I first met Chantel Johnson of Off Grid in Color at NC Choices’ 2019 Carolina Meat Conference where she spoke on a panel about the challenges and opportunities for Black pasture-based livestock producers. We ran into each other a few more times and realized we had more than meat in common, at which point I started buying her (delicious!) chicken at my local farmers market and joined thousands of others following her down-to-earth, transparent, passionate story on Instagram (@offgridincolor).
Recently I caught up with Chantel for a socially-distanced tour of her livestock operation in Moncure, North Carolina while she did morning chores – filling feeders, checking water lines, making sure all the critters were situated for the day. After an hour – in which I took notes and photos and she did all the talking and heavy lifting – it became crystal clear to me that Chantel is drawn to farming for its power to heal and create well-being in all aspects of her life – physically, mentally and spiritually. And now she wants to build a “Sanctuary for Health and Wellness” that will enable her to share the health and peace she is finding with her community. How she got to this place stems from a traumatic reality lived by many Black Americans.
Chantel grew up on the southside of Chicago, one of 5 children raised by a single Mom. She is the only one in her family who really “got out” of an impoverished situation. She attended an elite liberal arts college and went on to get a master’s degree in social work. She moved to North Carolina in 2014 for an entry-level position at a research think tank. “I had a decent salary and benefits but deep down I hated the work and the corporate culture. And I wasn’t really making enough money to get ahead or help my family in any meaningful way.” Not long after, Chantel’s brother Ritchie was shot in a gang-related crime and died 15 months later due to complications from his injuries. Chantel was devastated and the next two years of pushing through the pain were rough. “I really didn’t understand that I needed to take time off to grieve.”
In the midst of this struggle, she was introduced to an inter-racial couple living completely off-the-grid, raising a family and farming the land. “I remember arriving at their homestead, getting out of my car, and seeing this strong full-figured Black woman wearing just overalls, a bra and a fabulous head wrap. She was working in her garden while her children ran happily around. I’d never seen anything like it and I remember thinking to myself…I want THAT.” The family invited Chantel (and her then partner) to join them on their land, where she built her own 12×12 shed (and eventually obtained a tiny house from Discovery Channel’s TV show Homestead Rescue) and began to hone her homesteading skills, including growing and preserving food, raising chickens, and building things. She experienced a new feeling of independence and the ability to deeply care for herself. “While I had fancy degrees and could work in more traditional settings, those accomplishments didn’t bring me the feeling of peace and belonging that I craved and have found working the land and caring for animals.”
Chantel has been farming and selling her meat direct-to-consumer more or less full-time since 2018 and supplements her income with part-time caregiving jobs. Her friend Malcolm has been critical to her success thus far, providing land for her to lease, host workshops and raise her animals. Her mentors include Ben Grimes of Dawnbreaker Farms (and former Firsthand Foods employee!) and Chase Reynolds of Two Pigs Farm. Chantel has made it thus far through hard-work, faith in herself, being creative, building a network of support and never being afraid to ask for help when she needs it.
Chantel is also a doula (someone who provides emotional and physical support to families through the life-changing experience of having a baby). It is well documented that birth outcomes for Black women are inferior to White women due in part to the stress of dealing with discrimination in our healthcare system. Chantel wants to help Black women find calm and ease during the birth process and knows that spending time on a farm and in touch with nature is part of that equation.
As a natural marketer, Chantel has built an enviable Instagram following some 24,000 strong. When I offered that her success must be due to how authentically and transparently she shares her story, she added, “Well, and it doesn’t hurt that I have big hips and lots of baby chick videos to share too!” Chantel’s dreams extend well beyond what is possible on-line. In 2018, she brought together all of her interests to host her first (of three thus far) Homestead Workshop and Retreat for those interested in learning the fundamentals of self-sufficient living. Through these workshops, she is building out her vision to establish a retreat space and educational resources for homesteading and natural childbirth.
When Covid hit, Chantel’s followers exploded and she sold through all of her freezer inventory. “What would have taken an entire winter to move, sold in a matter of weeks!” Seeing an opportunity to finally scale her operation, she turned to her virtual community and asked them to support her purchase of a shipment of confinement piglets destined for the incinerator unless they could find a new home. By pre-selling hog shares, she raised $13,000 in less than 2 weeks and brought the piglets back to the woods on her farm where they are currently fattening up. When her Mom’s back went out and she needed surgery but had no money, Chantel turned to this same community to raise money help take care of her. “Experiencing the support of my on-line community is what keeps my faith in myself alive.”