiently. Along the way, those farmers gave him informal lessons in the region’s homegrown agricultural practices.

Many of those practices have survived for centuries. For instance, because many African farmers lack capital to buy tractors or other large pieces of equipment, tilling — churning the soil to spread oxygen and nutrients throughout the root zone — simply isn’t possible on a large scale. So, they turn to compost and animal manure to revive their soil.

“Everywhere I’ve traveled, I’ve loved picking farmers’ brains,” Cook said.

After getting a master’s degree in sustainable development from Royal Holloway, University of London, he returned to Hampton Roads in 2014.

When not working as a freelance web developer, he started preparing a new life for himself and his father’s old flower field in Northampton County on the Eastern Shore.

The family had leased the 7.5-acre plot to farmers for decades. The relentless rotation of wheat and soybean crops had left the soil nearly exhausted, Cook said. “You couldn’t take a hand tool and break it.”

With little expectation beyond growing some food for himself, he began applying the farming lessons he had acquired overseas to his own acreage.

Soon, he was growing enough food for his family. Then enough to sell. Then enough to make a living.

Originally published at Delmarvonow