November 6, 2020

The Ancestral Wisdom of our Lands.

This is not a story about a farmer, a plot of land, or regenerative agriculture.

What you are about to read is a reflection of the uninhibited power of nature and ancestral wisdom captured in a human being.

Her name is Olivia Watkins. She is a farmer with remarkable intellectual knowledge, based both in the wisdom of the trees and grounded in the scientific findings. She owns her seat at the table when it comes to business acumen and a profitable operation. She possesses environmental compassion for the ecosystem she cares for and infuses her harvests with her love of agroforestry.

If you look hard enough, you can see within Olivia’s eyes the gaze of her ancestors. The past and the future are simultaneously alive within her story and the forest she stewards. “There’s a lot of history here. Everything I’m doing is tied to the history of the land that I’m stewarding.”

Cobwebbed corridors leave spider web strands on the skin upon entering Olivia’s agroforest. Leaves fall from the dome of tree canopies, sunlight seeking even the slightest opportunity to dance upon the forest floor, and at each step, the uneven ground of ancient knobby roots serve as a reminder of what and who has stood within these grounds of this 40-acre forest.

The hum of ancestral presence and wisdom is underbrush, overhead, and woven into the fabric of Olivia’s fungi fortress.

The Catawba and Tuscarora were the original tribes to steward the land before displacement by European settlers. Once slavery was abolished, the brutalities of white race prejudice and violence persisted, but Olivia’s great aunt and uncle, Henry and Georgianna Battle, were able to avoid entering into the sharecropping system when he purchased this land in 1890. And with the transfer of a paper deed, this land wasn’t just their land, it became home. It became sustenance for the family. And it became the beginning of multigenerational matriarchal stewardship.

Georgianna Battle.
Henry Battle.
Ressie Nash Carter.
Ruth Wallace.
Oliver Wallace.

This is not just a list of names; these are people whose lives and intentional choices made a generational impact leaving the land better for the next generation—a lesson the human race would benefit from in this microcosm of a decline in human and planetary health.

According to ProPublica, between 1910 and 1997, African Americans lost about 90 percent of their farmland. This problem is a major contributor to America’s racial wealth gap; the median wealth among Black families is about a 10th that of white families. Olivia’s family was part of the rare and remaining 10 percent of that equation.

Henry Battle built a two-room house on the property still standing today. A crystal-clear stream flows like a bloodline through the land. This was their water source. They grew food for their own family, but also for the community who didn’t have access to land. They grew potatoes, cabbage, collards, tomatoes, pears, and corn. Olivia recalls her late grandmother reminiscing about their goat and cow. There’s also a wise, old soul of a pecan tree that’s still giving its nourishing gift every season. Then, in the 60s, Olivia’s grandfather brought light to the homestead installing electricity and a well.

While the house is unlivable in its current state, Olivia has plans to bring it back to its fullest potential and to call it home as her ancestors once did.

She is forging the path forward in the continuum of matriarchal stewardship, and this is what inspired the first step:

She recalls the hovering buzz of voices in her ear, convinced they knew what she should do with the land, “Everyone was telling me that I should clear everything—cut the trees down and then just grow crops.”

And then came the crisp and unforgettable day in 2017 when Olivia was joined by her mother and late grandmother on the land. They gathered because the land had been vacant for years and they wanted to collectively decide what to do with it. Three generations of women walked together, delighting in the sound of their feet sliding through the leaves, laughing as the cobwebs and loose thickets nested in their hair, and all of a sudden there was an instant knowing that stopped them in their tracks. Perhaps it was the nudge from past matriarchs or that of the deer, birds, worms, and communal gathering of trees that had housed the sacredness of this family lineage that struck them that day. It was clear there was a call to stay and steward the land. This was the moment Olivia realized this was her chance to create and discover her own relationship with the land and her history.

From that point on, it was never a question in Olivia’s mind to stay aligned with the roots of the land. After working in Hawai’i at Kahumana Organic Farms and in New York at Soul Fire Farm, she came back to the land rich with 130 years of family history to continue her passion of working with the land and growing food for her community.

It’s hard to say if Olivia is bringing out the potential of the forest or if the forest is bringing out the potential in her. The cyclical nature of healing, growing, foraging, and regenerating between the two is a breed of beauty that is rare and leaves you in awe.

Every word she speaks carries the tune of her ancestors’ intentions to let the land lead and provide through the possibilities of agroforestry.

“There’s a nurturing, maternal side of me that is also a part of the matriarch stewards that came before me that wants to take care of all the beings that exist here, and be mindful of the history and the future and what this place is going to look like.”

There was a metamorphosis of mindset that happened from her education and hands-on training in row-cropping to rethinking what she could do with the land as it exists, without clearing the trees. And what she’s been able to create within this wooded wonderland is proof it can be done.

“I really want folks to know they don’t have to cut down all the trees to make room for row crops. There is a more holistic way, and you don’t need to fit into the conventional way of growing food.”

Enter, Oliver’s Agroforest, Olivia’s business and labor of love, reverently named after her grandfather, Oliver, who she is also named after.

The term Agroforestry comes from ecology and is one of the three principal land-use sciences, the other two being agriculture and forestry. Agroforestry differs from the latter two principals by placing an emphasis on the integration of and interactions among a combination of elements rather than just focusing on each element individually. Agroforestry can reap substantial benefits both economically and environmentally, producing more output and proving to be more sustainable than forestry or agricultural monocultures.

Olivia’s north star is a combination of both science and hands-on experience, which has manifested into a mastery of fantastic fungi—also known as mushrooms, which she grows, harvests, and sells.

Witnessing her process, log pressed up against her heart’s center, is like watching an artist harvesting a masterpiece.

Take a moment to transport yourself from wherever you are planted into her forest. Imagine taking a breath of earthy air, touching the wild bark and slick leaves, and watch her process unfold:

Research shows that the oldest fossils of fungi have been found to be between 890 million and 1.01 billion years old. To provide perspective, the earliest ancestors of humans weren’t around until about 85 million years ago. This means, over the course of time, mushrooms have survived countless phases of extinction, disruption, and turmoil—proof that ancient wisdom of resilience exists deep within the mycelial networks and root structure of mushrooms.

You can’t help but also think about the history of turmoil and upheaval felt by Black communities for decades, and here too. Like the fungal mycelial networks, there exists a strength and resilience in community, wisdom, and history with the land. Olivia shared a mantra her father would tell her when she was growing up, “When you go alone, you go fast, but when you go together, you go far.” It takes a network of community—a collection of human spores—for everything to grow together.

But, as Olivia shares, it’s a complicated history.

“I know so many people who just do not feel safe in nature. And I have had so many people who I brought out to the land, tell me, wow, it’s just so crazy, to you know, be out in nature and not see another person, but know that you’re safe and know that you’re okay. That’s a feeling that I want to continue to bring to the community. There’s this forest space, that if you want to be able to enjoy nature, you can feel safe here. This can be a place to heal some of that generational trauma.”

Olivia has felt it for herself and has made this agroforest a place of healing, connection, safety, and a starting place for a viable future working in and on the land.

The mission of Oliver’s Agroforest is to conserve the ancestral history and natural gifts of the land through profitable agroforestry, climate resilience farming, and education.

It is an oasis. Rapid deforestation and development are eating away at open land and forests like Pac-man, and this magical forest juxtaposes the concrete jungle rising up all around it in the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area.

Olivia feels it is imperative to the survival of local wildlife to have undisturbed forests. Additionally, agroforestry helps to slow down the effects of climate change by maintaining and encouraging our planet’s largest carbon sequesters—trees—which Olivia refers to as “the biggest creatures she cares for” —to keep the planet cool and the air fresh.

She also wants aspiring farmers and agroforesters to see that this is a viable, possible, and profitable route for a career, “I want people to know you can still use traditional ways of growing food, if it’s done in the right way, and in a right in the right system that is efficient and compact and with the right market, it can be profitable.”

Growing mushrooms was an intentional choice based on the lifestyle and opportunities Olivia wanted to pursue. She feels this is a critical part of having a successful business; otherwise, burnout is likely and there isn’t room for anything else. Mushrooms are much less time-intensive to manage and the infrastructure is minimal compared to a typical row crop farm or greenhouse. This choice has allowed space to explore other passions, find balance, and also pursue her interest in finance.

Olivia is an MBA Candidate at North Carolina State University where she is developing business management, finance, and impact investing skills because of how critical this is for empowering her community.

She’s got her sight set on renting out space to other growers who want to live and learn on the land by providing small, affordable plots of land for people to learn how to grow mushrooms, other produce, and the tenants of regenerative land stewardship.

“I want to get people interested in not only growing food, but also protecting and conserving our environment, alternative food systems, and ways of growing food. This farm is a perfect merger of the studies that I did learning about climate change, nutrient cycling, and growing food, and I want to share that with people.”

Deep within the history of her community exists an unrecognized forest of intelligence Olivia is so gracefully and bravely bringing to the light through social media and community events so that others may learn and grow.

It’s hard to believe Olivia once doubted whether being a farmer was even a possibility because she never saw any farmers who looked like her featured in the media who were operating and thriving outside of the conventional dynamic of having a white male boss. This is why this story is so important to share—so that young women and men of all descents can see it’s possible.

We’ll leave you with Olivia’s wish and vision for you after hearing her story:

“Continue to support individuals and communities stewarding land and continue to walk in your legacy and your responsibility if you are a land steward. The world needs more people who don’t see the land as solely a place to extract opportunity and resources.”



~ See bio for how to help and get involved. For more stories like this, visit Farmer’s Footprint


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