Nikki Pressley, RAFI-USA’s Program Coordinator for the Farmers of Color Network, fondly recalls her childhood visits to her grandmother’s home in Willamston, SC, which was where her interest in growing things was initially kindled. “My fathers’s mother always had a small garden and I remember the delicious meals at both of my grandmothers’ houses and the tomatoes, peppers, or chow chow that we would bring home after spending a Sunday afternoon with them,” she shared.
Growing up in Mauldin, South Carolina, Nikki and her brother were very involved in athletics, playing basketball and running track year-round. Her parents fostered her interest in the arts as well by signing her up for community art classes. “It continued to blossom from there,” Nikki said. But she says her deeper passion for making art gained momentum while she was in college. She switched her major from science to art during her sophomore year at Furman University and never looked back. “I was really inspired by my professors and was encouraged to keep making work beyond undergrad,” Nikki said.
She attended the California Institute of the Arts, where she received a Master of Fine Arts degree. It was during this time that she started incorporating organic matter and plants into her work, and this led to her more focused interest in growing things. She explains: “When I went to art school in California, a lot of my work there revolved around challenging the nostalgia of my southern roots. I began creating works examining the strange colonial tourism of places like Charleston and the lives and histories that persisted well beyond the intentions to demolish them. I was also interested in maroon communities that sprung up over the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic and began making work that examined relationships to place and memory. I was subsequently thinking a lot about necessity, survival, and sovereignty in regards to your own body, to land, and to sacred practices. I think these things go hand and hand with ideas around stewardship and community, which, in my experience, are vital parts of a farming existence.”
After obtaining her graduate degree, she worked as an assistant in artists’ studios and continued making her own work, which she showed in galleries and museums. She eventually began working for Farmscape Gardens in Los Angeles where she was a designer and urban farmer, working with residents and chefs to plan gardens each season.
While at Farmscape Gardens she serviced a number of residential homes in Los Angeles as well as school gardens and restaurants. “With the schools, it was thrilling to watch kids get so excited about plants and worms. With the restaurant gardens, it was great to work with chefs on a larger scale, experimenting with varieties and harvesting times,” she shared. It was around this time that the reality of Black land ownership/loss and the connections between privilege and food really started to make more of an impression on her, and she became aware of her growing desire to be on her own land growing food.
For several years following Farmscape Gardens she served as graphic design lead for a nonprofit called Leadersup whose mission is to provide resources to young adults who are un- and under-employed in LA County. During this time, she also taught high school art classes and participated in an art residency in upstate New York. After a few years, she returned to North Carolina in 2018 to work with N.C. A&T State University as a graphic designer.
She always had a garden of her own while working in Los Angeles, but upon returning to NC she was able to start growing on about an acre of land in Winston-Salem. She ran a small CSA and participated in a local farmers market.
She was aware of RAFI-USA and the Farmers of Color Network and applied for an open position with the Network. She had also heard about Tahz (Walker), the program’s former Senior Program Manager, through his collective, Earthseed. “I was mostly interested in working with folks who were committed to supporting farmers,” she said.
Nikki enjoys her direct work with farmers and visiting their farms. “It’s inspiring and informative to get to spend time with farmers in their spaces. I imagine that will continue as I get to see these farms grow and evolve over time. Also working with a small team to strategize around how to serve farmers better has been enlightening,” she shared.
One of her favorite experiences so far is when she and Laketa Smith (FOCN Program Manager) visited farms in the Charleston, SC area. She recalled that “Every visit was a rich experience of learning and listening. During that trip we visited Helen and Joseph Fields’ 50-acre certified organic farm and partook in a feast they were having for all their guests on the farm that day. It was beautiful. Watching and listening to them (the Fields) you realize how much life they have invested into their work. It’s really remarkable.” The Fields received a 2020 FOCN Infrastructure grant that supported the construction of a shed to shield farm visitors from inclement weather.
Nikki still makes time for her art. “It’s a practice that has evolved over the years but one that I am actively engaged in. I’m currently working on a smaller scale with powdered graphite drawing and also using those drawings as inspiration for derivative digital work,” she shared.
Nikki is cautiously optimistic about the future for farmers of color. “I think sustained investment, financial and otherwise, could really make the most impact. If farmers and farming communities are able to be resourced on a year-to-year basis, that will allow them to progressively scale and sustain their operations,” she stated. ”This would help build strong farms that can support the communities they serve for the long term. BIPOC farmers have continuously been forced behind the curve on so many levels, in terms of land loss and years of unfair and detrimental practices at the hands of local and national institutions. It’s powerful to invest not only in individual farmers but also in groups of farmers who are actively organizing themselves to create food economies that are tailored to their community needs. Setting farmers up to successfully challenge and re-imagine systems is a strong step forward.”