Texas is home to more Black farmers than any state. In 2017, The USDA’s Census of Agriculture estimated that of the 3.4 million farmers in the United States, roughly 48,000 are Black, and nearly a quarter of them are located here in the Lone Star State. In celebration of Juneteenth, TexasRealFood is highlighting African American farmers who constitute the backbone of Texan agriculture.
Cynthia Lyons, a fourth-generation farmHer who owns and runs Victory Oasis Farm in the lush Texas Hill Country, is one of them.
Cynthia’s tryst with farming began at an incredibly young age in her parents’ backyard of their Dallas home. Her mother was a fervent plant enthusiast, and Cynthia found herself amongst plants ranging from tiny herbs to the tallest tree their backyard could accommodate.
Talking of her father, Charles E. Henderson, Cynthia calls him ‘the bona fide farmer of the family’ and a ‘living legend’. He grew up in Oakwood, and as a young man, Henderson picked cotton with his parents. But it wasn’t where his passions lay. He wanted to go to school and often disappeared from home to avoid going to the cotton field. Repeated attempts to skip the picking field only stopped after his mother had a Sheriff arrest her son. The Sheriff took Henderson to visit the downtown jail in Waco, Tx. Very interestingly, this was when the famous Clyde Barrow (yes, the other half of the Bonnie and Clyde couple) was being held at the same place.
Did that mean Charles E. Henderson never went back to school? Well turns out he did. Henderson graduated and moved to Dallas, where he ran a very successful business for over half a century. Here is also where Cynthia was born and raised and fell in love with growing food. By the age of ten, Cynthia was digging and replanting tomato plants in her father’s mini-farm.
Cynthia went on to graduate from the Academy of Art in San Francisco and started her photography studio in Waco. But a part of her always stayed connected to the Earth. Cynthia kept her farmHer soul alive with a small backyard garden, but once her children moved out, Cynthia and her husband Frank, a veteran, made their move to the Hill Country.
And that marked the beginning of Victory Oasis Farm.
“At first, working with one-acre land in 2012, we were giving our excess produce to friends and family. Eventually, we started making so much we started looking for area Farmers Markets to distribute our products,” says Cynthia. Today, Victory Oasis stands on eight acres of regeneratively stewarded farmland.
On this farm, you will find naturally produced cabbage, squash, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, okra, carrots, eggplant, peppers, peas, and green beans.
There are also peaches, plums, nectarines, cantaloupe, watermelon, blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries. “All our produce is naturally grown; without using any chemicals, pesticides, or herbicides ever”, says Cynthia. But when asked what her most favorite part of the farm is, “Sheep, of course!” Cynthia answers without hesitation. She continues to explain, “I love raising sheep on my farm. I raise the blackhead Dorper. They are tame animals and are amazingly easy to raise. The sheep even learn to recognize you by the sound of your voice. The sheep I raise are grass and grain-fed.”
The farming journey hasn’t been one without obstacles for Cynthia. “The trials of erratic weather always keeps you on your toes. You never know what Mother Nature has in store.”
Being an African American land steward also comes with its own challenges. “I have faced prejudice”, says Cynthia. As a successful Black FarmHer, Cynthia would like to see equal opportunities across the board in grants and loans for black farmers and women farmers.
How does she suggest other ambitious women farmers handle these issues?
“Make sure that your heart is in it; if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. You must take care of your land, and your land will take care of you.”
Support from loved ones is also a critical element that gives you that encouraging boost in your efforts. Cynthia feels blessed to have a robust support system in the shape of her family and customers. Her four children are a big part of Victory Oasis, and her grandkids love feeding the lambs and fishing in the ponds at the farm. Standing behind the Farmers Market stalls, gathering produce and handing out bags, they all make their little assembly line, and it’s adorable.
Cynthia believes she is blessed with the best customer base ever, whose company she enjoys immensely. They keep her humble and thankful every day. “I must say I love my customers and enjoy conversations with them regularly. I’m always happy to talk to them about gardening, beekeeping, and anything that they may have a question about.” Talking of Juneteenth, Cynthia reminisces about her family’s Juneteenth traditions. “My father would drive us down from Dallas to a place in Mexica near the lake, and there would be a big celebration of folks enjoying barbecues, music, speeches, and individual programs of people remembering the emancipation of slaves in the United States”.
With a flourishing farm in full swing, what does Cynthia envision for Victory Oasis? “I see Victory Oasis Farm and Ranch growing beyond anything I could imagine. We are fortunate to be doing what we love; growing and producing some of the best produce this side of Central Texas.”
Victory Oasis also serves some local restaurants with our fruits and vegetables. “The pleasure of offering fresh food for people to serve at their local restaurants – for the community, is unique. So, I would love to expand further in this direction.”
Cynthia plans to launch a podcast, Grow Room, that will serve as a resource pool for home gardeners. Beekeeping classes, gardening and canning classes for interested individuals are also on the cards. “I will implement these endeavors as a part of the farm business regularly.”
You can find Victory Oasis produce at East Waco Farmers Market on the corner of Elm and Dallas St. 1/2 block down from Lula Jane’s Bakery. Wednesday 8:00am-2:00pm and Friday 10:00-3:00pm.