Leandra Thomas is the granddaughter of a prominent black farmer from southern Maryland and is proudly carrying the torch of her family legacy. The best part is that she’s doing it while maintaining balance, well-being, and her own identity.
When most people think of generational wealth, thoughts of the Rockefellers, Waltons (Walmart), and even the Kardashians come to mind. Those are extreme cases of passing down wealth in the form of assets, but hardly reflects the opportunities most Americans have available. Instead of looking to a big-box retailer or KUWTK for examples of passing down family legacy, you could find it closer than you think. Or in the case of Leandra Thomas and Thomas Farm, perhaps just drive down to your local farmers market.
Leandra, 33, is the grand-daughter of WWII veteran James Gorman Thomas, one of the founders of Thomas Farm in southern Maryland. Thomas Farm, not far from where she works as a Program Manager with the Department of Navy, has been a local treasure for a number of years.
I chatted over Zoom with Leandra and we discussed who her grandfather was, the family farm, the importance of legacy, and how she’s carrying the torch on her own terms.
Leandra, I know you of course through working with you through the Navy, but I never knew the history of the farm. Where does the story begin?
So, I always grew up around our family farm. Since I was a kid, my grandfather and his brother owned it, but even before that, it was owned by their parents. Interestingly enough, what I own now is actually our second farm. The original family property was located further north and expanded pretty far north. As the county started to build up, they started slowly buying the land from my family and the farm was the last hold-out. Eventually, they sold off all of the property in 1999 and paid cash for the land the current farm sits on. So, this is actually the second farm in the family that I’ve known.
I didn’t know that! Who ran the original farm?
My grandfather’s brother (great uncle) and my grandfather. My great uncle was more active with the operations as my grandfather was working for Washington Terminal Company and was splitting his time in DC where he also had a house with his siblings. As he got older, he moved down to the farm and he and his brother operated it.
I know that commute well, so I can understand that (laughter). When your family bought the current location, was it managed the same way between your grandfather and great uncle?
When they first bought the current farm, they made it a family corporation with each of his siblings owning a piece of it. The idea behind that was so as people passed on, it would stay in the family. As the original siblings passed away, to include my grandfather in 2016, my father and his cousin ended up inheriting all of the original shares.
That makes a lot of sense. Once your father and his cousin inherited their shares, how did ownership transfer to you?
After my grandfather passed, my father ran the farm for a couple years while the house was rented out. One day, he and his cousin put out to the family if anyone wanted the farm. Both of their fathers wanted to keep it in the family and after some thought, I decided I wanted it.
What inspired your desire to take the farm?
My grandfather was like everything to me. The most handsome, flyest dresser, and he was my guy. As his health started to decline, he straight up told me that he knew “his time was coming”… like how do you take that? But, I valued that because it let me start to prepare myself, so nothing was a surprise. Over the following months I would take him around to see his friends and it seemed like after that, he was good. It was like he made the choice that he was ready to go. After he passed, I felt like a piece of me was gone. So when my dad and his cousin made the offer of who wants the house, I was like ‘I do!’. Like, what’s the greatest connection to my grandfather? No doubt, I wanted it.
That’s heavy. Once you decided you wanted to take that on, how did you and your family handle the transition of shares?
My father made the decision that he was gifting me his half, and I purchased my dad’s cousin’s half.
From what you’ve shared with me so far, it sounds like owning land has been a core piece of your family history. Where does the value of land ownership come from?
To give you a bigger picture, land is VERY valuable to my family. You can do a whole lot in your life like graduate from college, get a good job and all that, but once you told my grandfather you bought property, he’s like THAT’s what’s up. Because he’s from that generation where black people didn’t own land. Don’t get me wrong, we definitely have our fair share of family members that like ‘things’, but it’s something about land being something of value. It’s meaningful, rarely depreciates, and it’s something you can pass on. Plus, when it’s like the homestead, it’s a meeting place, and a familiar gathering place for family. It’s always going to be some place to come home.
You’re so right, and it sounds like the desire to own land is more than the financial benefits, but also has a deeper emotional meaning to your family.
Oh yea, oh yea, definitely.
Who else owns land in your family?
My grandmother owns like 30 acres in South Carolina and my mother also owns land down here in southern Maryland. Land is just a big deal to our family so the fact this was an operational farm and almost 17 acres, I wasn’t going to let it go.
I’m glad you didn’t because the personal connection to your family, and specifically your grandfather, is major. Outside of valuing land ownership, how else did your grandfather influence your money mindset and decision making?
You know what, my grandfather was super generous to a fault. Growing up, he was always pretty well off, but later in life, he got so generous, people would take advantage. Now don’t get me wrong, he didn’t die broke. But it wasn’t like a windfall we inherited, either. It could have been, but he was generous to a fault.
In what ways would he get taken advantage of?
He would loan people money that couldn’t pay him back, or give money away. But growing up, somehow it still worked because he could balance his generosity and still maintain his lifestyle.
How did he strike that lifestyle balance and how did that impact you?
Growing up, things were very Cosby-esque (laughs) with him going in his pockets to give a couple dollars here and there. Or even, he would pay me weekly to clean his house, which wasn’t a very large space and didn’t need to be cleaned weekly, but he just liked to give money. On the other hand, he was also a Baltimore Orioles season ticket holder. In that sense, I got from him a value of enjoying life, working hard for your money, and applying it how you see fit. Through him I also learned to be cautious, like I don’t loan out money I can’t afford to be without forever. If I can’t afford to not get it back, I’m not going to loan it. I will give to church and certain charities, but I am not the family member people come to for money because I have no problem saying no (laughter).
We both share that characteristic (laughter). Now as a history nerd, one thing I’m curious about, is what was it like for your grandfather and great uncle to be black farmers in southern Maryland during a time of heavy racial tensions?
I’m not completely sure, but one thing I can tell you is that both my grandfather and great uncle were very well respected in the black community. Especially my great uncle, as he also had a construction business. There’re prominent places down here that if you aren’t black and from here, they may not mean much, but my great uncle helped build them up. For instance, there’s a living area down here that would be considered the ‘projects’ back then, but it was affordable housing, traditionally populated by black people. My great uncle was instrumental in building that up. And a lot of the people that bought those homes, their families still own it. The original owners may be gone, but their kids are still in the house. So, stuff like that, they were really held to a high esteem about. Even like when the local high school was being integrated, my great uncle happened to be working a construction job across from the school. He saw the first black girl get off the bus to go to this newly integrated school. There was a lot unfolding down here that I’m sure they were aware of or involved with, and that’s really cool.
That’s strong historical relevance, and legacy!
Oh yea. Both my grandfather and his brother were well known in this area, and still are. I see it even more now that I’m in the “farmer scene”. When I go to markets and mention Thomas Farm, the fellow farmers or patrons workers almost do a double take like “oh, Thomas Farm!? That’s still operational? I knew them!”.
What type of pressure, if any, do you feel to continue that strong legacy?
I don’t see it as a pressure really, at least not yet. I think it’s more of a motivation to make sure this farm does well because it is known and the fact that representation of black farmers has diminished over the years. I mean at one point black farmers in the United States once made up close to 15%. Through unfair loan processes and discriminatory practices by the USDA, it’s now less than 1.5%. Now of course, there’s been multiple lawsuits that have been settled as a result, but here’s the thing, you give people money to make up for it, but they can’t get their land back. The land is gone. So legacy is essential to me right now, I wouldn’t want this to be lost after the all of the hard work the generations before me put in.
Absolutely, and you are continuing that hard work. What are you currently growing and raising on the farm?
Right now, I have some leafy greens to include kale, collards, and lettuce. As for animals I have grass fed beef cows, chickens, goats, and ducks.
I’ve seen the cows, chickens, and goats, but I didn’t know you had ducks! What are the future plans for the farm? Do you plan to expand?
My future plan is for a slow and steady expansion. My next plan is to convert a piece of the land to an orchard so I can do fruit trees. And then I will be focusing on my grape vines with a goal of producing enough grapes where it’s worthwhile to build a relationship with a winery so they purchase my grapes. I plan to continue to maintain the chickens for egg production and continuing to raise cows. Since I coordinate various events like weddings on the side, I have toyed with the idea of merging my event business with the farm and hosting events here, but I am not sure if that’s something I want to pursue due to insurance and other required regulations.
That makes sense and that can be a handful. With you working full time for the Government, doing part-time events, and running a farm, you have a full plate. But it looks like you are maintaining the legacy in a way that makes sense to you and fits with the type of life you want to live.
Definitely. And for that reason, I am very conscious of not biting off more than I can chew with the farm because it can get very expensive. I still want to be able to live comfortably, travel, and live the life I want, without having to sacrifice what I love because I decided to do too much on the farm too soon.
Smart! So while you are focused on achieving career well-being, you’re also focused on maintaining balance within your financial well-being.
Oh yea because the reality is, I could do a lot of things if I was willing to drain my savings. Some people call it a ‘rainy day fund’ but I call it a blizzard, hurricane, volcano all at once fund (laughter). I don’t want it just to be there for a rainy day, and I need it to be ok just in case anything else happens. When you have a farm, it’s not rainy days, it’s expensive repairs. So, I don’t even like to let myself think I have the luxury of dipping into that fund unnecessarily. For example, I’m looking at a major overhaul for one of my barns.
That’s a really good lesson you’re touching on. It’s one thing to have an opportunity to leverage, but you still have to be able financially manage that opportunity. Like having an emergency fund, which is especially true for a business.
Absolutely. And keep in mind, the farm actually has two houses on the property that I’m managing. I live in the main house, but there’s a second house that I rent out to a family member. So there’s additional income coming in through that, and it’s great because the renter is a close family member.
Leandra, I love this story. With your family’s strong value of land ownership, this property has been passed on, which also represents an infinite amount of opportunity. You are able to maintain the Thomas Farm legacy, rent out the second house for rental income while maintaining family ties, retain your other career identities, and still uphold lifestyle balance.
I feel very fortunate. I really appreciate my government job, and the people I work with so I wouldn’t even think of leaving that. I enjoy farming, and I hope to do it as long as possible. This balance feels really good to me. █
For more on Leandra’s journey, follow her Instagram @the.familee.farmher