Terence Jackson was born to be a farmer. Raised on a 13-acre family farm in Tuskegee, Ala., he learned the care, attention, and love that must be poured into harvesting crops from five generations of Jacksons.
“I got my foundation right there on that farm with my great-grandfather in the community, learning how to grow, and learning the ins and outs of being a community leader,” Jackson said. “He was definitely a community leader. Everything was about community, which opened many doors for me.”
For most of his life, Jackson has only grown crops on rich soil and massive fields in the Tuskegee countryside. But in 2021 he took his farming skills to an urban environment as a contractor with Sprout NOLA, in New Orleans. Due to his quick adaptability, passion, and knowledge, he earned the position of Outreach Program Coordinator in 2022.
He sees the rural and the urban farmer as partners with the same goal – to nourish people – but different challenges. One issue he’s focused on is disaster response and how both kinds of farmers can better prepare for inevitable damage from hurricanes.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Autumn Jemison, Southerly: What were the adjustments you experienced switching from rural to urban agriculture?
Terence Jackson: Growing in a different and smaller space. When I attended Tuskegee [University], I grew in a small space and a few beds, and even then I was trying to take the things I learned on the rural farms and implement them in that small space. However, the soil [in New Orleans] is much, much, much different. We have a sandy loam soil in Alabama, and here is like, highly compact clay, like really, really compact, which involves a different style of work.
Southerly: You started at Sprout NOLA two weeks before Hurricane Ida hit on August 29th, 2021, right?
TJ: Hurricane Ida was one natural disaster that made me say, ‘This is really bad.’ That was my first time actually being in a situation where I felt like, ‘Oh, we may not be able to go home.’ My wife and I came back before most of her family, so we saw all the damage first-hand. We had water damage and mold in our apartment which took a while for them to fix. Some never did get fixed. I had just planted a whole new bed of crops, too, that were all destroyed. Ida forced me to quickly adjust, so I could help those in my community. I was passing out water, talking to people, spreading resources. Anyway I could help.
Southerly: The hurricane response and relief process for urban farms seems faster than for rural farms. Why do you think that is?
TJ: People in urban areas are a lot quicker to adapt and use more sustainable and regenerative practices. The problems in urban agriculture are right in your face, so we constantly have to be prepared. Plus, help is more accessible because we’re in an attractive spot. Whereas in rural areas, they have limited resources…[so there’s] a slower response time.
Southerly: Rural farmers still supply the majority of food – how do they cope with this responsibility with less support?
TJ: They usually go into isolation. They have to deal with applying to aid, which can be very challenging if you don’t have your documents or insurance. It doubles the process. Then, they have to start cleaning and repairing their crops and fields. Keep in mind a lot of their situations are different. Some farmers may not even have food for themselves, but they’re expected to provide for their community. This can send some into a depression because there’s just so much to do with no physical or financial support.
Southerly: How can a farmer prepare in order to ease the stress when a storm comes?
TJ: The first thing I would say is just make sure that you stay on top of the weather. Stay on top of the evacuation and always have a plan in place. If you don’t have a trailer, make sure you get one for yourself and your animals, if you have any. You need to make sure you have all your paperwork for your crop insurance. Keep it in a folder with all your farm information in it. Also, write down your ideas and dates that you plan on all of that stuff because it will come in handy. And one of the most important things is making sure that you always have pictures. One thing that I’ve started doing is taking my drone to farms. I usually take pictures of that farm, so that the farmers can have it either to use it as a map for the fields or just for insurance purposes just to say this is what my house looked like and everything around it on this day.
Southerly: What do you think farmers need more of during and after destructive hurricanes?
TJ: I just think they just need community. That’s the main thing that they need, community and respect. The next thing is storytelling and sharing those stories [of resilience] with children. Because once you start telling those stories, they feel like they have a direct connection to it themselves. So that’ll make them go out and do it. Last but not least, farmers need to be paid. Farmers have to be paid a livable wage. Quality food should have a quality price, but we, [farmers], also understand that access to quality food is a problem too. So this is where the government should step up and continuously try to help communities that don’t have access to quality food get that access.
Southerly: What role do urban community gardens play in the agriculture ecosystem?
TJ: They create that bridge for rural and urban farmers to come together and have an intellectual exchange. Farmers love to share stories and feel valued in the work they do for the community. Also, I think farmers love to see young people out here just trying to be a part of agriculture, because it’s like one of the hardest occupations to ever become a part of. There’s just so many elements, so you’re never a master of anything.
Southerly: What do you hope both farmers and community members take from the garden?
TJ: To hear our stories and know our history. Young people are starting to think farming is hip and cool, so this is the perfect time to show them what it takes to be a farmer. Hopefully, they’ll see why farmers need to get paid more by investing in high quality food from people in your community. This way we can make a livable wage. They can also understand who we are past being in the garden and understand that farmers have other interests too. The more farmers we can connect to community gardens is greater exposure to everybody seeing and respecting farmers. So when natural disasters come, [the community] can feel inclined to go out there and to help their neighbor who’s a farmer, and really, really needs their help.
Southerly: Describe your mental and emotional process during times when you do have to act as a first responder in your community.
TJ: I’m opening my mouth and talking. I’m a person that even if I’m aggravated, I always retreat to get my mind together, and then come back. I don’t want to say something that’s going to make everything worse at that moment. I’m not thinking about that moment, right? And I’m thinking about how I can make this better overall, because if I say something right now, we’re not going to get to a solution until a couple of days from now. I’m becoming more open. When people ask, ‘How are you doing?’, actually tell them the truth. You know, like, ‘Oh, I’m not doing so good. Today, I actually need a little break.’