A women of color-led organization made up of farmers, healers, activists, and artists, Deep Medicine Circle recently launched its Farming Is Medicine program on a 1-acre rooftop farm in Oakland as well as on a 38-acre Indigenous-run farm on the California coast south of San Francisco. The farmers at both locations will take an agroecological approach to growing organic food that will be distributed for free to institutions—such as the American Indian Cultural District and the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation—to address food insecurity and hunger in the community. The organization links both of these socioeconomic conditions to colonization. To that end, Deep Medicine Circle will invest in farmers of color to accomplish climate, racial, health, and economic justice goals, including rematriating (or returning) land to Indigenous people, cultivating plant medicines, and supporting food liberation for oppressed groups.
Marya intends for the farm to be a source of healing that confronts the displacement and decimation of Indigenous people. Food, she asserts, can serve as medicine by restoring physical health and vitality and by addressing the historical injustices that have occurred on the land.
In her forthcoming book, coauthored by economist (and Civil Eats advisory board member) Raj Patel, Marya draws a link between systemic inequality, multigenerational trauma, inflammation, and the immune system. A holistic approach to health not only considers a community’s access to food and medical care, she says, but also these underlying factors. The daughter of Punjabi immigrants with Jatt Sikh “farmer-warrior” ancestors, Marya grew up in a household that embraced both Western medicine and traditional Indian medicine.
The farm’s name—Ma Da Dil—is Punjabi for “mother’s heart,” a reference to the earth mother and a way to connect the circle’s efforts to the current farmer revolution in India. “This is about billions of people around the world fighting for control of our material reality,” Marya said. “And in capitalism, which almost the whole world is suffering from, the people who are working the land do not have control of their material reality as they should. We work in solidarity with all those people who are struggling in this way.”
Marya has long been working to decolonize food, land, and medicine. In partnership with Lakota leaders at Standing Rock, she is helping to establish the Mni Wiconi Health Clinic and Farm, an initiative that has raised $1 million, including a grant from Colin Kaepernick. She is also investigating police violence’s impact on health through a landmark research project known as The Justice Study. And through her band, Rupa & the April Fishes, she uses music to raise awareness about social justice and climate change.
Marya, A-dae Romero-Briones of the First Nations Development Institute, and author Anna Lappé will participate in a conversation and webinar about strategies to preserve and maintain Native agroecological traditions after centuries of U.S. government-backed land dispossession and cultural annihilation.
Civil Eats spoke with Marya about her land rematriation activism, the new farm, and the long-term effects of colonization on food and medicine in communities of color.
How does your medical background inform your understanding of land, climate, food, and water?
As a doctor, I think of them as health issues. How are humans supposed to survive when the water is poisoned? When it’s so hot that our seeds won’t start at the right time and the pollinators don’t come at the right time? When we’re running away from wildfires, and we’re breathing that air?
So that’s the lens with which I come to this. It’s from that understanding that we are working with the Ramaytush Ohlone people on a 38-acre rematriation project. These are the original people of the San Francisco peninsula. There are just a handful of Ramaytush people and families who are left, who have survived the genocide of their tribe, and none of them hold land in their ancestral territory. In a year’s time, we’ll have the opportunity to move this land back into their hands.
How will Deep Medicine Circle make this happen? Can you discuss the process?
We’re farming 38 acres through Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST)’s farmland initiative. They put out a proposal request for farmers, and [in October] we proposed a project to farm the land under Indigenous stewardship. That initiative gives the farmers an opportunity to buy the land that they’re stewarding at below-market rates after a year of work. So, we do have the opportunity to buy land, but we are not going to ask our Indigenous partners to lease the land this year. So, this land return is an act of historical reparations.
All of our work and energy will be put toward advancing this model of farming that fits with our Ramaytush Indigenous partners’ stated ancestral responsibilities to both care for the earth and care for the people. We created a model that we’re calling Farming Is Medicine, in which we liberate farmers and the food they make from the market economy, and we focus their work on ecological care. So, while they grow food, their principal work is to care for the soil and the water, and all that food then is going to San Francisco to the American Indian Cultural District and to the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation to be distributed through their food hubs to offer organic, agroecologically grown food to people who need it most.
As a physician, how did you come to develop your interest in agriculture and decolonizing the land?
I’m a farmer’s wife. It’s a beautiful, amazing life full of hardworking people who should be truly uplifted. When we realize the connection between soil health and human health, especially through the conversations between the microbiome, we understand that farmers are truly the original stewards of our health.
I’ve always had a very broad understanding of health and I’ve always been very interested in agroecology. Now, Benjamin [Fahrer, my husband] is designing rooftop farms on new buildings. One of them is an acre of rooftop farm in Oakland, where we are doing the urban component of the Farming Is Medicine project. We’ve secured that rooftop for a very low lease, and we’ve hired the best farmer we know in the city, Kevin Jefferson, who is a beloved member of the Black urban ag community. He will be growing all that food to give away to the food pharmacy at the pediatric clinic next door. So, all that food will go to food insecure families who come to their appointments.