This Black vegan guru plans to build on the land - and the legacy of his sharecropper father

·6 min read
Balewa Bayete, 76, has spent more than 30 years touting the virtues of veganism in Memphis. He now plans to use 15 acres in Millington to build a farm to honor the legacy of his sharecropper father.
Balewa Bayete, 76, has spent more than 30 years touting the virtues of veganism in Memphis. He now plans to use 15 acres in Millington to build a farm to honor the legacy of his sharecropper father.

When Balewa Bayete looks at his land off Shake Rag Road in Millington, he doesn’t see weeds and wilderness.

What he sees is a place for building on the legacy of his father. A man who knew all about the health properties of plants and herbs but didn’t own the land upon which they grew.

“My daddy was a sharecropper,” said Bayete, as he pointed out vegetation that would be ripped out by a gardener if they dared sprout in a suburban lawn.

“He knew all about the barks of trees, and the herbs, and he was really the man. You know the height of a plow, right? Well, when my little tail was just tall enough to look at that little part [of the plough], my daddy had me guiding it…

Renowned Black vegan chef Balewa Bayete points to the wild cherry and black walnut trees on his Millington land that he plans to turn into a farm and health retreat.
Renowned Black vegan chef Balewa Bayete points to the wild cherry and black walnut trees on his Millington land that he plans to turn into a farm and health retreat.

“He taught me how to use a saw, how to recognize the plants. My daddy taught me so much.”

Now 76, Bayete hopes to teach others as well, from the 15 acres he bought two years ago and calls Off the Beaten Path.

It is the culmination of his three decades in Memphis; a city he moved to in the early 1990s to be with his daughter. It is where his search for a remedy for his ulcer led him to grow wheatgrass – a superfood that has properties that can cure inflammation.

“My first time in the [health food] store, the man gave me all these books…he must have felt that I was on a journey,” Bayete said.

It is also where he built a reputation for his wheatgrass smoothies and other natural fare he sold to health food stores such as Squash Blossom, a Poplar Avenue store which was frequented by luminaries such as Issac Hayes.

“He would come in there, drinking the wheatgrass, him and some of the other dignitaries from downtown,” Bayete said. “They’d always come to Squash Blossom.”

Bayete's plans are emerging at a time when veganism is growing among Black people. A 2015 survey by The Vegetarian Resource Group found that 8 percent of Black respondents identified as vegetarian or vegan compared to 3.4 percent of the total respondents, while a 2020 Gallup survey found that 31 percent of non-white adults had been eating less meat, compared to 23 percent overall.

Black vegan influencers, such as actress Tabitha Brown, have been drawing millions of followers on TikTok and You Tube, in part because, like Bayete, they present plant-based diets as something original to the Black experience, not alien to it.

Balewa Bayete poses by a mullein plant - a herb that his grandmother once gave him to relieve congestion - growing on his farm in Millington.
Balewa Bayete poses by a mullein plant - a herb that his grandmother once gave him to relieve congestion - growing on his farm in Millington.

Tonyaa's latest: Will Tennessee's anti-science lawmakers repel more science-based industries like Ford? | Weathersbee

Bayete also sold wheatgrass smoothies around town. After operating for some time from the now-closed Sean’s Café off Union Avenue, he opened a restaurant, Balewa’s Vegan Gourmet, in 2013, at Overton Park and North Watkins Street in North Memphis.

There, Bayete introduced customers to vegan strawberry cheesecakes and Key lime pies. He also introduced them to live burgers – vegetable-based burgers with live plant enzymes because they haven’t been cooked – as well as Ras salads and watermelon juice.

“It was a medley of different pates that came from the Rastafarians,” Bayete said. “It was very popular.”

Bayete’s knowledge of herbs and natural remedies also made him a frequent presence at cultural festivals and at gatherings of people looking to improve healthy food access to struggling communities in Memphis.

“We were at a meeting of the minds, so to speak, where we were talking about food access and food production and healthy eating, and he was a real quiet gentleman,” said Austin Avery who, along with his wife, Laresia, operate Fish-n-loaves, a Frayser non-profit which focuses on eliminating food waste and food deserts.

“But when it came to the part about growing food, he was passionate about the importance of it from multiple facets, which is health and being sustainable as a community and a people.”

So, when Balewa’s Vegan Gourmet closed last year, a casualty of the pandemic, he turned his passion to the land – and his memories of his father.

More from Tonyaa: Will the Tri-State and Liberty merger mark a new chapter in Black Memphis' economics?|Weathersbee

It’s land that Bayete hopes to use to nourish people’s bodies and minds by helping them to see the thickets and masses of plants and trees as assets and not as impediments.

“See this ?” Bayete said, as he pointed to a tree that looked more like a landscaper’s nightmare than a source of nourishment.

“This is a black walnut tree here. It grows walnuts…all this is medicine. A lot of times we’ll cut trees like this down for a lawn, but I know that nature provides when we protect her and her children…”

Bayete also pointed out thistle, yarrow plants and mullein leaf – the latter of which conjured a memory.

““My grandmother would send me outside the house to pick up some of these long, fuzzy leaves and greens to boil them, and that got rid of all the mucus in my body,” he said.

“It’s an herb that cleans the respiratory system. It’s a real nice-tasting herb. You can make a tea out of it.”

Renowned Black vegan chef Balewa Bayete strolls down a clearing at his Millington land that he plans to turn into a farm and a health retreat.
Renowned Black vegan chef Balewa Bayete strolls down a clearing at his Millington land that he plans to turn into a farm and a health retreat.

Persimmon and black cherry trees also abound on the property, as well as sassafras, which is also made into a tea.

Yet Bayete said Off the Beaten Path won’t just be about introducing people to how to make themselves healthier through how they treat their insides, but also by how they engage their outsides.

He plans to include walking and running trails on the property; places where people can commune with nature as they exercise.

Gilbert Barnes Carter III, who was a frequent customer of Balewa's Vegan Gourmet. said: "I'm glad that he's branched out now. I think that more Black folks need to understand that it's more important to eat to live, not live to eat. We need the right food, and Balewa brings us that."

“I want them to have a retreat experience,” Bayete said. “I’m grooming the areas that I want to make into a walk-run trail.

“A lot people are burnt out in the inner-city. Out here I can offer them a few steps toward peace of mind. Those steps mean walking, education, and stuff for them to come here to pick…

“Then, I’m going to start these herbal classes…this will be our apothecary, our drugstore…

“It’s here.”

Tonyaa Weathersbee can be reached at tonyaa.weathersbee@commercialappeal.com and you can follow her on Twitter: @tonyaajw

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: This Black vegan guru hopes to boost plant-based health from his farm

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting