On the eastern edge of the Sonoran desert, in the grasslands not ten miles north of the US-Mexico border, James and Rachael Stewart have arranged a dozen weight lifting machines and dumbbell sets.
At sundown, as they and their four children herd lambs and alpacas into their stalls, the occasional chick or duck passes between these markers of the Stewarts’ previous life.
Two years ago, James and Rachael were fitness trainers living in a Phoenix suburb.
James traveled frequently to bodybuilding competitions across the south-west, in cities such as Tucson and Albuquerque, and Rachael had just completed a master’s degree in business management. But then the Covid-19 pandemic struck, shutting down meatpacking plants across the country, and they found themselves without the protein sources they needed as athletes – and parents of four growing children.
That’s when an idea came to them that sounded a little impossible at first, but felt more important the more they thought about what doing it would mean for their kids. James sold his 1972 Chevy Caprice and the couple purchased 10 acres of land just outside of Douglas, Arizona. They were going to start one of Arizona’s very few Black-owned commercial ranches.
In October of 2020, James and Rachael Stewart broke ground on the ranch they are calling the Southwest Black Ranchers. As a biracial couple (James is Black and Rachael is Filipina and Mexican), they immediately began looking for other Black ranchers for guidance – and so far have struggled to connect with any in Arizona. According to the USDA, Black farmers make up less than 1.5% of the country’s producers and are primarily located in southern and mid-Atlantic states, despite the long, but often forgotten, history of Black ranchers in the American west. Connecting with other Black farmers, ranchers and gardeners across the country through social media, the Stewarts hope to build a ranch that inspires their children and other new generations of Black farmers to return to the south-west.
The Stewart family: Rachael, Zey, James, Nay, JG and J5. Photograph: Cassidy Araiza/The Guardian
In 1920, Black farmers made up 14% of the industry, but after thousands lost their land due to discriminatory lending practices at the US Department of Agriculture, less than 2% remained. In order to connect with other Black farmers, the Stewarts joined a Facebook group where they met Texans who taught them about hydroponics and a South African farmer whose work on regenerative agriculture is inspiring their goals for the ranch. At home in Arizona, they also connected with Drinking Gourd Farms, a network of Black gardeners and homesteaders in Phoenix, who are helping the Stewarts mulch their farm’s soil. As the Stewarts prepare their ranch they’re hoping to create a world where their children don’t think twice about being part of a Black-led agricultural revolution.
When James and Rachael first bought their land outside of Douglas, they were motivated by the inequities they had seen come to light during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tyson Foods had just shut down several of its meatpacking plants and published a full-page New York Times ad warning that “the food supply chain is breaking”. That same week, the USDA reported that beef production was down 25% and grocery stores started rationing the amount …….