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Tending to the Earth at Black Soil

Ashley Smith, co-founder and CEO of Black Soil, poses for a portrait at Black Soil on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Martha McHaney.

The warehouse is the main center of operations for Black Soil KY: Our Better Nature, a statewide agritourism company that aims to reconnect Black Kentuckians to their legacy and heritage in agriculture.

"We had a pipe burst during the ice storm, so please excuse the mess," Ashley C. Smith, founder and CEO of Black Soil KY, said with a laugh. A small puddle of water gathered below a table of organized products made from their local vendors.

Smith, a University of Kentucky alumna with a background in sociology and business, said she admitted to being an unlikely candidate for this agribusiness success story.

"I am an industry outsider who had no clear idea about farming. I knew I wanted to be in business, and I spent 20 years in corporate, from non-profits to event planning,” she said. “If I am being honest, I got recruited to work in agriculture.”

Smith said she stresses the value of integrating rural farmers into the urban market.

"Being from Lexington, and having a good pulse on what's happening in the landscape, we've created our business model on solution-based matchmaking. We build relationships with farmers and learn their stories regarding the land and how they make a living off of it,” she said. Smith explained that Black Soil serves as the bridge between homes, restaurants and institutions like the University of Kentucky to promote direct and long-term relationships with farmers.

Smith said missing markets, inconsistent customers and consumers questioning the value of their product were some of the worries preventing local farmers from taking it to the next level.

"Rural-based farmers need markets and the majority of the consuming public life in the urban communities. Though the rural farmer does service and source for their direct rural community, they have a greater opportunity to reach more folks and get more products out,” she said.

“The ethical way of achieving this greater opportunity is being farmer-centered, being led by seasonability, being led by what is coming out of the ground rather than forcing it out, and teaching the consuming public that mainly lives in urban communities like Lexington and Louisville,” Smith said.

Ashley Smith, co-founder and CEO of Black Soil, opens the warehouse for a distributor on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Martha McHaney.

Black Soil functions through a symbiotic relationship between farmer and client.

"I love our customers," Smith said with a smile. "We had folks with us since 2020 when we started our public distribution. We have brought on long-term restaurant partners who make decisions on behalf of their customers. They all decide on how to ethically source with an aggregator like Black Soil who pays the farmer their full price."

With the growing modernization of urban communities, it can be increasingly difficult to ethically source produce and create longstanding relationships with local industries. Smith said the key to Black Soil's success is thinking long term, with sustainability as a top priority of their business model.

"Small-to-medium scale operations do not get the visibility and access to those transformational opportunities. Unfortunately, capitalism proliferated through agriculture. It was the demand for free labor, from enslaved men, women and children, so we were caught in a vicious cycle,” Smith said.

Smith explained that slow and steady doesn't always win the race. But for Black Soil, their homegrown work has already impacted families statewide. With donations, they provided over 500 families with fresh and local produce in the Georgetown, Kentucky, area, securing their credibility and fulfilling the needs of their public clientele.

“Black Soil wins because we get to see the beauty of a farmer and a family connection and that family can know firsthand where their food is coming from… the farmer wins because they get to do what they love, allowing them to always sharpen their experiences in many ways," she said, gesturing past the smaller table to three tables where locally made products sit for purchase.

Displayed around the warehouse are handmade F.L.Y. Girl candles, bags of West Lou Coffee, Beeing2gether raw honey, and refrigerators and freezers that store seasonal produce. Black Soil’s inventory reflects a business ecosystem built on integrating healthy lifestyle choices with the genuine needs of rural and urban families.

The warehouse of Black Soil houses goods on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Martha McHaney.

"Traditional capitalism would say, ‘If you want to sell at scale, you have to knock your price down to fit within the mold of the box door grocery chain that is willing to pay pennies on the dollar,’” Smith said. “I'm not here to haggle. I am here to agree with the worth that they say they need and go from there. And it has been a fruitful relationship. We have been able to thrive alongside farm families that go back three generations."

The biases are not lost on Smith, nor the majority of Black farmers, who have felt the prejudices from large companies. There is a certain poetic justice to incorporating Black and Indigenous farmers into the urban landscape.

"Farming is the oldest occupation that is held by African Americans. In collaboration with land acknowledgment, labor acknowledgment recognizes the stolen land was cultivated by stolen people,” Smith said. “Both groups have been pushed to the margins regarding understanding who cultivated and innovated on the land and the industry that flourished on top of it."

Smith explained the biases against Black and Indigenous farmers means they face an 80% to 90% decrease in market value for products, arbitrary rules, gatekeeping and creating processes and procedures that are not transparent.

“What other hoops do we have to jump through? We are here to sell vegetables. We are not trafficking an illicit drug,” Smith said with a laugh.

Ashley Smith, co-founder and CEO of Black Soil, poses for a portrait at Black Soil on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Martha McHaney.

"It's dumbfounding to see a company withholding information and potentially losing a valuable relationship due to their biases. They have attempted to build a barrier, but more than anything, it has been delayed," she said. "We are six years in, and if people still have doubts about our abilities they can speak to a long list of clientele who have put their trust in what we bring to the table."

Black Soil continues to promote Black leadership through its workshop classes that teach young Black Americans how to succeed in rural and urban markets, according to their website.

"Agritourism is usually identified in a white, older, male, and perhaps multi-generational and rural-based,” Smith said. “What Black Soil aims to do is broaden that visual. We want people to see themselves in the sector because that is how you motivate people to join."


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