Owner of Blackhaven Ranch in Douglas County, Missouri
I’m excited to invite you to my conversation with Matthew Ross, the community activist, minister, musician, father and homesteader behind Blackhaven Ranch. Matthew grew up on the south side of Chicago. His father a Baptist minister, Matthew was raised in the church and being of service to his community was instilled in him at a young age. A desire to be more self-sufficient inspired Matthew and his family to start raising chickens and growing food in their yard in Chicago. They instantly fell in love with the process of growing food from seed to table and dreamed of building a rural homestead where they could expand their operation and raise their kids immersed in the natural world.
Matthew also wanted to create a refuge where others who were interested in leaving city life could explore nature and learn invaluable skills for more self-sufficient living. Matthew tried for many years to fundraise to buy several thousand acres where this safe haven could be built but when he couldn’t find a way to make his larger vision work, he decided to do it for his own family and create a template that could be replicated or expanded upon in the future. He started screen printing “Freedom Ain’t Free” t-shirts to fund the purchase of 40 acres of land in the Missouri Ozarks to build his own Blackhaven Ranch.
Matthew is still in the development stages of turning his raw land into a place where he and his family live year round and work towards building their rural agritourism business. Blackhaven Ranch’s mission is to provide alternative solutions to urban oppression by promoting agriculturally centered, holistic, primitive and self-sufficient living. Building a campground that will host an array of programs that will expose attendees to primitive & basic survival skills and provide a safe haven for youth/mentoring/enrichment camps, as well adult/team building/organization retreats.
Our interview was recorded in mid-February when the catastrophic Texas freeze had people scrambling for drinking water, food and heat. For Matthew, this disaster was a reminder of why he wants to build Blackhaven Ranch - to not be reliant on corrupt systems and fragile infrastructures to provide your basic human needs.
I really appreciate Matthew’s perspective when it comes to building relationships outside of the city "Don't look at someone the way you think they are looking at you." His technique is to find common ground through conversation and not prejudge people based on appearances. We are at such a divisive and polarized time in our society and only through meaningful conversation will minds open and perspectives shift.
I am so inspired by Matthew and his family's vision for Blackhaven Ranch and the tireless work they have put into making this dream a reality. To support and follow their progress you can buy a t-shirt from their online store and follow their journey on Youtube and Instagram. Please consider contributing to Matthew’s capital campaign to help build the infrastructure for Blackhaven Ranch.
To contribute, visit their GOFUNDME
MATTHEW'S ADDITIONAL INTERVIEW RESPONSES
First off, I would love to hear a little bit of your back story. Where did you grow up, and when did you become interested in learning to grow your own food?
I was born and raised on the Southside of Chicago. I actually live in the very same neighborhood in which I was raised; just a few blocks away from my parents. My children attend the same elementary school that I attended. My wife and I have no agricultural background at all. We were your typical “City Folk”.
I guess the interest in learning to grow our own food was a byproduct of our desire to buy land and become more independent.
How has your upbringing inspired the person and life you are building today?
I think there are a number of variables from my upbringing that have inspired the life that we are building today. My father is a Baptist minister, and so am I. Although a bit less traditional and probably, a lot more liberal and “radical” in theology, this one truth remains consistent: God, Mother Earth, The Creator, or Whomever freely provided everything that we need to sustain life. All we have to do is put in the work to enjoy the fruits.
Besides my church background, I believe the fact that both my wife and myself were both raised in two-parent households gives us our strong belief in family and inspires us to create an environment in which we can keep our children close, as well as sustain our family’s needs.
What do you think are the main obstacles standing in the way for gardeners just starting out? Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start their first garden, and doesn’t know where to begin?
With all the resources, channels, platforms, and outlets available today, I would say that the biggest obstacle for home growers is lack of exposure, which leads to doubt. So many people don’t even know that growing food is a thing. We are so removed from our food and programmed for instant gratification that we forget someone is somewhere growing what we eat. It doesn’t just instantly appear on the shelves at the grocery store.
With the rise in exposure of agriculture, there are plenty of people who are now seeing food being grown by regular people for the first time. They become interested, but overwhelmed and doubtful. I’ve had plenty of doubtful people ask me where to start. I try to ease their anxiety by telling them, “put the seeds in some dirt, water them, and sit them in some light”. Those people will be going into their second or third year of growing next spring. Of course there’s more to it than that, but as my mentor Chantel from @offgridincolor told me when i first reached out to her about homesteading 3 years ago, “JUST GET STARTED!!”
Besides my mentor, trial, error and “YouTube university” have been my greatest resources for growing.
What are your favorite crops to grow? What, if any, crops do you struggle with?
I’m still not too sure if I have a favorite crop that can actually sustain us. My wife and I however, are both starting to really enjoy the different varieties of peppers. The taste fresh pepper adds to a dish is like no other. In addition to the peppers, this year, the Cosmic Purple Carrots from Bakers Creek really got my attention. Everything from their aroma, color, size, and taste totally blew me away. I’d say those have been my favorite so far.
The only crop I feel like I’ve had trouble with is lavender. IT JUST WON'T GROW for me. Everything else I’ve been pretty successful with.
What do you love about where you currently live and your community?
The thing I love most about where I currently live is the fact that I’ve lived here my whole life, 34 years. I know every inch of the neighborhood, inside and out. It’s also the safest black neighborhood in Chicago; which isn’t saying much, but I’m comfortable with my family being here.
When did the idea for Blackhaven Ranch come about? How did your family/friends respond to your idea and how long did it take you to find land?
Blackhaven Ranch was originally a way bigger idea. I had been trying to get people to purchase 2-3 thousand acres collectively for about 10 years before I decided to do it on a small scale, by myself. At the height of my community activism/organizing and after running several political campaigns, I realized that we would never be able to leverage our numbers for political power in Chicago, and probably in most big cities throughout the country. Residents and their votes are taken for granted and they are being extorted through taxes, which pay for little to no service. The only other option is to turn your back on those who take you for granted. So that’s what we’re doing; Turning our back on a government that depends on our dependency.
The reaction of family and friends is comical, encouraging, and triggering all at the same time. Immediately, after we purchased land, EVERYBODY WANTED “IN ON IT”. Now remember, I had been preaching this for 10 years and nobody made any moves. That’s triggering, but at the same time, it drives home several points: 1) If you wait for someone else to cosign your dreams, they’ll never become a reality. 2) Most times people have to see it before they believe it.
Why did you settle on this particular property in the Ozark region?
We decided to purchase our current property in the Ozarks after giving up our first purchase, a bit further north of us, in the Ozarks. Both were bought sight unseen. The first property was larger, but just wasn’t as functional as we would have liked it to be. Our current property is perfect. It’s a blank canvass; raw land with nothing on it, but has much more potential and access to the things we need.
We could’ve stayed in Illinois, but I didn’t want boring flat land; neither did I want to be bothered with dumb politics or more law constraints. We could’ve gone south, but we wanted to be relatively close to Chicago in order to be able to network and share our land, time, and life with friends, family, and different organizations from our community in Chicago.
Blackhaven Ranch is your solution to urban oppression. Can you talk a little bit about what urban oppression means to you?
Blackhaven Ranch is focused on offering Alternative Solutions to Urban Oppression. I’ve spoken a bit about the political landscape of where I come from. Many people could argue without successful contradiction that Chicago, along with the rest of Illinois is the most corrupt city/state in our nation. The ties that politicians and lobbyists have with corporate entities, unions, etc., is not just “Mob Like”... It is in fact, The Mob. These are descendants of gangsters from the prohibition era, who moved into politics after the repeal of prohibition. These politicians along with their families do their very best to make sure they keep people in certain areas, overtaxed and underrepresented. The trade unions monopolize the market share and block workers, while the Police and Teachers’ Unions extort money from taxpayers, by providing subpar, toxic service. Properties are over assessed. Utilities are monopolized by greedy corporations. The only way this is able to continue is with people who feel they have no options, because they haven’t been exposed to anything else.
Alternative Solutions to Urban Oppression takes that power out of the politician’s and corporates’ hands. If I can learn to rely on solar energy, instead of being tied into the grid, I don’t have to pay a $25 light bill every month that has $75 in service fees attached to it. If I can learn to harvest wood for my wood burning stove, I don’t need to spend the entire year paying down a $3,000 gas bill from the winter.
Bottom line, we pay a premium for convenience when we have not been exposed to options. That’s one of the things I’d like to change for, at least the people in my network.
In your opinion, what systematic roadblocks are in place that make it difficult for people to access and spend time in nature?
Again, I’ll have to say exposure. Most urban dwellers, specifically the ones who look like me aren’t interested in spending time in nature. It's something they know nothing about. Most people fear the unknown. That’s a systemic roadblock. That fear comes from being removed and forced from a place in which we were once comfortable and occupied.
Systematically, capitalism and those who are marginalized because of it is the biggest roadblock that makes it difficult for people to enjoy nature. Nobody in the hood is thinking about going for a stroll through the forest, when they don’t have the calories to either take the walk or replenish after the hike. Even getting to nature causes a problem because most people who look like me, where I’m from have to go through certain neighborhoods where they’ll probably be pulled over before or after their hike. Let’s not forget the people in the forest who don’t think you belong there, and the problems that could stir.
That’s exhausting just to type or read… Imagine having to live and think about all of that before even approaching a trailhead.
Have you noticed a change in your kids since spending time exploring your property?
I’ve always taken my children outside of the city, into nature before they could walk; so it’s nothing too new to them. I will say that the kids love being free to be as loud as they want, without me hushing them. I’m pretty sure they’re still in shock or can’t really fathom how much property we actually have and the fact that it will someday belong to them. I’ve seen them let go of some of their fears and apprehensions about bugs and animals, as I try to cultivate a healthy fear/respect for what’s out there. They’re always itching and excited to hit the road to Blackhaven. I’m the biggest kid out of all of us. Seeing them geek out gets me even more excited.
Financial barriers make it difficult for many to act upon their country dreams. What advice do you have for people who want to move or buy a rural property but don’t have the means to do so?
To anyone who desires to buy land and live their country dreams, I say this: YOU HAVE OPTIONS. This is not a house. It doesn’t have to be your traditional mortgage. Explore your options. Know who you are and what you can do. Everyone doesn’t have the same background or pedigree. Don’t get caught up in those pretty Instagram pictures or those YouTube productions. We don’t all have the ability to sell a $750k home, buy a turnkey farm, and production equipment; neither do most of our families have land that we can just put a tiny house or build a cabin on. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Hell, I’m trying to make that possible for my children. Just don’t set yourself up for disappointment, by looking at what others are doing.
If the bank won’t help you, there are plenty for sale by owner properties. Talk to an owner about dividing a larger piece of land that they’re selling. Looking into leasing land, if your desire is just to grow or raise food. Get a group of like-minded individuals together, buy a large property, and subdivide. There are also plenty owner-financed sites who are betting against you paying off your land, so they can take everything you built and resale it for a higher price. (That’s my situation). Be like me, bet on yourself and go all in. Only if you really, truly believe in yourself………. Also, GET A LAWYER for your land contract.
Tell us a little bit about your property and what new things have you discovered during your visits?
Blackhaven Ranch is in rural Douglas County Missouri. It has highway frontage on the south side, where the land is at its highest elevation. From that same side you can see clear across to Mountain Grove which is about 30 minutes North. As you head North on the property, the elevation drops significantly, but gently. This is where we enter the property as of now. There's County Road frontage on this side. We’ve fenced it off and put up two big red 10’ gates earlier this summer. On the land you’ll find a small pond, walnut grove, seasonal creek, a super old square hay bailer, and according to my neighbor’s text yesterday, plenty of massive deer and some elk. We’re less than 2 miles from the Mark Twain National Forest, so I'm sure there is no end to the amount of wildlife we’ll see over time.
What does nature and being in nature mean to you?
To me, nature is the greatest representation of God on earth. Nature puts everything into its proper place, without the mechanical advantage of man. When you’re in its presence, you have to respect nature. You have to fear it. And you have no choice but to reverence its beauty. Nature is where you can go to be cleansed. You can seek refuge. You can be revived. Nature supplies abundantly. It sings to you. The trees dance for you. Nature is therapy. It’s counsel, if you watch and listen. Nature’s Sun and Moons directs your path. Nature is obedient. Everything does exactly what it's supposed to do, without instruction. We can learn and benefit so much from nature’s sanctuary. THAT’S GOD!!
What projects have you tackled at the ranch thus far and what plans do you have for the future?
I purposely held off on doing much on the land, besides some cleanup. I’ve heard plenty homesteaders say to give it some time and learn what the land does before you begin constructing any big, permanent projects. One thing we have done was fence in the North side of the property. Next we’ll have gravel coming in for the driveway. There’s lots of clearing to do before I can start on shelter in the spring. We’ll be working on electric and water next. I plan on going solar eventually, but the power lines are so close (less than 20 yards) to the property, I’d be a fool not to utilize it, at least for construction. We’re the only tract around that has that luxury.
This coming spring, I plan on going to live at Blackhaven for a few months, no matter what. I’ll be building infrastructure, while trying my hand at raising poultry and maybe some sheep, simultaneously. I also would like to host an event/camp or two, to bring awareness to what we’re doing and also fund some future projects. So yea, water and electricity are imperative, whether we’re able to get the well drilled or harvesting rainwater. No matter what, I’ll be out there, even if I’m in a tent until I get a shelter up.
Eventually, my desire is to launch our nonprofit, “Camp Blackhaven.” We want to expose city dwellers to primitive and basic survival living/skills, as well as provide a safe haven for youth/mentoring/enrichment camps. We also want to provide a space for adult team building/organization retreats.
How can people support the mission, further development and build out of Blackhaven Ranch?
If anyone has the desire to support our mission here at Blackhaven, we first always welcome encouragement over anything. You really don’t know how much kind words from people who are either more experienced than us or those who dream to be in our position mean. We don’t take those for granted.
Those who wish to contribute monetarily can donate to our Gofundme Campaign: “Blackhaven Ranch’s Campground”. For those who aren’t fond of crowdfunding platforms, we have a donation link on our website Blackhavenranch.com. You can also purchase merchandise, made by yours truly on our website.
If anyone has the desire to labor with me by day, and sleep under the stars by night, I'd be more than happy to have your company and service. If you have anything that you feel can be repurposed or still has life in it, (building material, tools, auto, machinery, etc.) we’d be more than happy to accept it, if we can get to it.
Also, WE TAKE ADVICE & SUGGESTIONS!!
Since purchasing your land, have you been able to find a good community in Missouri?
Although Blackhaven is in the middle of nowhere and the people are far and few between, I’ve been met by nothing but good, hospitable, honest, and neighborly people. Of course we get looks from some people, but I will chalk that up to just being new in the area.
Being the only Black people in possibly a good 30-40 miles weighs heavy on you, especially when you have a family to care for. The people I’ve met have not only been kind, but offered a helping hand on numerous occasions. The guy who helped me put up the fence lives about 9 miles away. He drove his tractor all the way to my land, no trailer. Not only did he show me what to do, he and his son, in 90+ degree weather, for 2 days helped me put the fence up. I had to fight him to take compensation for the tractor and labor. I’m not sure if I'd find that kind of community anywhere in the city.
I also think a sense of mutual respect is at play. I respect the people, their culture, their land and hard work. I don’t take what they do for granted. Neither am I trying to profit from culture appropriation. (You see a lot of that in the homesteading algorithm) It’s insensitive and insulting when you don’t respect and give honor to the people of a specific land culture into which you are l I think Black people can identify with that immensely.
In return for my respect, I get respect for just being a man who wants to provide a better future and legacy for his family. If we can’t agree on anything else, I think that can sustain a bond between neighbors.
Do you envision moving to Blackhaven Ranch full time in the future?
I absolutely intend on moving to Blackhaven full-time. Sooner than later. It is literally all I think about all day and dream about at night.
What hopes do you have for your children’s future?
All I want to do is expose my children to options. So many of us are struggling now, whether it be financially, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, or all of the above because we were herded into institutions that don’t fulfill us. Anxiety is running rampant because given our all trying to accomplish goals that others set for us. I don’t want that for my children. I want them to know that they can be whatever they want to be and that can sustain them, as long as they put in the work and grow comfortable with enduring tests and trials.
This has been a very stressful time and heartbreaking time, how have you been coping with the weight of everything?
Though things seem to be crazy in our world today, chaos always restores order. All I can do is work on getting your personal affairs in order to be able to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.
What hopeful things, if any, have you witnessed during this very tumultuous time?