Chaz Rawls has come and gone from Kalamazoo a few times — sometimes spending months at sea — but he has found that his kinship with the land has drawn him home.
The Kalamazoo native operates an urban farm, Rooted Luv Farm, off Gull Road, a stone’s throw from where he grew up. Rawls grows produce and makes tea blends that he sells at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market, but he says he is also cultivating something else of value: his role as an example to others.
“Being a person of color in this work has made more people that look like me want to participate by volunteering on my farm and with me at the farmers market,” he says. “I believe being a vendor at the farmers market can help people of color get exposed to how food is grown. To be able to grow some of your own food, to control some of your diet — it’s empowerment. It’s healing.”
What’s the significance of the name of your farm business, Rooted Luv?
The name reflects some of the things that have impacted me in my life. The choice of the word “rooted” has a multi-layer component that goes beyond plants. “Rooted” for me means I’m down, I’m understanding, I’m in touch. In touch with myself and the world. If you think about roots, they are in touch with each other. That’s the vision and energy I want to cast out there. It’s rooted. It’s love. It’s a farm.
What do you grow on your farm?
I grow a wide variety of vegetables such as lettuces, cabbage, peppers and a lot more. The PFC Grocery & Deli sells some of my produce, and I’m in conversation with several restaurants and organizations interested in carrying my products.
My initial business was tea blends, and I grow some ingredients for those, like Tulsi basil and hibiscus. Some of the ingredients I import from Africa. I wanted the teas to be an extension of some of my beliefs — some of the things I’ve been influenced by — so some are named after African deities.
How did you decide where to locate your urban farm?
It’s a little crazy, like coming full circle. I grew up in Kalamazoo, on the east side of town, near Borgess Hospital (now Ascension Borgess), right on the border between Kalamazoo and Comstock schools. My farm is just off Gull Road, on property I rent close to where I grew up. To have grown up in the neighborhood, then leave and then have my farm here has given me a context and deeper meaning to the land. It sounds like a cliché, but I feel good about being able to go back and make the place a little better.
When did you leave Kalamazoo?
I moved during my senior year of high school at Kalamazoo Central. I didn’t like the trajectory I was on, so I went to an adult-ed program in Parchment to graduate. To be honest, by then I was already grown up, working a job. After graduation, I went into the Navy and was stationed in Japan.
The military was hard for me. Being on water months at a time was mind-blowing. It changed me. It taught me this life lesson: You gotta be able to float, to be buoyant. It led to seeing I had a choice about what kind of person I wanted to be. When I came back, a big part of me was unsure what I wanted to do. But another part was going against society. As a teenage boy, society tells you what you are supposed to be doing. I didn’t feel like I was meeting those expectations. I couldn’t. If this was a race, it was one I wasn’t going to win.
I went to Minnesota to help my uncle move and ended up staying for about four years. It was very rural, out in the middle of nowhere, and we were surrounded by farmland. It was a slower life. I got to camp and do outdoorsy things I had never experienced before. Being in all that wide openness led me to dream about future possibilities I hadn’t previously been able to imagine. One of those was farming.
Farming is dependent on so many things outside your control. Why do it?
Farming is one of the first things I’ve done that feels like I’ve succeeded. Not everything is a win, but it’s something I’m able to do, to learn to deal with bumps and bruises and growing pains.
For me, it’s a grounding thing. A reconnecting, recharging. A direct connection with our food feels like the way things are supposed to be.
Growing food is about relationships. It’s a way of being in sync with other living things. It affects how you are in the world and with the people around you.
What do the plants and the land teach you?
How to maneuver. The tortoise always wins the race, slow and steady. Nature does what it does on a slow scale, but it lasts. It’s a way of paying attention and observing that other life forms have their own intelligences, so different from ours.
I’ve also learned the more control I let go of, the better the crops turn out.
What challenges do you face?
I’m a single father of two very active twin boys. One of the reasons I wanted to farm is so they can be with me. Being a dad is my first job. I also work full time at Kendall Electric as a forklift operator, and it’s a balancing act to manage my roles as a father, farmer and at the company and stay true to my core values.
For me, it’s not the farm work itself that’s hard. The harder part is the mental aspect of creating and building a business. There are so many scenarios to think about, I’ve had to learn to shift the way I think about things. It requires a lot of discipline.
How have you been supported by the community?
The opportunity to work with the farm manager at DeLano Farm (part of the Kalamazoo Nature Center) in 2019 and 2020, was huge. Kirsten (Clemente) believed in me, encouraged me, and by seeing, learning and hands-on doing I gained so much confidence.
Serving on the board of Zoo City Food & Farm Network gives me access to the Kalamazoo Farmers Market, aggregated resources, and people that share my ethics. By that I mean as a culture we have to think differently about resources and ways to foster healthy relationships. I know we all have to make a profit, but by intentionally partnering, we can feed each other.
And my customers who support me by buying my produce and my teas — they fuel me to keep going.