Tonni Oberly at Oaks & Sprouts
Currently’s Editor-in-Chief Abbie Veitch chats with Tonni Oberly, a recipient of the “Black Women, Green Futures” award from New Voices for Reproductive Justice. This award recognizes Black women who are leading in the environmental justice space.
Oberly is a doctoral candidate at the Ohio State University, studying City and Regional Planning. She’s also a Birth Equity Research Scholar at the National Birth Equity Collaborative. And, she is a co-owner and farmer at Oaks & Sprouts — a family farm in Urbana, Ohio.
Outline of Chat
What’s the focus of your Ph.D.?
The regenerative and natural techniques used at Oaks & Sprouts.
Community-building work and research projects at Oaks & Sprouts.
Importance of celebrating and supporting Black women leaders in the environment and in the agricultural space.
What does recognition from New Voices mean to you?
(All discussion paraphrased unless in direct quotes)
Abbie: What’s the focus of your Ph.D.?
Tonni: I'm focusing on the intersections of place and racism and how they impact Black maternal and child health outcomes. I'm contextualizing it by studying the return migration, so how Black people have been moving back to the South since the 70s.
Abbie: Can you tell me about the regenerative and natural techniques you use at Oaks & Sprouts?
Tonni: We started our farm two years ago, so we're going into our third growing season. The whole impetus of starting the farm was to do our part for improving the environment.
We started off with the principles of regenerative agriculture. We use minimal tilling, which means we use a lot of hand tools and do as much as we can to not disturb the soil.
With regenerative agriculture, there's a really big focus on the soil and the health of the soil. Healthy soil can sequester a lot more carbon than other methods, so if we properly steward the land, we can sequester carbon into the soil from the environment to help with climate change mitigation.
We use products that are organically certified (although we're not organically certified), and we use rotational grazing.We also have goats and are definitely going to expand our herd this year. We use our goats and other animals to improve the soil quality as well.
Abbie: Can you talk about some of the community-building work you’re doing at Oaks & Sprouts?
Tonni: Food is such an important asset for community building. We care a lot about how we grow our food and where our food is going.
[Oaks & Sprouts sell at local farmers' markets. They're also part of a pilot program to share their food with local food pantries.]
“Families get really fresh, healthy food that we’ve picked the day before or that same day.”
We’re also involved in several research projects. I think that sometimes we forget that research is important and can benefit the community. We are able to develop and test best practices and share those with other farms.
One project is with the Warner Grant, managed by The Ohio State University. We’re partnering with an engineering graduate student to build and test a geothermal system for our greenhouse. This way, we can mitigate how much propane we're using. We're in the building [process], and we're going to test it soon. Then, we'll be able to share with other farmers how it works.
We're also involved with a grant called Financing Climate Smart Agriculture. That one is just kicking off. We'll be able to provide technical assistance to other farms in the region that want to create more sustainable systems, especially using the National Resources Conservation Services. Using those practices, they can get reimbursed for being sustainable on their farms.
The last project is a research project about the genetics of Ohio bees. It's called the Ohio Queen Bee Improvement Project. They are trying to figure out the best genetics for bees in Ohio so that we have more bees that are sustainable here. Often bees are shipped in from California, so when they get to Ohio, they die because it's cold and harsh here. So, [the project] is looking for bees that are native to Ohio and developing those genetics.
Abbie: Can you talk a little bit about why it's so important to take a moment to celebrate Black women leaders in the environment and in the agricultural space specifically?
Tonni: Black and Indigenous folks have been the stewards of the land for so so long. We have such a long history, connection, and respect for land. History has tried to minimize and erase that and to replace it with just the trauma.
But our connection to the land is not only in trauma, there is healing and community that the land brings to us. Reclaiming that connection — to land and to each other — is so important. It's not often recognized that Black and Indigenous people are leaders in environmental justice work. Many times white people come to mind, but Black people and Indigenous people are the starters of the environmental justice movement and the reproductive justice movement.
Those two movements are intricately connected. New Voices for Reproductive Justice is unique in recognizing the connection between environmental justice and reproductive justice, and having this award to highlight that, it’s incredible and so important.
Abbie: Right, often the environmental movement turns to Black and Indigenous leaders only in times of crisis rather than support their work in the day-to-day.
Tonni: I think it's interesting that you brought up this idea of turning to us in times of crisis, because even before the United States was a country, this was a place of crisis. It has been a crisis for us — for Black and Indigenous people — the entire time.
There's no on-and-off switch for the crisis state. So to be able to recognize that even in the midst of harrowing trauma — that has been generational and continuous — we can celebrate that we have been resisting, creating our own communities, and flourishing is really something that's unique to the Black and Indigenous experience.
This was really a generational journey, for my husband and I. Both of our parents come from rural settings but moved away. We're coming back to it. I think there are going to be a lot more young people reclaiming their rural roots and understanding that connection to the land and to community is so important. It's a generational reclamation, and I think it's really beautiful.
Abbie: On that note, what does this recognition from an org like New Voices mean to you?
Tonni: It's a huge honor, and it's not something that I was expecting, but that recognition does mean a lot. It has been an opportunity and platform to connect with so many other incredible people. So much of environmental justice and reproductive justice is about community.
It supports us in doing more of the work that we care about. There was a mini-grant and that bit of money means we can get a few more goats, and a few more goats on our land is a good thing for our community.
I feel like I'm still relatively new in the environmental justice space and I've been excited to bridge environmental justice and reproductive justice. The original tenants of reproductive justice, include the right to raise your families in safe and sustainable communities, and I think that often gets left out of the conversation.
When we talk about reproductive justice, it's often about abortion access, which is very important, but it's not all of reproductive justice. There's so much to think about when we consider what other factors, like safety and sustainability, impact our birth outcomes and the life outcomes in Black communities.
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