Image from Greg Brown
Local Farmer and Partner of The F.A.R.M
Highlights: During our conversation over the phone, Greg discusses his work as a farmer in the Eastside of OKC and his passion for bringing food sovereignty to the community. He talks about the struggles the neighborhood has faced with lack of access to quality food and produce, and how vertical farming can offer new opportunities in restoring autonomy for the Black community while gentrification occurs in the area.
AUGUST 14, 2020
Anna: can you tell me about yourself and your relationship to the city?
Greg: I was born and raised in the Northeast quadrant of Oklahoma City. I'm 55 years old. With the exception of six years in the military, I've been primarily here in Oklahoma City all my life. My father is from a small town in Eastern Oklahoma called Holdenville. That's where my agriculture roots come in. All my life we've had a farm down there where we have 120 acres and spent most of my time growing up, outside of school and sports, there. As I've gotten older, agriculture has become a passion of mine. I was mostly growing for my family and a few neighbors, and I met Alaric at a farmers' conference and what he was doing with vertical farming, and the situation we we're having with the grocery store issue, you know, I met him and took an interest in what he was doing with building out the grocery store and started gettin' involved that way. We collaborated and put together our grant projects that we have to go around the political rhetoric and everything to create, not only food, but economic opportunities in the community. I've never gotten involved in politics because I know what politics are about. This was an issue really close to my heart because our community is suffering. We have to take our economic dollars to somebody else's community just to eat. You know, that to me, that's not fair from a governmental standpoint any way around. And they play politics and good ole boy systems with the governmental and city official support. If they don't support you, if you don't get their blessing, their gonna make sure it doesn't happen [laughs]. They put up red tape, or they gonna do something that prevents you from doin what you’re doin. Because it's not in their interest. It's been like that forever.
Anna: Can you tell me about how you've seen the community change throughout your life to where it is today? How did it get to the point of having no grocery stores?
Greg: Well, from the grocery store standpoint, it's not just here, not just Oklahoma City. You look at the majority of Black communities in major cities around the country, and it's the same thing. To where the system will force us to take our economic dollars and gentrify the surrounding communities. Where I live, Belle Isle station is the closest food center to me in any direction. Ok? That is 5 miles away. That's just me. You move out to the south part and it's even further than that because you have to go all the way out to Midwest city to a Wal-Mart. No Crest, no Homeland, no community family-owned grocery stores. They wiped them all out in large due to the gentrification. My experience with the gentrification is, they take the Black communities and they use the governmental system to impoverish the communities. I live over in the Adventure district of the Northeast side of Oklahoma City, by the zoo and Cowboy Hall of Fame. So, what the government do, what they've done over the years, they'll bring in and allow Section 8 into the Black neighborhoods. You're bringing the more impoverished people, Black people, into your better neighborhoods. Then the people don't take care of, or care about the properties like the people that lived there, and then goes the neighborhood in 5-10 years. It drives the value down and everything. And then what they do is come back behind them, buy it up for pennies, and then gentrification is being done. Then they take us, now out where you are, the North Highlands area, the Northwestern quadrant. That's becoming the new Black section of Oklahoma City. They're pushing everything that way. They take Deep Deuce and they're working that way, all the way across 23rd street, and force us out into another area as a whole. You'll still have Black families there, but when it comes to businesses and all of that, none of that will be ours. Just like Deep Deuce. That hospital area [OU University Research Park] they took, they've taken all of that. And none of that has benefited the Black community. I'll put it that way.
Anna: Do you think that's more of the responsibility of the government making decisions or is it the responsibility more on businesses and different industries?
Greg: It begins at the governmental level because the government is the one in charge of all of the policies and all that side of it. If the government says that you can't do something here, I don't care what you are as a business owner. You can't win. The business owners usually bow down to the demands of the government. Once again, the government has allowed everybody to come into the Black community and assist everybody to come into the Black community and become business owners and everything, but us. You see what I'm sayin? Because if you come in the Black community, all you gonna see is foreigners owning everything.
It's just a cycle that takes place. It's been a pattern, you startin' down in Deep Deuce and you can look at who predominantly lived and owned everything in that area. Look at how it's been pushed to the North. How the Black community has been pushed to the North from those areas and what those areas look like since that has been done.
Anna: Did you see the effects of putting the highway through the community?
Greg: This is me personally. I don't believe that gentrification is bad, by no means. Transportation and everything, that's how everything runs. The thing is, who benefits? Who are the beneficiaries of the highway system coming through there? The property values going up? They already do these things in advance before we even know anything about the plan. You see what I'm sayin'? When we find out about the plan, it's a year or two out and they're goin' around gobbling up all the property for pennies on the dollar because it's run down and everything now. Those areas used to be beautiful areas. Those older homes and everything. Then they created this Section 8 system where they started putting these impoverished people in these neighborhoods and run the neighborhoods down over the course of 10-20 years and then, like I said, they just come back and take it back up for pennies. Then you have the Thunder arena. Big hotels in there [laughs]. And then, once again, the property owners benefit from it largely, probably because of eminent domain.
Anna: What would be a better way to approach gentrification that doesn't whitewash spaces and push people out?
Greg: Take input from the people. Set up a gentrification forum, where the people, the homeowners, everybody can participate. If they don't participate and don't get involved, they can't complain. But if you put it out there to where the community can be involved and give the community first opportunity to take advantage of the opportunities in their own communities, versus, for instance, I have a lady friend who wanted to buy—it's right on 23rd—it's a post office. Old post office. She wanted to buy it to make a community center out of the post office and she was going to pay cash for it. The city wouldn't sell it to her, said they we're holding it for corporate...You have the Blacks in the community that they allow into the governmental positions and they don't support us, they just do what they're told. The thing about the Black community is, we have been conditioned with the disenfranchisement that we support any Black candidate, no matter who it is. It could be Satan. We have that mentality. That's the sad part about the whole thing. I say that to say this: when it comes to who I am, and what I do, and what I am, politics have no bearings. No politician or anything stops me from achieving what I need to achieve, you see what I'm saying? But you have the majority of people that really depend and listen and give grievance to the government. This past year I have been more involved on the political level, gettin' in there and making my voice heard and that kind of thing. Me personally, I'm going to do what I got to do, I'm going to make it. It's just the people in our community that it hurts to see go through this kind of stuff. When I leave my house, it's like I have to go on a cross country trip just to go get some lettuce. Some quality. And they put these Family Dollars and these Dollar General stores in our communities and all they feed the people is just crap. Once again, like I said, it all ties into the system. It's done on purpose to keep people ignorant and keep their thought process at a low vibration.
Anna: How would you describe the personality of your community?
Greg: Very—I don't know if it’s the right word—complacent. There's no enthusiasm, we've gotten crap sold for so long from the politicians that they put in office that they don't expect anything. There's no accountability. When I was growing up, it was a guy, Kevin Cox. He represented our district for 20 years, and I cannot tell you one thing that I put my hat on that he did for the community that the community can be proud of. It passed on. Mike Shelton came in after him and he stayed nice 2 or 3 or 4 terms and there is not one thing in the community that I can think or show that he’s done that makes a difference for the all, for the collective. And now, Jason Lowe and these other guys. They come out and make promises, and then you elect them and then you don't see them no more. They're public officials, state representatives of our community. Nothing tangible that the community can say. Even our historic Freedom Center, and different things like that, we have to use secondhand buildings and that kinda thing to house things. Other communities, they erect brand new. Do gentrification without hurting the community, and the gentrification in our community does not suite us.
Anna: How do you feel about the Homeland coming into the community? They're saying this Homeland will solve the food problem, but people are complaining about the location and price point not being suitable for the overall community.
Greg: Right. It's not conducive to the community. If you want to make a store community-based, you put it in the heart of the community. You don't put it on the edge of the line where the economic district change jumps about $25,000 across the street [laughs]. When you keep people in a certain state of mind—when you wake up every day, if the only thing you can think about is clothes, and food, and shelter, you can't expand your horizons to think about anything else.
Anna: Right, your basic needs have to be met first.
Greg: Basic needs have to be met first and they keep us in our communities, they keep us in that state of mind. Clothes, and food and shelter. Let our community worry about all that, and then, like I say, we don't know the laws, we're not educated—Look at the ballots, look at what we vote on. You almost have to have an interpreter to go vote with you. Because of the language in the voting.
I have lived at my home almost 30 years and I have had not one political candidate come to my house, come to my door [laughs]. We conditioned to where, here's a Black guy running against a White guy, and I don't care if he's the devil, vote for him. That is just that way.
Anna: I feel like that speaks to the level of distrust in the community with White politicians.
Greg: Yes, like I said, and it's just my opinion, but it's all by design.
Anna: What, to you, does agriculture symbolize for the community? While there is so much that is abstract and intangible with politics, agriculture seems to be this very direct, tangible solution for the community.
Greg: Two words. Food sovereignty. No matter what, if you have the ability to feed yourself, you cannot be controlled. That's my personal target behind doin' what I'm doin'. The key is the children. The crap that's in these Dollar stores, and I see these parents goin' in and buyin' baskets full of junk for these kids to eat. Like I said, how can you expect anything out of children if, first of all, their nutritional needs are not met. Those two things have been my driving passion in trying to get this grocery store issue solved. First in my community, and I hope it catches like wildfire to other communities.
Anna: Can you tell me about the kind of farming you do?
Greg: I specialize in Plasticulture. You have a machine that connects to a tractor and comes in and lays down plastic sheeting over the soil and creates plastic sheeted beds and you plant inside the sheeting to help keep out weeds and things like that. You have an irrigation system connected to it and keep your plants irrigated. It's located in Oklahoma City. What [Alaric and I] did was collaborate. He specializes in vertical farming, and we collaborated the two to create what we call a micro farm. What we wanna do is build out these micro farms, dot them across the communities in the city. We have plenty of empty lots around the city. What we're lookin' to do is pickin' up some of these abandoned properties with nice sized lots, and put them in different communities and build out these greenhouse farms and be able to grow produce year round. If there's a house or structure on the property, convert it into a community produce hub where the people in the community can simply buy their produce right there. It will grow for the needs of the community. You see what I'm sayin'.
Anna: Is the work that you're doing in the community well-known amongst the community?
Greg: No. Another thing about the community is continuity. There is none. The vision all over the place. You have cliques and if you don't adhere to that agenda...it's crazy. You take the religious community. They can't come together collectively because nobody's in charge. Your religious community is splintered into cliques. The political scene is splintered into cliques. The businesspeople are splintered into cliques. That's how they keep control, they keep everybody divided and that's the biggest problem in our community. There is no consensus of community collaboration on anything and the outside people like that. That's the way the political realm likes it. If you get the people to come together, well guess what, they're going to figure out your game [laughs].
Anna: When I talked with Tammy Gray-Steele, she mentioned when she first brought the idea for her Sustainable Science Academy to the church community, they rejected it. She attributed part of the reason for that to a strong distrust with outsiders because there's so much history of people coming in and making promises and never coming through or trying to take from the community. Would you agree with this?
Greg: That's all a part of the equation, that's for sure. There was no lie told on that. Once again, it's a power thing. The way the system is designed, there's always a power struggle, even from within the system. Even on the business standpoint, without calling names, there are certain Black business owners that are very successful within the community. But they are disliked by the other side of the Black community because of the connections. Political connections for the most part. If they can control you politically, you will succeed in a community. There are a few Black entrepreneurs in the community that are successful, but once again, if you get to talkin' around the community and mention those names in the community, you'll have a lot of sour grapes being pulled out by the community as a whole. That's largely because those successful entrepreneurs do what the controlling political party tells them they can and can't do, you know. They're not going to buck the system on behalf of the community. Or act in the best interest of the community.
We have to reverse the political system. We have to bring it back and remind the politicians that they work for the people not vice versa. Until we start to grasp that, and hold people's feet to the fire, we gonna get what we always got.
To solve the issue in the community, the solution has to come from within the community. Not organizations or groups outside of the community. To me that's like a band-aid. You see what I'm sayin'. You're covering up the sore, you're not healin' it. Don't get me wrong, the help is much needed, but until there’s a grassroots response from within the community to solve its own problems, it's never going to be solved. The push for us is the awareness and teachin' how to make farming economic. When the average person thinks of farming, all they think is dirt and tractors and work. They don't think of money and supporting yourself with it. We started reaching kids in the really deeply impoverished areas in Oklahoma City and we've come up with a message to where we can equate farming with selling drugs as far as a price point. We're like “hey, everybody don't do drugs but everybody got to eat.” We get them to thinkin' on the levels that they are standing on because a lot of them, that's their end game, is to sell drugs. We're creating a model to teach these kids and show them, you do the same thing with food. The economic side of it is the same. It's amazing how some of these kids’ faces light up when they actually feel like they're being taught something. You know, we're going to take this food issue and we're going to try to use it to develop all types of awareness within our community. If we get those grant funds [through USDA], that's when we are due to start the groundwork on our projects. We're waiting to see who the recipients are right now. I think there's 500 applicants that apply for the grant. We have other ventures we're collaborating with other community entities right now. There's a school curriculum tied to the vertical farming project and we're getting the word out to schools and everything and showing them there's a curriculum to what we do, but COVID threw everything out of whack. We do have a non-profit set up and we will be collecting funds to assist in the progress as well. It's called The F.A.R.M. It's the food access reclamation model. Right now, we're going to take the project to five different locations. What they are is Northeast Oklahoma City, Spencer, and then we have three historical Black towns that we are working with their jurisdictions to work out projects on their places and teach the citizens of the community about vertical farming. We would like people in these areas to get involved. Once we're able to create entrepreneurs, to create jobs—the outsource, the product, is the least of the worries. We have a supply issue. If you look on the Northeast quadrant of Oklahoma City, there are several food brokers right there in Northeast Oklahoma City. The food distributors that distribute produce and everything to grocery stores. Local produce, out of season, local produce for this region is 400 miles.
Anna: Do you see agriculture as a main economic source to restore autonomy in the community?
Greg: Absolutely, once again, food sovereignty. The controllers of the system have taken that away intentionally from the people. I don't know if over the years you've heard them talk about farmers being welfare recipients and this and that. Well, the government has set up a system where they're paying farmers not to farm. The farmers that farm are corporate controlled. It's everywhere. Just go to a nice sized small town, 5,000 people area in Oklahoma, and you would be amazed at the lack of fresh produce, fresh food in the grocery store. You would think a town, small like that, in the rural farmland area, you would think that the produce in the grocery store would be supplied by the people around the community. You wouldn't think it would be shipped in from Texas or California.
Anna: Why is that?
Greg: Because corporate control. The government has made it to where it's not economically feasible, not economically sustainable for us to do it. Not to mention, taking the responsibility away. You know 10-20 years of that, you have people that it's not even in their wheelhouse to think about it any longer. I've watched it over my lifetime.
Anna: Growing up in that area, how have you seen people talk about the changes occurring in the community?
Greg: Once again, it's just to the point to where, it's the norm. They're going to do it anyway. There's nothing you can do about it. You don't have any power. The people are in that frame of mind, and when you're in that frame of mind, there's nothing going to be done about it if you don't have no fight in you.
Anna: Do you see hope for the community?
Greg: Well, I got a fire under me and I'm going to do my part, that's the only thing I can say. I'm gonna do what I can, and if I'm the only one standin in the end, then that's just how I see it. I'm trying to wake people up, and even in the political process, I've taken to a candidate in the district to support, he's a Persian guy. He's a very successful businessman in the community and he understands what it's like being a minority, you what I'm saying?
It was my understanding that a group of Black business owners came into the neighborhood when they first closed the grocery store and they came in wanting to open up a grocery store in the community. They ain't got none. They went and tried to do it anyways and they lasted a few months. Like I said, when you have no political support from the leaders in the community or businesses, period, in the community, you ain't gonna make it. It's a lot to digest. But the solution is simple. But through greed and power, it makes it highly complicated. If people come together collectively and control the community collectively, it doesn't matter who own what, see what I'm saying? Your economic dollar is staying in the community. Everybody is prosperin', nobody's trying to take anything, you don't have to lock up your air conditioner [laughs].