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The Growing Season

As a Black woman, academic and owner of Live Organically, in Minnesota, Lakisha Witter is joyfully challenging stereotypes about farming in America. But this double Gator’s greatest achievement is her personal triumph over early adversity.

As dry as dust.

That’s what the five-acre farm site looks like in the “before” photo the young woman is pointing to. Pale grey, sandy soil. A couple of drab buildings and a few lines of trees. And in the bottom left, outlined in red, a flat expanse of dirt with five tiny dots casting noonday shadows – the horses that originally lived on the property just north of Minneapolis.

What person with no prior farming experience would look at this barren moonscape and think, I’m going to grow delicious organic vegetables there?

The expectation-defying woman giving this Zoom presentation to local farmers, that’s who. Lakisha Witter (BA ’09, MED ’13), Ed.D., a proud double Gator, special education director and, since 2018, the owner/operator of Live Organically farm, in Oak Grove, Minnesota.

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Whatever hand you’re dealt in life at the start, you can’t change that. But you can change where you end up.

— Lakisha Witter —

It turns out, having horses onsite offers definite advantages for an aspiring organic farmer.

“They gave me a lot of good poop for fertilizing,” laughs Witter, speaking to the members of the Twin Cities Metro Growers Network in October 2020.

Ten minutes into her slideshow, she showcases the bounty of her second year of farming: about 1,000 pounds of certified organic tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, kale, squash and more. Proof that with hard work, caring guidance and some TLC, Minnesota’s sandy glacial outwash can be converted into a fertile Eden.

Making things flourish despite less-than-ideal beginnings is an art Witter has perfected over her 32 years. She rose from a neglected childhood and foster care to become a Florida Opportunity Scholar, earning two degrees at UF, plus an educational specialist degree and a recent doctorate in educational leadership. And it’s all due to her formidable persistence, her religious faith and the encouragement she received from mentors and fellow Gators who recognized the spark in her.

“When I look back at my life, I feel that I didn’t become a statistic because I had positive people pour into my life,” she says. “Whatever hand you’re dealt in life at the start, you can’t change that. But you can change where you end up.”

“You Will Not Be a Statistic”

Witter’s story begins in 1988 when she was born to impoverished parents, one of 12 siblings. Her mother struggled with substance abuse, she says, which led to neglect and abuse of her children. Witter remembers little of those dark early years, save a lesson passed on from her biological father.

“I remember being in kindergarten and bringing home a report card, and he would give me $5 for every good mark, every E,” she says. “I remember him telling me, ‘You are going to college one day. You will not be a statistic.’”

At around age 9, Witter was placed in foster care with a family in northern Florida. It was a godsend for the bright little girl, who became an avid reader.

“I was fortunate to be in a great home of a Christian family that brought stability to me,” she says. “I’ve seen the changes in my life from having a positive environment – how it changed my self-esteem, how it changed my hope and my belief in myself.”

One of the things my faith tells me is that I cannot be the positive light if I hold onto the darkness of unforgiveness about what someone did to me.

— Lakisha Witter —

Growing up, Witter felt the hurt and rejection common to foster-care children over having been abandoned by their biological parents. But with the support of her foster family and various mentors – including a high school teacher who saw her academic potential – Witter resolved not to wallow in self-pity or fall prey to substance abuse, like some in her situation.

“Early on, I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to have a sad story. I’m not going to give up on myself,’” she explains.

At age 17, Witter graduated from Union County High School in Lake Butler, already certified as a nursing assistant (CNA). In her other hand she held the AA degree she had simultaneously earned. The dream of attending a four-year college was tantalizingly close. But how could she make it happen, with neither money nor college-educated family members to guide her?

“I didn’t have a model for going to college,” she says. “I just had hope. That’s the only way I can describe it.”

The Teacher Within

That hope was fulfilled when the University of Florida offered her a full scholarship through what is now known as the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars program. Witter arrived at the Gainesville campus in August 2006, dreaming of a brighter future for herself.

The driven student had little time for extracurricular activities, apart from attending a few tailgates and being a member of Nu Alpha Lambda Christian Service Organization. Rather, her attention was focused on her studies, while working as a CNA and as an afternoon teacher for elementary schoolchildren.

“I was in the pre-med track because I wanted desperately to be a neurologist,” she says. “At the time I was so inspired by Ben Carson.”

Supportive Gators helped Witter rise above a difficult childhood. Her most trusted advisor at UF was veterinary professor Dr. Richard Hill, her assigned mentor in the University Multicultural Mentor Program (shown here with Witter at a Gator football game). ”I am as proud of her as a surrogate father would be,” he recently said. Photo courtesy Lakisha Witter

Witter’s intelligence and outsized determination caught the attention of Dr. Richard Hill, an associate professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine and her assigned mentor in the University Multicultural Mentor Program. Hill ended up not only advising her on academic matters but broadening her horizons, on everything from trying different foods, to going to museums and the theater, to walking in Florida’s state parks.

“What stood out was that she was genuinely interested in new things and experiences,” says Hill, admiringly.

Likewise, those informal field trips and Hill’s mentorship made a big impression on Witter.

“He gave me hope that a future was possible, a future without poverty or abuse,” she says. “So, once I saw it, I said, ‘I’m going to create that life for myself and my future kids, whatever it takes.’”

One day, Witter was walking past the Marston Science Library where she ran into an outreach group from the local Fire of God Ministries. A member she didn’t even know singled her out by name with a special message.

“The guy was like, ‘Oh, Lakisha, you are going to make a wonderful teacher,’ and I was like, ‘Dude, what are you saying? I didn’t come to college to be poor!’” she laughs.

It was a reality check, she says.

“I realized I wanted to go into medicine not because I was passionate about saving lives, but I was passionate about making money,” she says. “When I looked at my life, ever since I was a little girl, I was always teaching people. Even then, I was teaching at a daycare, teaching parents, but I never fully embraced it because I had just heard stories about poor teachers.”

After some deep soul searching, she changed her major to sociology and resolved to become an educator.

“I went into education because I’m passionate about changing lives and the destinies of children,” she says. “Even if I didn’t get paid millions of bucks, I knew that if I could wake up every single day knowing I changed a child’s life, I would do it for the rest of my life.”

“I Knew You Needed More”

In 2009, 20-year-old Witter proudly walked across the O’Connell Center stage and accepted her bachelor’s degree in sociology; four years later, her alma mater would bestow upon her a master’s degree in special education. She had bucked the odds and not only survived, but triumphed. But as she celebrated her achievements, words from her mentor, Richard Hill, played in the back of her mind.

“He was always telling me to make time for family and relationships,” she says. “To slow down and cherish the moment.”

Over the prior years, with a therapist’s help, Witter had been working through the emotional traumas of her childhood. Now strengthened, she reached out to her biological mother, determined to keep things positive.

Earning her bachelor’s degree in sociology from UF in 2009 fulfilled a childhood dream that had been instilled by her father. This photo taken in the O’Connell Center parking lot shows a proud Witter in cap and gown, sporting colored honors cords that designate graduating with honors and serving in academic clubs.

“One of the things my faith tells me is that I cannot be the positive light if I hold onto the darkness of unforgiveness about what someone did to me,” she says. “So, my mom, maybe she hasn’t been the best mom, but I honor and respect her because she chose to give life to me.”

During that pivotal conversation, her mother’s words caused Witter to “melt to tears,” she says.

“She said, ‘I gave you away because I knew you needed more,’” Witter remembers. “She told me, ‘On my best day, I couldn’t be the parent you needed so you could succeed. I may have looked like I didn’t love you, but I loved you enough to give you away to the foster family that would care for you.’”

That admission opened the floodgates to forgiveness, and the gradual forging of new bonds between mother and daughter.

“Our relationship now, even though she wasn’t there for me originally, it is very beautiful,” she says. “We love and respect each other.”

An Adventurous Spirit

One trait of Witter’s has always been a constant, her mother has revealed.

“She says from when I was a little girl, I was always adventurous,” says Witter. “And now she doesn’t ever want to stop me from being adventurous.”

Witter let that spirit guide her in 2015 when she pulled up roots and moved to Minnesota, more than 1,000 miles north. She was inspired by a story she read about Bernadeia Johnson, Minneapolis’s first Black superintendent, who was working to foster educational equity for all Minnesota students.

“I thought, ‘If I could just meet her and shake her hand, that would give me the sign that I could succeed on my own path,’” she says. “And God gave me the courage to make that change.”

Witter started over again in Minneapolis, where she began working toward her doctorate in educational leadership at Minnesota State University. Soon she not only met but began collaborating on academic papers with Johnson. To support herself, she founded an educational consulting firm, overseeing the special education requirements of charter schools in the Twin Cities region, and later became an adjunct professor in Bethel University’s graduate program in special education.

That gave her the financial stability to embark on her biggest adventure yet. In 2018 – with no farming experience, training or family connection to agriculture – she bought a five-acre farm in Oak Grove, an hour from Minneapolis, and began cleaning up the property so she could grow organic vegetables.

Adding farming to an already full plate might sound far-fetched (not to mention tiring!), but Witter’s decision was grounded in practicalities.

In her early 20s, problems digesting meat had prompted her to become a vegetarian, and she knew growing her own produce would be optimal for her health, as well as for the health of her future children. Plus, she envisioned using the farm and its horses for educational purposes.

With help from the state, Witter secured funding in her second year of farming to install a drip irrigation system. That was a vast improvement over her first year, when she spent five to six hour a day watering her crops by hand – before and after teaching classes at Bethel University.

She named her farm Live Organically, joining the growing tide of Minnesota farmers who commit to sustainable practices.

Her first year of farming, Witter cultivated just a quarter acre, relying on the advice of other farmers on how to coax fresh vegetables from the region’s famously sandy soil. Speaking this past October to members of the Twin Cities Metro Growers Network, she admitted her learning curve was plenty steep.

“I measured all my beds by hand … I didn’t know anything about watering, like a drip irrigation system,” she said. “I had to go out and water one-fourth of an acre by hand with the water hose, about five to six hours a day, before and after I got back from teaching!”

Rabbits ate her zucchini and squash, and deer kept jumping over a fence to munch on her watermelons. But Witter fought the urge to label her hungry visitors “pests” (“I prefer ‘friends,’” she says) and found humane workarounds to her setbacks.

Early on, she had an epiphany, she says: “I told myself, ‘It’s OK that I don’t know anything. And if it fails, at least I tried it… So, that first year wasn’t what I wanted, but I was proud of myself because I had the courage to start it, and then I made a plan to get better.”

Art of Being Resourceful

Live Organically grew by leaps and bounds in Witter’s second year of farming. With the help of an urban agriculture grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, as well as assistance from local farming programs, she installed a drip irrigation system, began mulching and covering her crops, and erected a greenhouse. Interns from Bethel University lent a much-needed hand with everything from planting to harvesting.

To help raise money for seedlings and compost, she started her own community supporting agriculture (CSA) program, in which consumers “subscribe” to farmers’ future harvests. Expanding to two acres, Witter ended up growing more than 1,000 pounds of 60 organic crops – including eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and microgreens – for 25 CSA families.

“It was a lot of pressure for me to produce for them, but we got it done,” she says with satisfaction.

By the summer of 2020, Witter was attracting attention in the Twin Cities and beyond. On so many levels – as an academic, as a woman, as a person of color – she was defying stereotypes about the face of agriculture in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, where just 0.03% of farms are owned or operated by African Americans, according to the latest Census of Agriculture.

Fox News featured Witter in an October 2020 story on Minnesota’s efforts to encourage more Black residents to go into farming and “become stewards of the land.” (CNN and The New York Times are also running stories on Witter this month.)

A double Gator, Lakisha Witter is one of a small, but growing, number of farmers of color in Minnesota; her trailblazing efforts are being highlighted by reporters from the New York Times, Fox News and CNN. In this 2020 photo, Witter shows off the organic zucchini she raised on her five-acre farm while maintaining a full teaching and educational consulting career.

Speaking about perceptions of farming within the Black community, Witter was quoted by Fox as saying, “I think we put a lot of emphasis on being the next NBA player or the next football player, but farming is a thing too … . It’s the future of the world we live in.”

Witter has also begun to share her experiences at events for other beginning growers. She stresses the mindset she honed at UF – be resourceful and ask for help – and is happy to be in the spotlight, as a way to engage both established farmers and those new to agriculture.

“It’s been an opportunity to redefine what farming looks like for a lot of people,” she says. “You know, I’m not a traditional white male, I didn’t inherit the land, so it’s those types of narratives that my being present in this domain is shaking up.”

Just as others have supported her over the years, she is happy now to provide pointers for rookie and veteran farmers struggling with resources.

“I’ve done a lot of meetings where people come up and ask, ‘Lakisha, how did you write a grant?’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘OK, let me help you. Let me show you how.’”

Being part of a statewide push to make farming more inclusive is something she describes as a “very encouraging” work in progress.

“Minnesota is becoming very open to these ideas,” she says. “And we are still working on redefining what farming looks like.”

Hatching Plans with “the Golden Girls”

Witter has big plans for the 2021 growing season. Having just completed a course at Oregon State in permaculture (the design of agriculture systems based on natural ecosystems), she will be putting those principles to work at Live Organically, beginning in March with the vegetables in her greenhouse. She will expand her farming operation to three acres and expects to produce food for between 50 and 100 CSA members, as well as for local school districts and for sale to wholesale outlets, co-ops and grocery stores.

She also hopes to provide extended learning opportunities to schools so children in grades K-8 can learn about sustainable farming and nutrition.

In addition to growing organic vegetables on her Minneapolis farm, Witter is now raising 50 hens, whom her cousins have nicknamed the “Golden Girls.” Come March or so, the Golden Girls will start laying eggs, and each hen will sport her own personalized name tag. Photo courtesy Lakisha Witter

And then, there are the chickens. Specifically, the 50 hens that Witter bought as chicks in October to supply her with eggs come springtime.

The hens have introduced a whole new learning curve, including the surprise that she didn’t need to hook them up with a rooster just yet – “I didn’t know that a chicken could lay an egg without a rooster; they do, the eggs are just not fertile” – but Witter is “rolling with the punches,” she says, and mastering the basics of tending “the Golden Girls.”

That’s the name her young cousins have given to her brood. The chickens are regular guests on Zoom calls with family members.

“They’ve given individual names to 15 of the Golden Girls,” laughs Witter. “Once the hens start laying eggs, we’ll put name tags on their little feet.”

Like so much in Witter’s life, collecting those first eggs will be her reward for years of persistence and faith that it’s possible to create a better tomorrow for one’s self and others.

That philosophy doesn’t just apply to her unique life story, she stresses. It holds true for every Gator.

“I like to tell people, ‘We are Gators, we have strong blood, and we can change the world,’” she says. “We just have to believe in ourselves.”