Little Rock's newest urban farmer

Gabriyel Bland descends from a long line of Black sharecroppers in Elaine, Arkansas. “The majority of people that wasn't sharecroppers,” says Gabriyel, “still make their income from chopping cotton, picking pecans, stuff like that.”

Under the sharecropping model, farmers grow crops and provide a designated percentage to landowners or companies as rent. It is still the primary way to earn an income as a farmer in Elaine.

Gabriyel’s family remembers the Elain Massacre, one of the United States’ largest outbursts of white violence against African Americans.

“Black sharecroppers were trying to trade with the white sharecroppers,” explains Gabriyel, “and the white sharecroppers didn't want to pay fair prices. So the black sharecroppers had a meeting at the church, and the white people came and gunned them down at the church.”

After the shooting at the church, another 200 Black sharecroppers were murdered by an angry white mob, including a World War I veteran who’d spent 9 months recovering from his war injuries. He was pulled from a train and executed alongside his three brothers. 

Dozens more sharecroppers were put on trial and summarily sentenced to death. It is important to point out that these charges were the results of the deaths of five white men who were killed in self defense.

The true source of this white outrage, however, was the organization of Black folks to negotiate a reduction in rent rates from the white landowners.

As a youth, Gabriyel split time between Elaine—where the majority of his family still lives—and Little Rock. “When I grew up,” he says, “I was, most of the time, chopping cotton.”

In Little Rock, however, he was surrounded by gang-related violence. In Elaine, he faced the brutal history of racially-motivated violence against Black sharecroppers. 

“If I were to stay on John Barrow,” Gabriyel says, “I sat on 42nd, right in the heart of all of it. And I was never in a gang or anything, but my family members are gang-related. I was in a hostile environment of violence.”

Gabriyel sought refuge in the United States Marine Corps. He served as a wireman and satellite technician from 1997 until 2002, when he was seriously wounded in a humvee accident.

“We was thrown out of the vehicle. I got bits and pieces of memories afterwards. We was stranded out in the desert, seemed like for eternity, helpless. Eventually, the choppers came and got us and took us to the hospital. Three days I don't remember, but they said I died on the table a couple of times, coded a couple times. I just don't remember. I woke up in excruciating pain and couldn’t sleep. I went from highly able-bodied to disabled.”

In addition to suffering traumatic brain injury, nerve damage, a slipped disc, and patellar tracking knee disorder, Gabriyel has post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, insomnia, chronic back pain, and severe migraines.

After his military service, Gabriyel worked with friends of his family to flip houses. As he learned the trade, he began flipping houses for himself and ended up becoming a landlord. In 2017, he began growing food in the back yards of his properties to sell at local farmers’ markets.

“If you look at the stores that's in the black neighborhoods,” says Gabriyel, “versus the ones in the white neighborhoods, our produce are not remotely as fresh as the white communities, and we don't really have as wide a variety of different crops as well.”

As Gabriyel changed his own diet and became more aware of the prevalence of pesticides, he noticed a difference in his health. “I figured, why not grow food to give Black people better options, healthier options, without chemicals? It’s pretty much in my DNA anyway.”

Gabriyel’s biggest challenge as a farmer has been the preference of local chefs and restaurants to purchase local food from an established network of, if not entirely, mostly white farmers.

There are some technical aspects to farming Gabriyel would like to refine in partnership with other farmers at Sprout and Arkansas Interfaith Power & Light, a local nonprofit that supports home gardening and new & beginning Black farmers.

Examples include planning crops for consistent quantity and quality and ensuring succession plantings are tightly scheduled for a reliable supply of produce for chefs, farmers’ markets, and grocers. In addition, Gabriyel will focus on greenhouse growing, soil health, and organic pest, fungal, and weed control methods.

FareMarket and Sprout will work together to manage Gabriyel’s apprenticeship, marking areas of learning, time in the field, quality of planning from season to season, and instilling detailed record keeping for inputs, seed amounts, harvest volume, and more.

If you are interested in an apprenticeship with Sprout, please reach out to us :)

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