Paige Jackson, co-owner of Grass Grazed Farm in North Durham, was surprised recently when a friend texted to congratulate her on a partnership with the Raleigh Convention Center. It was the first time she was hearing about a partnership with the convention center. 

Sure enough, when she went to look, the convention center website was promoting a project called “A Seat At The Table: Southern Cuisine Featuring North Carolina’s Women and BIPOC Farmers and Food Producers.” At the bottom of the page was a picture of Jackson’s smiling family. 

“At the Raleigh Convention Center, we provide the platform for clients to build and strengthen their communities,” copy on the website reads. “Our award-winning menu, ‘A Seat At The Table: Southern Cuisine Featuring North Carolina’s Women and BIPOC Farmers and Food Producers,’ is a testament to our commitment to creating meaningful, impactful connections.”

Those connections, however, turned out to be limited. Earlier this week in a widely-shared Instagram Live video accompanied by the hashtag #PayBlackFarmers, Jackson and her husband, farm co-owner Derrick Jackson, detailed the experience.

“For someone to take advantage of what we’ve created, that’s stealing,” Derrick Jackson says in the video. “Did you really think we would not find out?”

The Jacksons say that their photo was not used with permission and emphasized that local farms are often taken advantage of by restaurants or companies looking to boost representation optics. 

“If you say you’re going to give us a seat at the table—we built that table,” Paige Jackson said in the video. “If this is the way you want a help or handout, you can save it for Oprah.”

Less than two percent of farms in the United States are run by Black farmers, according to data from the New York Times, and over the past century, the number of farms has fallen by a shocking 96 percent, from 925,000 farms in 1920 to fewer than 35,000 in 2017. 

The Raleigh Convention Center’s in-house caterer, Centerplate, introduced the “A Seat At The Table” menu back in August, though Phil Evans, the chef curating the menu and list of farms, has been meeting and working with some of the featured farms for almost a year. The menu originally planned to feature 10 farms—a premature write-up in industry publication ConventionSouth listed all 10—though that number dropped to eight around the launch, due to logistical issues. 

According to Paul Pettas, a spokesperson for Sodexo Live!, the caterer has not yet sold any packages with the menu or had the opportunity to purchase food from the farms.

The INDY was able to reach several of the farms on the list. Brenda Sutton at Fogwood Farms in Reidsville told the INDY that Evans had visited her farm and been in communication with her throughout the year; Sue Stovall at Paradox Farm Creamery in West End also said Evans had been in communication with her, adding she was surprised to learn that not all farms had been formally invited to participate in the menu. 

Three farms (all run by Black farmers) had not been involved in a partnership conversation: beyond Grass Grazed Farm, Hillsborough’s 100-year-old Pine Knot Farms had also not been notified, according to the Jacksons (the INDY placed multiple phone calls to Pine Knot but could not independently verify whether they were notified or not). 

MG3 Farms in Prospect, North Carolina—a third Black-owned farm—was one of those that had been removed from the final list, but MG3 owner Roderick McMillan told the INDY that, having not been part of outreach efforts, he was surprised to see his farm’s name used in materials for a project ostensibly intended to raise the profiles of underrepresented farmers. 

Pettas called the lack of communication an accident and apologized for the mixup. 

“We regret and are embarrassed that enthusiasm for the program concept outpaced finalizing all the details,” Pettas wrote in an email to the INDY. “In this case, our list of local farmers–with whom we look forward to partnering–was shared before we contacted all of them. Of the eight, only six had gone through the formal invitation process. We have since extended invitations to all and hope they will join us.

“Wednesday, we spoke with Grass Grazed Farms to apologize for the misunderstanding and the misstep. We regret that we failed to connect with Derrick and Paige before including their name, likeness, and website in the collateral. We have been excited to welcome them, as they came highly recommended from industry contacts. We expressed our desire to work together in the future to showcase their product for Raleigh visitors to enjoy.”

Paige Jackson says that she and Derrick Jackson are “currently discussing a way forward and a framework to educate both farmers and purchasers on procurement avenues that are beneficial to all parties.”

Ultimately, she says, she hopes the experience can bring the focus back to minority farmers. 

“It’s a lot of work to farm, period,” Jackson told the INDY over the phone. “When it comes to having relationships with distributors or vendors—that’s a really big deal for farmers. That’s how we pay our bills. I would encourage anyone who’s in the food space to put faces with those farming because we’re people. I really hope that in light of everything that was going to be something that encourages the community to rally around farmers and to have respect for the work that’s been done in the work that needs to be done in order to cultivate a better community.”

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