MEET A FARMER
Wake County, North Carolina
This is not a story about a farmer, a plot of land, or regenerative agriculture.
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.
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.
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% of their farmland. This problem is a major contributor to America’s racial wealth gap; the median wealth among black families is about a tenth that of white families. Olivia’s family was part of the rare and remaining 10% 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 an old wise soul of a pecan tree that’s still giving its nourishing gift every season. Then, in the 60’s 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…
From that point on it was never a question in Olivia’s mind as 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.
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.
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 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.
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.* Which means, over the course of time, mushrooms have survived countless phases of extinction, disruption, and turmoil – proof 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, exists a strength in the 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.”
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 is eating away at open land and forests like pacman, 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 planets largest carbon sequesters – trees – which Olivia refers to as “the biggest creatures she cares for” – to keep the planet cool and the air fresh.
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 to 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.
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.”