Featured photo: Antoine and Kayla Alston (photo by Dustin Chandler)
Kayla Alston’s hand is almost always the first one up in the air when professors ask which student wants to participate in the interactive portion of a class. And while her background in animal sciences and chemistry had her analyzing samples from the comfort of a pristine lab, the other parts were less tidy.
“You literally just collect it from milking from the teats and collect it like that into whatever test tube you need,” Alston explains about collecting samples from dairy cows. “I had never actually milked a live cow before so it was very interesting. It’s harder than you think it is and… it’s really warm and cushy and weird, and sometimes they don’t like it so they’re kicking and there might be poop flying and they might pee. You have to be willing to get dirty to get in there and work with the cows.”
Alston is the latest descendant of a multigenerational family from Rocky Mount that has a connection to agriculture. Like her father and her grandfather before her, Alston attended NC A&T State University, and graduated in May.
In an interview at the university farm earlier this year, Alston and her father, Antoine Alston, recounted their family’s history of farming.
“My maternal grandfather was a dairy science major at Delaware State, graduated in 1940,” Antoine explains. “His family had a farm in Fayetteville, NC. It was 14 of the brothers and sisters together. And then the farm that I grew up on was my maternal grandmother’s farm in Rocky Mount, NC. That farm was part of a 70-acre farm that was divided up among relatives. We raised cattle mostly when I was growing up.”
As has been written about extensively in the past few years, the passing down of farming and ownership of farms within Black families is a rarity in the US, due to the impacts of systemic racism. According to Feeding America, more than 12 million acres of farmland has been lost by Black farmers in the last century. Now, just 1 percent of farmers in the US identify as Black, according to the USDA.
As a family, the Alstons recognize that historical significance and burden.
“A lot of Black families, we’ve lost land because of discrimination or a variety of things over the generations,” Antoine says.
“I do see myself as a descendant of that legacy,” Kayla adds. “Black people owning land is very important, it’s important to keep land for your family and pass that on to other generations because we’re already set back so far. We’ve had so much of our lands taken away from us.”
According to Antoine, his father’s side of the family never owned any land because his grandfather worked as a sharecropper. But on his mother’s side, his great, great grandfather worked for the Ricks family which gave 70 acres of land to each of their Black workers when they passed away. Through the years, that land got divvied up and the Alston’s continue to own about 15 acres in Rocky Mount.
As young as three or four years old, Antoine remembers helping out his father, who raised about 15 beef cattle. He rode around on the tractor and by the time he was six, he could drive the machine. In high school, Antoine took agricultural classes at Northern Nash High School in Rocky Mount, most of which were taught by his own father. Because of that, Antoine says he had a leg up compared to his classmates.
“Most of the students that were in the agricultural classes did not have a farming background,” he says. “Their families might have had one if you traced them back but most did not come from farming backgrounds.”
After high school, Antoine ended up attending A&T for an undergraduate degree in agricultural education and went on to earn his PhD from Iowa State University. Afterwards, he returned to A&T, initially working as a professor and eventually making his way up to Associate Dean for Academics in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, a position he currently holds.
When Kayla grew older and decided that she, too, wanted to pursue a career in agriculture, she found that her family’s deep ties to the industry influenced her passion as well.
“My first interest in agriculture and animal sciences was being a little girl and going to ride horses with my dad,” says Kayla, who first sat on a saddle at age 6. “I’d do riding competitions and stuff. And I guess my dad saw my interest and he started nurturing that.”
In middle school Kayla took vet programs at A&T, and in high school she attended summer vet camps at Tuskegee University.
Then, in 2019, she enrolled at A&T.
“I actually looked everywhere else but A&T,” she said in a school press release. “I’d been here all my life, my dad was here, and he was in my department. But then, I took a formal tour and realized that he and I were just going to have to have some talks and that it was going to work out, because I really wanted the family feel, the smaller programs, the personal touch that you get here.”
In August, a few months after graduating with honors, Kayla moved to Auburn University to pursue a masters in science and wildlife sciences. There, she’ll focus on pathology and parasitology. That means she’ll be examining more exotic animals beyond the ones that you’d find in a regular household.
“I think dogs and cats are boring,” Kayla says, even though she had dogs growing up. “The typical pets are just boring. And you get to see different things when you go the wildlife or exotic route…. I liked doing stuff that was out of the norm and not just typical checkups on dogs or cats.”
Though it happened around the same time, Kayla says that the pandemic didn’t really influence her decision to study parasitology. Instead, it was her experience researching mastitis infections in cows at A&T that sparked her interest.
Part of the importance of Kayla pursuing the science side of agriculture rather than just the farming aspect, Antoine says, is that it speaks to Black people’s varied history within the industry.
“African Americans have been at the heart of agricultural enterprise going back to this country’s founding, and it was more than just the labor side,” he says. “We contributed to the science and technology. We can talk about George Washington Carver or the science that we produce from the historically Black land-grant colleges like NC A&T, but we have done so much, yet we have been discriminated against as well.”
As technology advances, Antoine says, it will continue to influence everything from how to detect diseases in animals to the production of food. And that’s important because agriculture touches everyone’s lives.
“If you don’t think agriculture is important, try living without it,” Antoine says. “You got to have ag. Agriculture impacts everybody’s life. Whether you work for Microsoft, Google, whatever — you got to eat. It’s always going to be important.”
Now, as a young Black woman working in the industry, Kayla says that it’s important for her to understand her family’s history and its legacy within agriculture.
“I love that we’re producing a lot of young, Black people that are going to go into agriculture to make our presence more known and bring that percentage up,” Kayla says. “I just think that representation is important. I think that it is important for little children to see people who look like them in positions in agriculture or veterinarians or doctors and lawyers…. It gave me more motivation and a vision of what I wanted to do in life. A lot of my classmates growing up, they didn’t really have an idea of what they wanted to do or didn’t have family members that had been there, done that and can help them get where they wanted to do whereas I had my dad’s family legacy.”
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