By Martha Quilin, The Associated Press via The News & Observer 

Kamal Bell launched Sankofa Farms on 12 acres of rock-hard Alamance County red clay in 2016 as a place where kids could grow.

Bell was a middle school earth and environmental sciences teacher then in the Durham Public Schools, where one of his goals was to help African-American boys develop life skills that eventually could help them support themselves and their communities.

“There was too much noise in the classroom,” Bell said, from the chatter of disinterested classmates but also from the distractions of sports, status symbols and social pressures. Some of his students didn’t learn well in that setting.

The school where he was teaching had a garden, and Bell asked if he could work with students on the plot through summer, get them outside where they could do the cleansing, physical work of digging, pulling and planting. When the principal said no, Bell went looking for another way.

Historically, federal farm lending programs have been biased against African Americans, and Blacks remain under-represented in farm ownership in North Carolina and across the country. Eventually, Bell borrowed money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy the land in Efland. He applies for grants from nonprofits to pay for its operation and gets advice from crop specialists and from his former professors at N.C. A&T State University, where he got his bachelor’s degree in animal science and a master’s in agriculture education.

Kamoni King, 16, was one of the first students who showed an interest in working at the farm, where Bell can work with up to six young men at a time, bringing them to the site up to four times a month during the school year and three to five days a week during summer.

“I wanted to try something different,” from the way his classmates were spending their time, King said.

Bell and the students spent most of the first two years carving three fields out of the property, which was overgrown and had been used as a trash dump.

“They have had to develop a lot of patience,” King said of the boys, who didn’t get to plant anything until 2018. “Patience is something a lot of people don’t have.”

Bell, who grew up in Durham, not on a farm, researched crops that could connect the students to their African roots. The name of the farm, Sankofa, is used in West African languages to refer to going back and getting what might have been lost.

The students plant enough radishes, cow peas, squash, watermelon, peppers, kale and navy beans to take home to family members and neighbors. Some live in places where it’s difficult to get fresh fruits and vegetables even when they’re in season.

Bell hopes to open the farm as a U-Pick operation, so that nearby residents also can have access to fresh foods, and he and the students hope to grow enough to be able to donate some to the poor. Ultimately, Bell would like to build a school on the property because he believes, “You can teach everything through agriculture.”

King, along with Mikal Ali, 14, and his brother, Jamil, 12, have been learning to work with one of Sankofa’s new enterprises: honey bees. On a spring morning, they came to the farm with Bell to split one of the hives, a skill they’ll need to become certified beekeepers.

The boys were afraid of the bees at first, but that morning, they put on protective gear and approached the brightly colored wooden hives and calmly, deliberately opened the boxes. As he lifted a rack covered with humming bees, Mikal hesitated a few seconds, until Bell, standing close by, reminded him, “You know how to do this. Figure it out.”

Taking his time, Mikal completed the task and closed the hives.

In the public schools, King said, “I don’t see much hope. But out here, they light up.”