Black Baltimore couples look to transform farmland to honor Black foodways

Published on: October 03, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: October 03, 2022 10:06 AM EDT

Linda and Floyd Taliaferro and David and Tonya Thomas aim to return Maryland’s foodways back to its Black roots with their purchase of a 68-acre farm in Upperco. They are pictured here on the future farmland.

It started with Linda Taliaferro’s simple desire to have a Black-owned farm where her three children could enjoy a pumpkin patch outing. It turned into the purchase of 68 acres in Baltimore County, a history lesson involving the War of 1812, and the vision of providing a series of experiences revolving around Black foodways.

“Every year we take our kids to the pumpkin farms,” she said. “It exposes our kids and is a fun activity. But we realized there were not any Black-owned farms that we knew of. There wasn’t one focused on Black families and Black communities. None dedicated to the Black culture and history.”

So when the 68 acres in Upperco became available last year, Taliaferro and her husband, Floyd, jumped at the chance to purchase it.

“It spoke to me. It said, ‘this is home. This is where it’s supposed to happen,’” said Floyd Taliaferro, a Morgan State graduate and entrepreneur who owns a health care organization that focuses on behavior and mental health. “We need to settle down, build a farm and feed people. It touched our souls.”

Along with culinary duo David and Tonya Thomas, the Taliaferros envision transforming the land and creating an an opportunity to return Maryland’s foodways to their Black roots. The endeavor comes amid a heightened focus on Black culinary traditions, culture, and wealth, as well as sustainable and local food production. Their hope is that the property, which has been named “Gabriel Fields,” centers conversation in the region on the Black experience. It’s what the Thomases have done throughout their culinary careers.

“We’ve always wanted to own a farm,” Linda Taliaferro said. “And for us, it is making sure that our legacy moves on. We’re huge advocates and proponents of honoring our ancestors and history. Our values are the same [as the Thomases’] and they align. We look at this as a natural extension of our own passions: mental health and the overall health of the Black community.”

The land, which will produce fresh produce to be sold as well as given away, is part of the two couples’ mission of building community, culture and wellness, Floyd Taliaferro said.

“We’re looking to build and create this village where their needs are served — especially their food needs,” he said. “We’re not saying that we are the first. But we are trying to do our part.”

The name Gabriel Fields is a nod to Gabriel Hall, who was one of the few documented Black enslaved refugees from the War of 1812.

“He was a young boy of 13 years old,” she explained, adding that he had been enslaved by Walter Wells, a plantation owner in Calvert County. Fields was among the enslaved Black people who fought for the British in exchange for their emancipation.

Following the war, many formerly enslaved people received their freedom from Britain and moved to Trinidad and Nova Scotia. Hall relocated to Nova Scotia, but because he was so young, he was denied the 25 acres promised to those who had fought for the British. He died in Nova Scotia around 1895.

“He petitioned for the 25 acres of land because he was getting married. There’s a record that they approved it. But there is no record that they fulfilled his desire to receive the land,” Linda Taliaferro explained. “Calling this land Gabriel Fields is aiming to bring that story back home.”

Linda Taliaferro plans to have an area available year-round for families to visit six or seven days a week. In addition to offering various rides for kids — whether they be horse or hay — the couples envision hosting regular farmers markets, farm-to-table dinners, and food giveaways for those in need.

“There is a lot we want to accomplish,” said Tonya Thomas, a chef, food historian and a fellow in the James Beard Foundation’s flagship Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program.

A good portion of the land at Gabriel Farms will be dedicated to growing foods indigenous to the state and to Black culture, said Tonya Thomas, who also specializes in Black food history.

That means acquiring heirloom seeds that they plan to share with others.

“We want this to be a place [that] when you visit, you can learn history and culture,” Tonya Thomas said.

Sorghum, kale, collards, fish pepper, sweet potato, pawpaw

Crops to represent those grown by Black farmers over generations

Gabriel Fields — about 40 minutes northwest of Baltimore City — is part of the Piedmont region, a plateau area of the state that also encompasses Baltimore City, according to David Thomas, a past grand champion of the Food Network’s “Chopped” program. He noted that the state also includes the Atlantic coastal region, home of the state’s seafood industry, and the Appalachian Plateau, where foraging, pickling and hunting has dominated.

“Maryland is like a little small glimpse of America,” David Thomas said. “There are so many different regions here. There are rolling hills, beautiful overlooks, tree lines, a brook, and black walnut trees growing on the property,” he said. “It’s majestic. This land is rich.”

The land will produce crops such as assorted collard greens, sweet potatoes, and various beans and peppers, David Thomas said, adding that the crops represent produce grown by Black Americans from the days of enslavement through Reconstruction to the present day.

“We know without our work involved, it wouldn’t exist. In Maryland in particular, there were so many enslaved Africans brought here,” David Thomas said. “Whether you call it Creole, Cajun, BBQ, southern or soul food, all of those were created by the hands of enslaved people.”

Bambara beans, black beluga lentils, fava beans, black eyed peas

During those times, Black people mastered the concept of farm-to-table cooking and using whole-animal butchery practices, David Thomas explained.

“We learned how to survive,” he said. “We want to bring those things back and pay homage to them.”

“There’s a lot of food history in this state,” he added. “And there is a lot that has yet to be untapped. We’re going to do some deep diving in bringing it to light.”

Building opportunities

The Thomases’ interest in telling the stories of Black food history and honoring its traditions extend beyond Maryland. They are currently in the process of obtaining an easement on 38 acres of land in St. Helena Island, South Carolina.

They chose that area because of its historic significance to the Gullah Geechee people — descendants of West and Central Africans who were enslaved and bought to lower Atlantic states such as South Carolina to work on coastal rice, cotton and indigo plantations.

“It’s an area where that community is still trying to hold onto their culture. There is a strong presence there. We know that a lot of that land was in some way, shape or form a plantation. That land should have become Black land,” Tonya Thomas said. “There is a lot of history. We would probably be the first Black owners of that land.”

While the Taliaferros are not involved with the South Carolina project, Floyd Taliaferro spoke to the importance of land ownership and building generational wealth.

“We [Black people] never got any piece of land or wealth associated with slavery. That’s a huge setback to you as a people,” he said. “There are other individuals starting with more resources than we did as a people. Buying land and starting businesses allows and ensures our children to be on a level playing field when it comes to life. You have to build these opportunities, and it has to be communicated to each other that these are important things to be set up.”

David Thomas describes the Taliaferros as being “just as important” as his and his wife’s efforts to celebrate Maryland’s Black food history.

“They don’t want to be in the spotlight,” David Thomas said. “They believe in what we believe in. They are willing to put their resources at risk. ... They have made us better. We are a stronger business because of them.”

The couples met in 2013 and were introduced through mutual friends. The Taliaferros were expecting their firstborn child and needed a caterer for the baby shower. The Thomases were recommended and exceeded expectations, according to Floyd Taliaferro.

“They are just blessed people. They really care about their work. They care about the history behind their work,” he said. “They understand the back story of everything they do. They care and they research their craft.”

Last year, the couples launched H3irloom Food Group, a catering service based out of The Sinclair, a 25,000 square-foot event space in Belair-Edison owned by the Taliaferros. Linda Taliaferro, a Morgan State graduate who was a longtime educator in the Baltimore region, is the company’s CEO.

The Thomases’ significance

Toni Tipton-Martin, an award-winning journalist, credits the Thomases with being on the forefront of combining traditional Black history and recipes with “more modern interpretations” in their cooking. The focus on land ownership and reclaiming Black foodways fascinates Tipton-Martin.

Tipton-Martin, who moved to Baltimore in 2018, said she “found that to be particularly exciting for the Baltimore area. I wasn’t expecting that level of creative energy.”

Although Tipton-Martin stressed that this attempt to focus the narrative of Black cuisine and foodways is not new, she believes the Thomases are at the forefront of the recent push.

“They are reclaiming our history from those narrow definitions. Our people have always been farm-to-table. This notion that we only ate food that was unhealthy was imposed upon us,” Tipton-Martin said.

Tipton-Martin is the editor of Cook’s Country, a national food publication that has nearly 275,000 subscribers, and its television show, with a weekly audience of close to 2 million people.

She won her first James Beard Award in 2016 for “The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks” and a second in 2020 for “Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks.”

“I wrote ‘Jubilee’ to free us all from the limitations and the narrow boundaries that held us captive to a certain narrative,” Tipton-Martin said. “They [the Thomases] now are part of an entire generation — not necessarily young — but those with a new vision.”

‘We want to do this the right way’

The land, which was used to harvest commodity crops like corn, was owned by one family for several generations, according to Floyd Taliaferro.

And while the couples are eager to start growing crops immediately, there is also a desire to make sure things are done properly.

“We want to do this the right way,” said David Thomas, who added that they are still trying to narrow down the right heirloom seed producers to work with. “We’re doing our due diligence. We want to control everything. We understand the importance of the work we are doing. How we buy our seeds, where we are buying the seeds from, who we work with are important.”

The couples also want to make sure that they practice regenerative farming — a conservation and rehabilitation approach that focuses on topsoil regeneration — so that they do not damage the land.

As of now, Linda Taliaferro said, the plan is to start growing regenerative crops in time for spring.

“We’ve had the soil tested. It is pretty damaged, but it’s not as bad as it could be,” she said.

And then those beloved pumpkin patch experiences could be a reality as soon as next fall.

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