It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon at FrontLine Farming’s Majestic View Farm in Arvada, and the weekly team lunch is winding down. Staff members, farmers, and apprentices sit quietly in the shade, listening to a presentation on chokecherries, a native Colorado fruit that grows wild nearby. The presenter, Gabriela Galindo, passes around a branch of dark purple berries and describes how Indigenous communities processed the tannic fruits into nutritious, long-lasting foods like pemmican, a mix of dried berries, meat, and fat.

Galindo, who identifies as Indigenous, is a member of this year’s FrontLine Farming’s BIPOC Apprenticeship Program, a six-month, hands-on course for Black, Indigenous, and students of color to learn about farming, sustainable growing practices, food systems, and food sovereignty. The Wednesday presentations are a chance for team members—apprentices, farmers, and staff—to take turns diving deeply into topics that interest them and share what they learn with the rest of the team. Galindo, who has a degree in human nutrition from MSU Denver, had seen chokecherries used in Indigenous ceremonies, so the fruit’s nutritional and spiritual importance interested her.

For Galindo, 33, the program has been an important step in deepening her understanding of nutrition and health, reconnecting with her family’s agricultural roots in Mexico, and sharing what she’s learned with her neighbors and the Native communities she is a part of, which include people who identify as Lakota, Diné, Mexica, Apache and more. “I’ve been sharing a lot about what we’ve been learning about water rights and equity and soil health,” she says. “But this knowledge isn’t mine. This is ancestral knowledge; this is all of our knowledge.”

Sharing knowledge and skills through this apprenticeship program is one way FrontLine Farming—a nonprofit farm led by women and people of color—is implementing its strategy for building a more equitable Front Range food system. At the center of its strategy is the acknowledgement of our food system’s troubled treatment of people of color, both past and present, but also an understanding that building a relationship with plants, soil, and farming can be a source of healing for the generational trauma experienced by Black and Indigenous community members.

FrontLine Farming’s approach has three focus areas: food security, food justice, and food sovereignty. Food security, or ensuring all people have access to nutritious, culturally appropriate food, has been a highly visible need throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but addressing this important priority through efforts like donating produce and rescuing food is only the beginning, says JaSon Auguste, one of FrontLine Farming’s three co-founders and director of marketing, media, and technology. “We know serving that immediate need isn’t going to fix all the problems within the food system,” he says.

To address those bigger needs, the organization’s food justice work includes public mobilization, advocacy, and testimony in support of policy that corrects historical injustices in the food system, such as Colorado’s SB21-087, the Agricultural Workers’ Rights bill. Signed by Governor Polis last year, the bill secures labor rights for farm workers, such as the right to the state minimum wage and overtime pay, protections from overwork, injury, heat stress, and more.

But it is the call for food sovereignty that thrums like a heartbeat beneath FrontLine Farming’s work. It is one of the reasons why the organization was founded in the first place. Alongside the desire to provide food for people who need it and better the working conditions for farmworkers, Auguste and the organization’s other co-founders, Fatuma Emmad and Damien Thompson, had a straightforward goal: “We wanted to be able to grow food and do it under our own autonomy,” Auguste says.

Photo of Fatuma Emmad, one of the co-founders of FrontLine Farming
Fatuma Emmad, one of the co-founders of FrontLine Farming. Photo courtesy of FrontLine Farming

In the four years since it began, Frontline Farming has been able to do so on five acres of leased land in three locations in and around Denver: Majestic View Farm in Arvada, Sister Gardens in North Denver, and Celebration Garden in South Denver. Now the organization is ready to set down more permanent roots through its Liberation by Land campaign, a fundraiser with the goal of purchasing a 10- to 30-acre plot of land within 20 miles of Denver, which will be used by FrontLine Farming, but also open to collective use by local BIPOC community members.

This goal acknowledges the often painful history of land ownership and loss for communities of color in the United States, particularly Black and Indigenous communities. After decades of discriminatory treatment by creditors and the USDA, legal exploitation of heir-inherited property ownership, and even outright violence and theft, in 2017 Black farmers owned just 0.5 percent of the country’s farmland, or 4.7 million acres, down from a peak of 16 million acres in 1910.

That history, as well as the legacy of slavery, the forced migration and dispossession of Indigenous tribes from their ancestral lands, and the grueling and undervalued farm work currently done by mostly people of color, can create a feeling of disconnection from the land and farming for some individuals. “There’s so much trauma and pain around the land for a lot of people,” Auguste says. “But when the land calls you back to heal, it lifts you up. It kind of centers you, and it provides that healing. So many people come back to the land.”

For current farm apprentice Moses Smith, coming back to the land was a choice that has changed his life. Despite a successful career as a software quality assurance engineer, he was in a period of transition when he applied for the BIPOC Farm Apprenticeship Program on a whim. While he had no personal history with agriculture, his maternal grandfather had a farm in Los Angeles, and his mother had memories of the vegetables they grew. But like many Black-owned farms, the land was lost, parceled into shrinking pieces, and eventually sold to sustain the family’s survival. “And then basically the family just disintegrated, and everyone went in their own direction,” Smith says. “Everything just turned to dust.”

Smith says his life felt like a similarly barren landscape after decades spent dedicated to a career that was financially stable but personally unfulfilling—a realization he came to after beginning the apprenticeship. Spending so much time caring for plants, weeding them, and watching them flourish, he thought about how his own life had been taken over by the weeds of other people’s priorities and a feeling of disconnection from himself and others. Working the land has reconnected him to life. “It’s like someone has just pulled all of the weeds off of me, and I’m standing here exposed to sunlight for the first time,” Smith says. “And I credit this program with giving me the opportunity to spend enough time baking in the sun, caring about these plants, to realize what a plant I am.”

FrontLine Farming hosts weekly volunteer hours and monthly community World Heritage Potluck Dinners during their growing season, as well as a variety of educational workshops throughout the year. All are welcome. Check out their Events page for details and to register.