Gwendolyn and Robert Williams
Farmer Heroes Gwendolyn & Robert Williams of Williams Vegetable Farm. Photo: Steward

Farmer Heroes | February 10, 2022

A Piece of Land Brings Peace of Mind: Gwendolyn & Robert Williams

by Jennifer Fahy

In Bordelonville, Louisiana, Gwendolyn and Robert Williams lovingly cultivate a piece of land that has been in Gwendolyn’s family for more than one hundred years. The fruits of their labor are not just the vegetables they grow. Farming this land nurtures healing, giving Robert back a legacy that was taken from him due to discrimination and inequity. It restores strength and resilience to the soil, which has been conventionally farmed for soybean production in recent years. And it sows seeds for a future in which Gwendolyn and Robert’s children and grandchildren are connected to the land with deep, strong roots.

Robert has farmed his whole life. In 1992, when he left his family’s farm to start his own, he endured racial discrimination that led to the loss of his chance to farm his own land and qualification to file as a plaintiff in Pigford vs. Glickman, a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture on behalf of Black farmers who faced immense (and well-documented) discrimination. The lawsuit was settled on April 14, 1999, in the largest civil rights settlement in U.S. history.

Gwendolyn also grew up in a farm family, and when Gwendolyn and Robert met, they shared a desire to get back into agriculture. Robert explains, “We always wanted to get back to farming, but the funds to start just weren’t available.”

When Gwendolyn’s aunt decided to sell land passed down from her mother, Gwendolyn and Robert knew their chance had come. Again, Robert visited the USDA’s Farm Service Agency to learn about their loan options. But despite having worked on farms his whole life, Robert was told he did not meet the application requirement of three years of farm management experience. Thankfully, Steward, a private farm lender that specifically prioritizes equity and sustainability in agriculture, stepped up to help Robert and Gwendolyn realize their dreams.

“The land we farm today has been in my family for more than 100 years,” Gwendolyn says. “This was my grandmother’s home. She lost her husband real young, and she raised eight children here. To make ends meet, she leased out most of the land, keeping just one acre for herself. We ate off that small piece of land. She had pear trees, persimmons, figs, and a garden. I hope we can plant more fruit trees for the next generations—our sons and our grandchild. I want my grandchild to come up with this.”

Their plans center the future, past and current generations. Robert says, “What makes me feel so good about what we’re doing: The older generation sees what we’re doing, and they’ll come by and say, ‘Now we’ll know where our vegetables come from!’”

“For me, to put my hands in the dirt and to see the progress we’ve made… it’s a really good feeling, because I’ve contributed to that.”

He continues, “When Gwen’s mother comes out here, I see it in her eyes. She looks out on the field, and a smile comes over her face.” Gwendolyn adds, “My mother, who is 86 years old, and my two aunts, they love to come back to their childhood home and see what we’re doing. They’re so proud of us.”

Between the two of them, Robert and Gwendolyn planted sweet corn, cauliflower, watermelon, cantaloupe, sweet potato, mustard greens, broccoli, collards, shallots and more in 2021, their first year. While Robert spent his life on farms, he had always grew corn, soy and cotton. “It’s good to get back to vegetables,” he says. “We want to get away from those other crops, and also avoid using chemicals. We’re trying to be organic.”

Their farm plan will switch the land from being farmed with conventional methods back to the way their great grandparents and grandparents farmed—practices that are more aligned with the seasons and promote a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem. They will also implement cover cropping and a robust composting plan to fix nitrogen in the soil naturally, improve soil fertility, and end dependence on nitrogen-based additives.

SPROUT NOLA farmers market. Photo: SPROUT NOLA

The Williamses are also focused on growing food for their own community, with a farm stand right on the farm. They will use the farm to guide their family and community away from foods that contribute to diet-related health problems, and to improve their surrounding environment. In 2022, they’ll sell their products at two farmers markets—traveling to Baton Rouge and New Orleans each week. At the New Orleans Crescent City Farmers Markets, they’ll sell through Truck-Farm Table, a co-op for BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, women, and veteran farmers that provides administrative support to sell produce at markets.

“For me, to put my hands in the dirt and to see the progress we’ve made… it’s a really good feeling, because I’ve contributed to that,” Gwendolyn says. “It’s so peaceful… it’s just peace of mind for me.”

Robert laughs and says plainly, “I love to play in the dirt! That’s when I’m at my happiest!” Gwendolyn agrees, but adds, “I know it now…. How much work it is to be a farmer!”

In making the shift from field crops to vegetables, the Williamses have been helped by Robert’s brother, who has 20 years of experience growing vegetables, and technical and marketing assistance from SPROUT New Orleans, a non-profit organization that builds community around growing food and bridges the gaps in resources for farmers of all kinds. While their sons have their own careers, Robert and Gwendolyn say they are excited to come out on the weekends to help in the fields and at the markets. And their granddaughter came to visit from Texas this past year and loved to see all the vegetables in the fields. It is clear, at the root of this farm is family.

Gwendolyn shares, “My grandmother was named Leaster Harris, but everyone called her Ladybug. I want to dedicate this farm to her. Here, Robert and I can make our own memories.”

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