Amid light chatter, Sakinah Grey, her nine children, and a few extra helpers work through hundreds of chickens that are set to go out for delivery across the Commonwealth. She and her husband, Omari, started their farm from a desire to feed their family healthy food, and expanded their homesteading practices to provide friends with the same quality products they were producing for their own children. “The goal,” according to Sakinah, “was to make this a supermarket.”
Fitrah Farms asserts that there is no other place in Virginia that currently produces chickens that are both organic and Zabiha. This cruelty-free method calls for animals to be outside from the time they are born to forage for the things they are naturally meant to eat until it’s time for slaughter. According to Sakinah, even free-range chickens may be given access to the outdoors, but the amount of time spent outside by the chickens is not regulated.
The Greys’ clientele was initially mostly Muslim from communities in Northern Virginia, but has since expanded to include everyone. Now, customers reach out from Richmond, Charlottesville, Hampton Roads and as far away as North Carolina. Sakinah credits an increased desire for healthy food options and people’s ability to disassociate that from the religious aspect for the increased interest.
Faith, self-reliance, and community are bedrock for the Greys, though they might not be what everyone would define as “traditional.” The history of agriculture and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities in the United States is complex and unresolved.
Steeped in structural racism and legacy indignities, farming is still thought of narrowly by many. Popular culture exacerbates the issue of representation of what an American farmer should look like with TV series such as “The Waltons” (1972–1981), iconic imagery such as the 1930 painting “American Gothic” by Grant Wood, and the recent popularity of reality shows and social media platforms featuring families and influencers who are homesteading, farmsteading, and living off-the-grid. The Greys, like many others, are unconventional in that they represent a paradigm shift in what constitutes present-day farming — and farmers — in Virginia.
‘I just knew he wasn’t going to be here’
In June 2020, all of what provides strength for their household was unimaginably tested.
Three months after making their first farm delivery and just six months after the farm was officially recognized things would change dramatically for the family.
It was a Wednesday, which meant that Omari was headed to Northern Virginia for his weekly deliveries. After seeing friends in the area, he began his drive home after 1 a.m. in an attempt to make it back before the start of another busy farm day. Around 6 a.m. on Thursday, Sakinah awoke frustrated when her husband had not yet returned, believing he had decided to stay over with friends for the night.
After a quick search on the Find My app, she discovered that he was about 10 minutes from home. Two hours later, busied with the distractions that come naturally with nine children and a farm, Sakinah returned to the app to see that her husband’s phone had not moved. Still thinking he had maybe just pulled over for a nap, she called her mother-in-law, who immediately instructed her to call the state police.
“Mr. Grey was in a head-on collision with a tractor trailer” were the words Sakinah remembers the trooper saying. He had initially been transported to Mary Washington Hospital, only to then be medevacked to VCU because his injuries were deemed too extensive.
In shock and with few details, Sakinah had a neighbor drive her to where she could still see Omari’s phone on the app. Stepping out of the car in the rain, she remembers slowly coming to the realization that what she was looking at was the family’s Suburban. She passed out. “When I saw the vehicle,” Sakinah recounts, “I just knew he wasn’t going to be here.”
At the time, COVID-19 meant that hospitals were still limiting access to visitors. Sakinah was told that she would not be able to come to the hospital to be with her husband. Describing herself as “not in the right state of mind,” she remembers calling the hospital four to five times to only be given the same update by staff, along with continued refusals to visit. Finally, on the last call, Omari’s attending doctor put down the receiver to tell a nurse, “He’s end-of-life anyway, so let her come.”
“That’s when I heard it,” she said.
Arriving at the hospital in Richmond, she was guided by a chaplain into Omari’s hospital room. “I was coming in to say my good-byes,” she remembers, describing doctors and nurses present in the room. They told her Omari showed no signs of brain activity, that he could not breath on his own. “There was nothing to speak about because there’s nothing that can be done,” she recalls.
The decision was made to take Omari off life support. Her four sons were allowed in to see their father one last time. She was told it was usually a matter of 15 minutes, but that it could take her husband one hour to pass because of how healthy he had been. Unable to take it any longer, Sakinah left while a friend stayed with Omari to pray.
The next morning, she remembers waking up to pray with her sons, close friends, and the community that had rallied to support her family from around the world. “This is the beginning of a new life,” she felt. “Whatever this new life is, I don’t have my husband with me.”
While coordinating funeral preparations with the Imam who would lead the Janazah, the Muslim funeral prayer, Sakinah called the hospital and was told that Omari’s body had not yet been released. Later, back on the phone with the Imam, she received another call from the hospital. Thinking it would be news on the release of the body, she was surprised when nurse Morgan, a name Sakinah says she will never forget, shared the news that she would be taking care of Omari. She asked Sakinah what music he might like to listen to. Not understanding, nurse Morgan added that yes, Omari was still alive and no longer on life support.
This, Sakinah remembers, was the moment that changed everything. “If he’s alive, that means he can live.”
And after three months in a coma and two in a persistent vegetative state, something the doctors told her would be Omari’s reality for the rest of his life, Sakinah says Omari had defied all the odds and conventional wisdom.
Other than his use of a walker to help with balance, Omari now shows no external signs of injury. Physical therapists have had to plead with him to not work out for the 10 hours a day he was spending working on his arms, legs and core muscles in an attempt to regain all of his mobility.
Similarly, Sakinah has overcome her own set of obstacles.
In the months leading up to Omari’s accident, Sakinah says she begrudgingly had taken on more and more of the farm responsibilities. “I do believe that before his accident, Allah was preparing me for this role,” she says. Omari at the time was teaching high school calculus at the former Woodrow Wilson High School in the Anacostia area of Washington, D.C., commuting two and half hours each way, as well as coaching basketball on the side.
Although she says she complained about the added responsibility at the time, she now feels that she would not have been able to step into her current role without that time at the helm. And even though operations grinded to a halt for a year, Sakinah says she knew after his accident that “we had to continue this for me to give back to him.”
Home had been Sakinah’s realm for years, as she raised and homeschooled their four older boys and five younger girls. Omari, by contrast, was in constant motion, always doing and making connections in the community.
“He was the leader,” she says about Omari’s natural ability to inspire and connect with people near and far. Those connections proved to be crucial after his accident when Sakinah was able to call on a network of doctors and members of their faith community who helped her navigate the medical lingo, advocate for her husband’s medical treatments, and focus on his recovery while that same network looked after her family.
A new mission.
From the neurosurgeon who provided advice on medications that may have saved Omari’s life, to the homeopath in Georgia who guided her as she quietly administered remedies to the bottoms of Omari’s feet while he was in a coma — both strangers who came into her orbit at the right moment — Sakinah now admits the community that Omari had built somewhat unbeknownst to her, profoundly changed her.
A computer programmer and educator by trade, Sakinah says she never thought she would be a farmer. “Farming would have probably been the last thing on my list.” Now, she teaches all of her children how everything on their farm is connected, from the compost where the processing byproduct goes, to the soil she has been slowly investing in, and the plants she is then able to grow to feed her livestock.
Her sons also have had opportunities to become more involved in the inner workings of Fitrah Farms as well as aspects of the business, something they might not have done had their father still been leading the way.
As a Black-American, female, Muslim farmer in Virginia, Sakinah is unique when she walks into an animal auction, or meets other farmers around Gordonsville. People have also come to her farm and asked her where the owner is. “It’s me,” she has routinely had to respond with a smile. The only other farmer she has met who can claim all three of those identities is a now-friend farming in California while raising her twelve children.
“It becomes non-traditional when you didn’t see it,” she says, referencing the dearth of Black farmers in Virginia and how she was never exposed to growing food or raising animals as a child. She says that it’s good to see people that look like you in this, so you can see that you can be successful at it.
“It’s about knowing that this other Black farmer was successful, he was Black, and he did it, so I know I can do it too.” With all of the resources that a farmer needs to operate, like grain and seed, she says you don’t want your skin color to act as a barrier and cause you to be “auctioned out.” With Black farmers becoming more common, she thinks this will be less likely to happen.
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, conducted every five years by the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, there are 43,225 farms in Virginia, a 6% decline from the total number of Virginia farms in 2012. Of 57,204 total principal farm producers operating 7.8 million acres of farmland, only 2.6% or 1,492 are Black or African-American. New farm producers total 18,957.
Although Sakinah sees a resurgence of Black farming in the state, with new farmers joining the profession, she believes there is a need for more experienced farmers of color to help teach the newcomers. In her case, one such farmer who has been instrumental in her success is Michael Carter Jr.
Carter met Omari through a cousin. They hit it off instantly, both having lived with their families abroad, sharing the Muslim faith, and opting to be homeschooling parents. A fifth generation Black farmer in Orange County, Carter is also the small farm resource center coordinator with Virginia State University’s Small Farm Outreach Program.
According to the program website, SFOP provides programming in 74 Virginia counties, focusing in particular on limited-resource, socially-disadvantaged, and veteran farmers. Carter, who also runs Africulture, the non-profit arm of his family farm, Carter Farms, works with small and beginning farmers around the state advising them on their operations, facilitating connections to local agencies, introducing additional resources and funding opportunities, and helping them become profitable and sustainable.
While he advises many small farm producers, Carter has a special interest in Black-owned farms: “Our biggest charge for Africulture actually, and with Carter Farms really, is to create new and beginning black farmers, that’s really what we want to do. That’s what we really want to grow on our farm, is a whole bunch of Black farmers. I feel like at this point Black farmers are very much an endangered species.”
It was Carter who came through for Sakinah when she struggled for two years to get her farm number from the local USDA office in Orange County. One meeting with Carter by her side and she walked out of the office with the number that would finally allow her to be identified as a farmer for government purposes, including applying for Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans, certain types of insurance and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs.
Carter family history runs deep in Orange County, where Carter Farms sits on 150 acres of land purchased in 1910 by Jeff and Catherine (Walker) Shirley, Michael Carter Jr.’ great-great-grandparents. “It’s very important to me because this is what my great-great-grandparents were trying to do or did do back in the early 1900s when they purchased their land, and the neighbor had another 200-300 acres of land, and the neighbor had another 100-200 acres of land, and you had an economy of Black families that were just thriving amongst themselves and secure among themselves.” He says that there’s a certain amount of security that comes from having land and land ownership.
Seeing Sakinah and Omari be stewards of their 22 acres despite the accident has been encouraging. “Our children see this. And our children can be inspired so that ripple effect goes out and next thing you know instead of having generations of decline, we have generations of increase, where our children are now engaged, and our children’s children will be engaged, and our children’s children’s children’s children will be engaged because they have a story, a history that they can tie into; you know, this land, why it’s so important, why we need to do it, why we need to maintain it.”
“I think my great-great-grandparents would be very proud of what they’re, what we’re doing now in Orange County.”
When the Grey family left Northern Virginia, they purchased an recreational vehicle to live out of while searching for the land they would use to build their homestead. “Having land is one of the most important things to my family. It means that you have a piece of this Earth,” says Sakinah.
Not wanting to go through a bank, she found a realtor familiar with seller finance and contract for deed options, an arrangement that allows a buyer to acquire possession of a piece of land immediately and pay the purchase price in installments over a period of time.
They started with five acres, paid it off, and then added the 17 acres around their initial parcel. Now, she says, this land can be passed down to her children.
Already, the four oldest Grey children, all boys ages 15 to 19, help run the farm, and Sakinah says she wants all of her children, sons and daughters, to know how to do every aspect of the work.
She also believes that being exposed to farm life and producing your own food helps one understand the bigger picture of life. Even something as basic as the soil ends up not being basic at all. “Every single part of that soil was something that was alive and died,” she says pointing toward her gardens and compost piles.
An avid composter, Sakinah preaches the benefits of practicing regenerative and polyculture farming and aims to create an ecosystem on her own land where all elements of the farm are connected and feeding into each other.
“When we slaughter our animal, the correct way, it’s a reminder right then of why we’re doing everything we’re doing.” She says that when you say ‘In the name of God, Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim’ you’re actually acknowledging that Allah allowed you to have this subsistence, something that is easy to forget when we lose touch with where our food comes from.
As for her sons, her 16-year-old, Adnan, says he will definitely raise his own children on a farm because, in his words, “it’s lovely.” In charge of all of the chickens that are raised for customers of Fitrah Farms, Adnan has learned enough that his expertise was recently sought out by a neighbor who was having trouble with his own chickens. And when it comes to his mom, Adnan says in admiration: “she’s very strong, very strong-minded. Not a lot of people could do this, raise nine kids, at the same time running a farm, at the same time take care of a disabled husband. You know, it’s a lot.”
In March, almost two years after his accident, Omari carefully made his way down a grassy sloped hill from the deck off of his bedroom to the cow enclosure below. Since the accident, Sakinah says he has developed a fondness for farm animals that he never exhibited before, even bringing the bunnies into the house. He also has shown a new zest for life, looking at the world with a child-like innocence, and seeing beauty in everything. He too says he has changed.
“Right now I’m not sleeping well, I’m not speaking well, I’m not walking or doing any of this, but that is a small factor. The big factor is that I’ve changed, like for the better. I’m more human, more compassionate, more patient.”
He says he has become more humble, more focused on his kids, and that the farm is his form of therapy.
“I realize, this accident, this surviving the car accident, is a gift from God. I didn’t understand it at first, but now I see what it means. And I thank him so much.”
‘Going back to basics’
The origin of the name “Fitrah Farms” stems from the word “Fitrah” which means “original disposition” or “innate nature” in Arabic. Sakinah interprets the word as a “going back to basics.”
Looking at her husband from across the living room she tells him that his mission in life is “to inspire people. It’s not necessarily to be a farmer, it’s not necessarily to be an educator any more, it’s education in a different way.”
Similarly, Sakinah hopes Fitrah Farms will help people get back to basics by showing them that they too can achieve a more self-sustaining lifestyle. As much as she appreciates having to constantly increase the selection and quantity of products they offer, she says she really hopes that people will come to her farm to learn how to do it themselves.
“I didn’t grow up doing this, I didn’t know how to do this, I had never seen a live chicken until I was 32 years old.” However, she is happy to educate anyone who comes to her now so that people can see that they can do it too.
In her personal life, Sakinah says that her husband’s accident has forced her to think about what is truly important. “Sometimes something has to knock you upside the head and knock you off your feet to remind you why, why, your why’s.”
Her why boils down to how much she loves her family and how she needs to take the time and tell them each day. And she encourages others not to wait for that difficult situation to be reminded. Even when things seem bad, she says that if you are alive and thinking about it, it’s good.
“Whatever is going on in your life, you have another day to do, to make a choice and do something different. So that’s a blessing in itself.”