Amber Smith, owner and founder of Farms by Amber, LLC, isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty – even with a full set of pink stiletto nails. Following a promise to a friend to keep a few plants alive, Smith has since become a full-fledged “farmher” and cultivated a seemingly endless number of gardens and variety of produce both for herself and her community.
The term “farmher” works to shine a light on women in agriculture. For Smith, who consistently supports and mentors fellow Black farmers/farmhers, small business owners, and women entrepreneurs, the term carries great pride.
“I’m happy to say that I have all of these accolades behind my name but one thing I always drop is that Amber is a farmher,” she said. “Outside of project management and all of those things, I’m not ashamed to say I’m a Black farmher and I love it.”
In addition to her farming, Smith also serves as project manager for KC Health Collaborative. She is a firm believer in the value of food as medicine and the importance of reconnecting with the earth, especially as a Black farmer. Through farming and gardening, Smith strengthens her bond with her loved ones, practices self-care, and honors ancestral roots in agriculture.
Turning a Promise into a Passion
Several years ago, Smith made a promise to a friend named Peggy to keep her patio full of plants alive after her death. Peggy had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and Smith cared for her throughout her illness and until her death on December 28, 2016. Though Smith didn’t particularly have a green thumb at the time, she kept her promise to Peggy, keeping her plants alive for nearly a year following her death despite their difficult care requirements.
“She had these beautiful, braided hibiscus trees that she loved, and hibiscus trees have several nuances to them,” she said. “Those were the ones that I had to work the hardest on.” Every year since, as a tribute to Peggy, Smith buys two or three hibiscus plants, continuously trying to find the right balance in their care (although suffering some casualties along the way).
To continue processing the grief from watching Peggy pass away, she recruited a friend to help transform 6,000 square feet of terrace on the side of her house into a garden, eventually replacing the entire space with a series of beds.
At the time she was also teaching and once word spread about her gardening, she was enlisted to lead the school’s garden club. With her “natural take over spirit,” she quickly grew the club’s operation from a handful of beds to several spaces, including a 3,000-square-foot area to grow greens.
What began as a promise to Peggy became a way of processing grief through creating life. Each new project she took on rapidly expanded as she continued to invest more in herself, in healing, and in exploring ways to nourish her community.
On April 10, 2020, Smith lost her job. On April 19, 2020 – just nine days later and on her birthday – Smith shared on Facebook that she had been growing food and asked if there was any interest in purchasing from her. The response was overwhelmingly supportive, and she hasn’t slowed down since.
“That birthed Farms by Amber at that particular time and it’s just kind of grown from there,” she said. “That’s my why. It’s very healing for me to grow things. I think about life in terms of cycles: you reap what you sow. . . there will be times of fertilizer and times of planting and times of harvesting. It keeps me connected to the earth, it keeps me grounded, it reminds me of who I am and whose I am, more importantly. It works out the depression and the anxiety that I can sometimes battle with.”
Though Smith supplies her produce to the community, there is a strawberry patch on her farm that oftentimes is not shared with others. At the time the strawberries were planted she was grieving, and the patch provided an outlet for her to work, think, feel, and cry. “I can’t prove it, but I’m convinced those strawberries are so sweet because my tears are in that bed,” she said.
For Smith, simply getting her hands in the dirt has healing properties. Before she started journaling or diligently going to therapy, she knew she could work out whatever was weighing her down by planting and cultivating something and allowing the earth and God to do the rest.
“It reminded me of my humanity, of my power, of what I don’t have power over, but it also reminded me of the strength and the power of my God where when I would feel helpless, he was not,” she said.
In a time of social media, when we only see the best and cleanest versions of each other’s lives, Smith believes there is power in connecting with the earth and the soil, even if it’s ugly, dirty, and imperfect. There is also strength in recognizing the provision that lives in the soil and in trusting that what you plant in it will grow and provide for you.
“I’m a walking juxtaposition — my nails stay done, because that’s Amber, but I’m happy to get in the dirt,” she said. “It’s because I think my ancestors are connecting me to what is of higher value, and what’s more important. I think the freedom and the joy found in cultivating something that you released to the earth and allowed [the seed] to die to release more life, and multiple layers of life, is something that provides a real connection that I see.”
“Food is Love”
Universally, food holds power. It fuels the body, it’s tied to memories, and it brings people together across communities and cultures. According to Smith, food is especially significant in Black culture. Songs that were once sung to pass down ancestral history have since been replaced with food; recipes for greens, cornbread, and dressings serving as a thread from generation to generation.
Although Smith’s aunt Brenda was initially hesitant about her tweaking a family dressing recipe, the two bonded over the shared learning and teaching experience: Smith explained that adding herbs helped release aromatics and add flavor, introducing a new layer of love to a traditional family recipe.
Because the two cook together annually, Smith’s aunt has also noticed a change in the quality of the produce she grows, which Smith excitedly explained is a result of tweaking the soil and growing process over the years. Being able to demonstrate to her family how growing produce allows her to nourish loved ones with high-quality food is a driving force behind her work.
“For me, food is love,” she said. “When I bring you together, I want to show you I love you on multiple layers in multiple ways. It strengthens the whole bonding piece that I think, culturally, we were never able to have. . . It’s been so fun to deconstruct and reconstruct our historic recipes.”
Farms by Amber offers Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a program that connects consumers to farmers and allows members to subscribe to a share of seasonally produced harvests. Members receive a newsletter that includes information about the produce Smith and other local farmers are growing, what is currently happening on the farm, recipes, and more.
Smith serves predominantly Black and Brown clients and will often encourage others to share their own recipes for the same dish, allowing herself and others to experience new perspectives on food from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. At one time, Smith and her clients were floating a multitude of oxtail recipes, attempting to determine a favorite. Another time, they shared various turnip recipes, including turnip fries, to demonstrate several ways to utilize the vegetable.
Each newsletter also provides an overview of what people can expect to see in their CSA bags and introduces people to new foods they may not be familiar with. According to her, there is a lot of food people have missed out on simply because the grocery store offers a limited selection compared to the wealth of food able to be grown. As a result, people end up eating the same things over and over, even if their diet contributes to health issues.
“We forget that the food is the medicine,” she said. She helps people to recognize the connection between illness and the message one’s body is trying to send. For example, she explains, when she is tired, she craves peaches – this is because sleepiness is caused by a lack of magnesium, which peaches contain.
“For me, when I’m looking at my food – what I’m putting into my body, what I’m feeding my neighbors, what I’m feeding my son, what I’m introducing them to – all of that wraps together because my goal is to do no harm to you,” she continued. “That means I’m not serving things to you that wouldn’t benefit you, that wouldn’t build you up, that wouldn’t allow you to take long walks with me, but instead would allow you to have freedom and liberty in your body.”
According to Smith, the overly processed food conveniently available at grocery stores and fast-food restaurants contribute to her high inflammation, which can lead to chronic diseases that disproportionately affect Black and Brown people including hypertension, diabetes, and arthritis, among others. It also contributes to a lack of mobility that she believes is contradictory to the goals she and many others have for themselves and their loved ones.
“Food, at least for African Americans, is how we surround ourselves,” she said. “It’s how we celebrate, it’s how we grieve, it’s how we acknowledge and worship, oftentimes around a table of food. What that table looks like is to be in alignment with this intent, which is to be nutritious and develop healthy habits to support the extension and longevity of the family.”
In Smith’s opinion, returning to natural medicines, eating seasonally, and eating locally are key to combating the health inequities facing Americans, especially Black and Brown people. Understanding the connection between food and the earth and food’s inherent medicinal value also dispels the myth that convenience equals better.
When her son repeatedly asks if his favorite fruit, watermelon, is in season, she finds joy in the opportunity to help him recognize the purpose of the food and the connection between it and the earth’s seasons. Melons, for example, are in season during the summer, when the body needs to be cooled off and hydrated. Hearty vegetables like carrots and squash, however, are in season during the fall, when the body is preparing for winter and in need of strength and nourishment.
Tapping into ancestral, indigenous wisdom and recognizing that the earth and seasons will provide what is needed when it is needed is a value Smith holds close. To honor this, she will be embarking on a journey beginning this June to break up with the grocery store.
“The grocery store has been convenient for so long, but it hasn’t been beneficial,” she said. This project has taken significant time, investment, and planning to map out how she will eat for the upcoming year and beyond. Though she welcomes the challenge, some people have called her idea insane. She argues it’s not insane, it’s intentional.
“I’m intentional about my health,” she said. “I’m intentional about the times and the seasons of my life and really listening to what my body needs and supplying it with what it needs, not with necessarily what it wants, because those wants may be in contradiction to what’s beneficial for me.”
Revitalizing Ancestral Roots
Though not everyone is on board, Smith has successfully recruited several friends and family members to join her on her mission to break up with the grocery store. Although eating strictly locally grown food is certainly not the easier path, she believes it allows her to be in alignment with the dreams her ancestors have for her.
“I’m growing food, but I’m also living life, and growing food, and practicing health,” she said. “I want to live a long life. My goal is to live to be one hundred plus one day. . . so I’m trying to build in practices that would allow me to harness that and it comes directly through what I eat and what I do to my body. What are the things that are honoring it so that it has longevity and what are the cultural reparations that I’m doing to restore and renew it?”
Part of these cultural reparations include serving as the program manager for the Black Farmers Equity Initiative sponsored by Cargill and the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC). According to NMSDC, this collaborative initiative aims to create a pathway for emerging Black farmers to achieve parity in the agriculture industry with learning solutions, certification, lending, networking, and new contracts.
Currently, part of the initiative’s “systemic and pivotal” work includes making sure Black urban farmers are accurately represented in the U.S. Farm Bureau Census as they believe these numbers are currently underreported. The initiative also supports Black and Brown and urban farmers by encouraging leveraging the power of shared learning and community.
“It’s not being afraid to ask any question,” Smith said. “It’s going back to our grandmothers and our mothers and our grandfathers who may have, and often do have, the wounds from watching their family be sharecroppers and picking cotton, and just asking them questions about what they remember. . .It’s revitalizing and returning a generation of farmers back to the land.”
“When you think about the enslavement of Africans at that particular time and the kidnapping of them, it was because of their ancestral agricultural acumen,” she continued. “When [colonizers] started raping those people and kidnapping those people, it was because they knew how to do cultivation and they understood the seasons and times and a connection with the land. It was never because they were a stupid people, it was because they knew they had an innate wisdom. They understood the connection with the land and the abilities of the land to provide and protect and nurture us.”
Now, she’s delighted to see Black farmers returning to the land, getting their hands in the dirt for the first time, watching something they planted grow and being in awe of the life and nourishment they’ve contributed to creating. While recruiting farmers throughout the nation, she sees a connectedness where farmers share the sentiment that they do their part and simply have faith in the process and in the Lord to do the rest.
According to Smith, people sometimes have trepidation about growing their own food because of the anxiety surrounding whether they did it “right” or not. “If it grew, you did it right,” she said. “Life can really be that simple, but we add so many judgments on multiple levels to multiple things that I’m pretty sure were never intended to be there.”
As a result, she is happy to help others get started with their own plant or garden, be transparent about where she’s gotten things wrong, and share best practices she’s discovered through trial and error along her own journey. She surrounds herself with others who raise each other up, leans on her community, learns from her elders, and encourages others to do the same.
“I’m happy to share a practice that restores people and brings them to joy,” she said. “I intentionally pursue an uncommon life with immense joy and rich experiences. I know it’s uncommon because I am a Black middle-aged woman who enjoys digging in dirt with full-on nails. And sometimes with a full-face beat depending on what my day looks like! I’m happy to share that you can be both ends. You can be both the teacher and the student all the time.”
Farms By Amber offers CSA food delivery directly to homes in Missouri and Kansas. Visit Farms by Amber to subscribe to CSA, shop Farmhers Market produce sales, stay up to date with Smith’s work, and more.