Farming for Change: Fatuma Emmad ’00

During spring, catching up with Fatuma Emmad ’00 for a Colorado Academy Journal interview is a challenge.

Summer and fall? Well, those times aren’t any better.

It’s not that she doesn’t want to talk about the pride she has in her profession. She is eager to share her experiences. It’s just that her work never ends. There is, she says, “always something more I could be doing.”

“Talk to me in the winter!” she says with a laugh. “I move with the sun, so now is my season to work!”

When she tells people about her chosen career, she often sees doubt in their eyes. “Show me your hands,” they demand. Some react by saying, “Oh, that’s so cool! I wish I were out there too!” To which she replies, “I’m not sure you actually do. It’s really hard work.”

But this hard work is also Emmad’s passion and a significant part of her identity.

“I am a child of immigrants, I am an earth steward, I am a farmer,” she says.

From Ethiopia to America and back again

Emmad was born in Denver, but her family returned to their homeland of Ethiopia after the Civil War ended in 1991. Throughout her childhood, she spent time in both Colorado and Ethiopia. Her upbringing—in two disparate worlds—and her family’s travels to different countries led her to see “many different realities.”

“Ethiopia, where agriculture has a long lineage, was a place that was known as the ‘famine country’ even though it is so much more than that,” she says. “In fact, it is called the land of 13 months of sunshine and is considered the genetic grain basket of the world.”

“At the same time that I was living in Ethiopia as a young child, I was also visiting the United States, where I saw so much food being wasted.” She points out that in the U.S., more than 40% of all food goes to waste.

Food is the basis for life, but for Emmad, it also became the source for many questions. How does food work? Why does one country have more food than it needs for its population and another country not enough? What does it mean for a nation to have to deal with starvation?

Those questions stayed with Emmad through her college career, so when she had the opportunity to enroll in a small farming program at the University of Montana, she did. After she graduated, she worked on an organic farm in northern Thailand for a year. Still seeking answers to old questions and ready to ask new ones, she headed to The New School for graduate work.

“I was a good child of immigrants,” she says. “I thought I would pursue an academic path and become a political scientist. I envisioned a career doing research, writing books, and advocating.”

Her graduate research into genetically modified seeds (“A single solution to a series of human-created problems, and there is no single solution!”) took her to sub-Saharan Africa, where, she says, “Communities embraced me because I look like them, and I speak their languages.” But her plan to follow an academic path, writing about agriculture and farming, ran into roadblocks. She realized that most of her academic work would be useful for an audience in the global North but did not answer very real and imminent questions people in her communities were asking.

“And I realized that I did not know how to farm,” she says. “How could I do good research, how could I produce knowledge for others, if I don’t know the best questions to ask? So I decided I would learn to farm.”

A new generation of farmers

At the same time that many young farmers are fleeing their farm for a variety of reasons—64% of Colorado producers will exit farming in the next 20 years—Emmad was diving in. She enrolled in the Center for Agroecology at the University of California Santa Cruz for an eight-month program where people come from around the world to learn about organic gardening, farming, and the food system. Emmad specialized in orcharding and mixed vegetables.

After she finished the program, she moved to Wisconsin, found land, and started farming. She collaborated with two farm-to-table restaurants in Milwaukee to build their farms and joined a cooperative of women and immigrant farmers. She also was the head farmer at Alice’s Garden Urban Farm in Milwaukee, with a mission of building neighborhoods and nurturing people through gardening programs for children, youth, and their families.

But, as Emmad says with candor, “Farming does not pay a lot of money. It’s a labor of love.” Love brought her back to Colorado, where she started her own landscaping company and has begun teaching a new generation of farmers as an affiliate professor at Regis University and a lecturer in the Masters of the Environment graduate program at the University of Colorado Boulder.

She also is Co-Founder, Executive Director, and Head Farmer of FrontLine Farming, a food and farming nonprofit focused on food growing and education, offering opportunities, she says, “to advocate for ourselves as people of color and as farmers.”

FrontLine Farming, which operates on five acres divided among three farm sites along the Front Range, explains her busy schedule.

“We produce a lot of food,” Emmad says. “We educate people how to become farmers, including youth programs and programs for children.”

The food is sold through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which is basically a subscription service for consumers who pledge to support a farm operation. Every year, FrontLine Farming also allocates 200 boxes of food to WIC, a nutrition program that offers food and other services to families that qualify, and to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Check FrontLine’s website, and you will also find weekly “No cost grocery days” at the farm sites.

“Of our farm production, 25% goes to people who are facing barriers to food access,” Emmad says. “It could be women and children, it could be Black and Indigenous elders. It is often the most oppressed in our communities who face the systemic violence of food apartheid.”

Changing the country, one law at a time

When Emmad graduated from CA, she was named “Most likely to stand up for her rights,” a line out of a Bob Marley song. As an Upper Schooler, she had proved herself a leader, protesting gun violence after the Columbine High School massacre, rallying at the Colorado State Capitol for education rights.

Her classmates would likely not be surprised to learn that today she is an effective advocate for the rights of those navigating systems which seek to systemically oppress them. During the COVID pandemic, in her role as Co-Convener of Project Protect Food Systems, she assembled a coalition of more than a dozen organizations to lobby for historic legislation offering legal protections and rights to agricultural workers. Emmad joined Gov. Jared Polis on the steps of the Capitol as he signed the bill into law in June of 2021, making Colorado the first state to pass sweeping legislation addressing structural racism in agriculture labor laws.

“This was really one of my proudest moments,” Emmad says. “I led this bill, from drafting it to every fight to pass it. The only thing that separates me from agricultural workers is access to resources and language skills which were built on the back of my immigrant mother. But I can tell you they are certainly better farmers than I am.”

The skills that Emmad honed in CA classrooms—writing with Anne Strobridge and critical thinking with Jim Blanas—now are put to good use four seasons of every year, whether she is writing legislation or grant proposals to support FrontLine Farming. Ask her what she would be doing if she were not farming and she pauses—for a long time. She answers by telling you what farming means to her.

“What I love about farming is that no one can take it away from me,” she says. “In the earth, you meet the most real me, the most authentic expression of myself. And when I give to the earth, sometimes it gives me things I didn’t even know I needed.”