It’s a chilly Saturday morning at the 32nd Street Farmers Market in Baltimore’s Waverly neighborhood, and lines of people are waiting to order from the Blacksauce Kitchen booth. Denzel Mitchell, Jr. is slicing and laying out his homemade biscuits like a human conveyor belt, while owner Damian Mosley manages the grill. The aromas of maple sausage, eggs and cider-braised chicken fill the air as he tops his biscuits with them.
As customers place their orders, the anticipation on their faces hints that these biscuits are going to be well worth the wait. “I follow them on Instagram,” says Lauren Henson, while waiting for her biscuit sandwich. “I’ve been here so many times, I can’t count,” she laughs. “I’m originally from Dallas, so being from the South, I have high standards for biscuits. And these are really good,” she exclaims.
Baltimorean Clarence Ward III, who is waiting for his order with his wife and young daughter, agrees. The jazz musician first experienced Blacksauce Kitchen when they were catering a private party where he was performing. “And at the end of the night, they allowed us to take some food home and my family loved it,” shares Ward. “So we came over here to the farmers market today and followed our nose to their booth,” he laughs. The Wards got the maple sausage biscuit, the biscuit with mushroom gravy and extra buttermilk biscuits to take home.
“We’re known for our hand-made, buttermilk biscuit sandwiches,” says Mitchell, who helped Mosley open up a brick and mortar in this neighborhood in 2016. . “We incorporate seasonal fruits and vegetables into our menu, which we change regularly,” he notes.
“We’re only open on Thursdays and Saturdays and the rest of the time we do catering and sell here at the farmers market.” Mitchell says both his grandmothers were really good cooks, but it was his maternal grandmother who really developed his joy for cooking. “And by the time I got to high school, I really locked in on wanting to become a chef and restaurant owner,” Mitchell admits. “I was working in and out of kitchens all through high school, undergrad and grad school,” he continues.
He attended Langston University and got a double degree in Hospitality Management and English Education. But eventually, Mitchell realized he didn’t just want to be a chef, he also wanted to be a farmer.
The Family Farm
Mitchell grew up in Guthrie, Oklahoma, where his family owned farmland through the Dawes Act. “That land had been in our family since the late 1800s/early 1900s,” says Mitchell. “My maternal ancestors had been enslaved with the Creek Nation, so when the Creeks were forcibly migrated during the Trail of Tears, my ancestors came with them,” he explains. “So my family was deeded a portion of the land as descendants of the Creek Nation.”
Mitchell often visited his two aunts, who were the last two family members to live on and run the farm. “They had cows, pigs, chickens, a smokehouse, a spring house, a big garden and fruit trees,” describes Mitchell. “So that’s really what planted the seed for homesteading and growing for your family as an act of sovereignty.”
Unfortunately, when his aunts became too old and sick to run the farm, no other family member wanted to take it over for various reasons, so they lost the land. But the strawberry tattoo on Mitchell’s right hand hinted that he never lost his desire to get back to farming.
He and his wife eventually moved across the country to Washington, D.C., and when housing prices got too high, they moved to Baltimore around 2006. That’s when Mitchell started growing produce in his yard and driveway, and in 2008 expanded to six vacant lots across the street. “And I relearned the art of growing food in communities,” says Mitchell. “So me and a couple of homeboys that were also into gardening started growing in a larger swath of our BelAir-Edison community in Northeast Baltimore, and by 2010 we were producing enough food to go to a little community farm stand.”
He continues, “And in 2011, I completed the Future Harvest Beginner Farmer Training Program and from there we started Five Seeds Farm.
The Farm and Food Hustle
Mitchell decided he wanted to grow niche and boutique crops for chefs and high-end restaurants, and he wanted to teach other farmers to do the same. One day, a mentor suggested he grow the Maryland Fish Pepper.
“And I did the research on the fish pepper and its position in Maryland’s culinary history, and that led me to the Landreth Seed Company, which is now defunct,” explains Mitchell. “They had what they called a Chesapeake region, African American heritage seed collection that had been curated by [culinary historian] Michael Twitty,” he continues. “So I reached out to Twitty via social media to find out more about it.”
Mitchell learned that it was the most popular pepper in the Chesapeake region throughout the late 1800s/early 1900s. It was a hot chili that was believed to be introduced to the region from the Caribbean and used by enslaved Africans of Maryland. The pepper was deemed a great partner with seafood, which is the base of Maryland cuisine, so it became known as the fish pepper.
“Learning that the fish pepper had such a deep connection to Black folks in this region and specifically, Black folks who worked in the hospitality industry made the story of the fish pepper really speak to me,” Mitchell stated.
He then met Woodberry Kitchen owner Spike Gjerde, who had been looking for someone to grow the fish pepper for his menu for years. “So I started selling produce to the restaurant and that was the beginning of me being able to call myself a farmer,” boasts Mitchell.
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He then started to expand his business, and by the next season he and his team had rented out a couple of people’s backyards to grow more fish peppers, which Woodberry Kitchen uses to make their own Snake Oil hot sauce for their oysters. “We were also growing a lot of leafy greens, chicory, endives, radicchio, and lots of herbs and heirloom tomatoes and petite and root vegetables like radishes, turnips, carrots,” notes Mitchell. “So the focus of my farming was specifically for fine-dining restaurants.”
But Mitchell didn’t stop there. He also ran a food education program at Baltimore Montessori Charter School that gained the attention of the food nutritionist for Baltimore City Public Schools. That led to him becoming the production advisor/consultant for their Great Kids Farm, which produced a small amount of food for the schools.
Mitchell also became a founding member of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore. “We collectively came together as a group of young, urban growers who didn’t know much about farming but wanted to share knowledge and resources with each other and have space to market at a much larger scale,” Mitchell explains.
His Five Seeds Farm was a member until he shut it down in 2016 to help Mosley open the brick-and-mortar for Blacksauce Kitchen. Then in 2017, he became the farm manager for Farm Alliance member Strength to Love Farm. Eventually, he became deputy director of the Farm Alliance and then was promoted in January to co-executive director. The Farm Alliance also has a collective booth at the 32nd Street Farmers Market.
Spreading the Seeds of Knowledge
The mission of the Farm Alliance is to educate, advocate and support urban agriculture and small-scale farmers in Baltimore City. Mitchell says it operates seven programs that serve the membership of 19 farms with a total of about 110 people across the city that are connected with the local urban agricultural network.
“For many Black folks in Baltimore, the urban farms are a place of solace and beauty and environmental justice. And for some folks it’s a place of comfort that provides some food for their families,” states Mitchell.
That’s especially true in areas that are considered to be “food deserts.” But that’s a term that the Farm Alliance doesn’t like to use. “We prefer to use the term ‘food apartheid,’ declares Mitchell. “We learned this from Karen Washington, who is an urban farmer and activist in Brooklyn, New York. She started using the term food apartheid because food insecurity that we experience in our neighborhoods and communities is a direct product of segregation, predatory capitalism and redlining,” he continues.
At the height of the pandemic, Mitchell and the Farm Alliance had a lot of people from the community looking for advice on growing a garden and urban farming was becoming even more popular. “I would say that was the second big wave of urban agriculture that I’ve experienced,” claims Mitchell.
He continues, “There were tons of articles written about local, urban farms that you needed to support, so we were glad we had Black Butterfly Farm and the Black Butterfly Urban Farmer Academy.” The Farm Alliance runs Black Butterfly Farm as a teaching and demonstration farm in the Curtis Bay neighborhood of South Baltimore.
“Our goal is to use the produce from that farm to serve that neighborhood as well,” Mitchell says. The farm was the site of their recent Garlic Planting and Fall Festival. “We start the day with a community garlic planting and finish up the day with the Fall Harvest Festival,” Mitchell notes. “We give away sweet potatoes and garlic from the farm, host farm tours, have sack races and do face painting,” he continues. “And we have some of our restaurant friends, including our restaurant Blacksauce Kitchen, prepare food to give out to participants. This year, we served chili and cornbread and pastry chefs gave away cookies and little pies.” He adds, “We’ll try to do this two to four times a year to teach the community about agriculture and the beauty of this practice for food sovereignty and resilience.”
Throughout the year, many of the member farms offer cooking classes, cooking demos, food giveaways and their own community programming. And the Farm Alliance supports that through training, field days, workshops and providing seedlings to the farm. “The farms then grow them out and harvest the produce to generate revenue,” notes Mitchell. “We also have the Double Dollars program for folks who are using food stamps and food supplements, where we match those dollars up to $20.”
Farm Alliance of Baltimore Making Urban Farming Cool
Mitchell says he loves spreading the gospel of urban farming. “For me, working with the Farm Alliance has been an opportunity to shift the narrative around food production and whether or not small farmers are able to produce food for their communities,” he declares. “It also retains a very specific and needed skillset that a lot of [Blacks] have lost in our migration from the South. Many of our families wanted to get away from [agriculture and working in the fields], and in a lot of ways, it lost its dignity for us,” Mitchell laments.
“So I’ve always wanted to do farming in a way that looks powerful and hip and dignified and interesting, where we can be our full, true selves even though we’re doing work that we associate with a very dark time in our history because we all still need to eat,” he exclaims. Mitchell continues, “Our contributions to dining and eating are amazing and beautiful and something that deserves to be celebrated all the time. It’s why I do this and why I believe farms in Black neighborhoods are so important. I want to see a continued growth in family farms and particularly Black folks pooling their resources, getting onto some land and farming for themselves, to practice some level of food sovereignty.”
Mitchell is not only spreading the urban farming gospel across Baltimore, but he is spreading it across the country and the world. He’s headed to the University of Rhode Island to speak on “Urban Farming, Community Organizing and Family: A Black Chef’s Journey.” And through his friendship with artist Amy Sherald, who painted former First Lady Michelle Obama’s portrait, he has now been immortalized in a painting Sherald did of him.
“Amy and I developed a great friendship many years ago when I worked with Woodberry Kitchen as a farmer and she was working there as a server,” Mitchell admits. “Today, her painting of me is in her new exhibit, “The World We Make,” at Hauser and Wirth London. It has been an amazing journey from where I started to here, and there’s more to come.”
For more information on the Farm Alliance of Baltimore, their Black Butterfly Farm and their upcoming events, like the January dinner to commemorate George Washington Carver, visit their website, Facebook and Instagram pages.