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Racial Equity in the Farm Bill: Barriers for Farmers of Color

December 18, 2017


From left: Linda Newkirk, Farm Service Agency, Arkansas State Executive Director; Mildred Barnes-Griggs, consultant, East Arkansas Enterprise Community, Inc.; Charlie Williams, United States Department of Agriculture, Arkansas Strike Team Leader; and Hillary Haddigan, Heifer International, look at a turnip grown at the EAEC in Forrest City, Arkansas. Photo credit: USDA, Bob Nichols

Editor’s Note: This blog post is the second in a multi-part series by NSAC Policy Intern Noah McDonald that explores how the next Farm Bill can advance racial equity in food and agriculture. The first post in this series focused on the historical context of racial equity and the farm bill and highlighted some of the historical policies that have contributed to the food and farming system we have today. This second post explores how historical inequities and injustices have carried over into the present day, and the challenges that farmers and food/farm advocates continue to face in accessing federal programs and resources. The content within this blog was the result of a series of interviews that took place with National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) members between October and November 2017.

Farming has always been a risky business – results are never guaranteed, hard work is always required, and the potential challenges can change daily. Farmers of color – including immigrant, refugee, tribal, and farmworker communities – face an additional set of barriers, both to entering and to sustaining successful careers in agriculture. Some of these barriers have been broken down over the years, however, many obstacles have also intensified and new ones have also cropped up.

Historically, farmers of color have not participated in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs (e.g., conservation, disaster, and loan assistance programs) to the same extent as other farmers, due in part to a combination of inadequate outreach and assistance and discrimination towards these communities.

Both individual farmers and organizations that support farmers of color continue to face challenges in expanding access to these valuable USDA assistance programs and resources. But what exactly are the barriers these farmers and organizations face, and why do they persist? This blog post explores how both institutional racism (as opposed to interpersonal racism) and marginalization* contribute to inequitable access to federal resources.

*Marginalization is when people/organizations/groups are excluded from accessing resources held by a privileged group based upon their judged ideological, cultural, political, and/or social proximity to a privileged group. Marginalization is one of the many forms of inequity. This post will use the terms ‘marginalized’ or ‘marginal’, and we must understand it within this context.

Along with Resources, Outreach Is Key

In speaking with our members, one of the most important themes that emerged is that federal programs, regardless of their specific focus on or priority for socially-disadvantaged farmers, serve a fundamental role in supporting farmers of color and their farming operations. Some of the most cited farm bill programs include: Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans, federal crop insurance, the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program, as well as a host of other outreach and research programs.

Programs that are specifically targeted towards socially disadvantaged farmers, including the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers (“2501 program”) as well as funding set-asides within other programs, primarily serve as a mechanism for increasing access to USDA programs. As discussed in the last post, funding set-asides are critical to making sure that already limited federal resources are accessible to farmers of color and other underserved farmers whose participation rates are disproportionately low. Many farmers and organizations would face further marginalization without these set-asides and targeted assistance.

The Southeastern Michigan Producers Association (SEMPA), a farmer group that is affiliated with NSAC member, Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems (MIFFS), knows first-hand the importance of targeted funding and programs for farmers of color.

Cary Junior, co-founder and acting director of SEMPA, spoke to NSAC about the challenges still faced by farmers of color, despite the progress made over the years:

“Although USDA has done a pretty good job at outreach with our [mostly Black] farmers, as of now, there’s still a lot of distrust we’re still having to work through.”

Many of the farmers Junior works with in southeastern Michigan, especially older Black farmers, are still unwilling to work with USDA because of the Department’s legacy of discrimination. They feel that in the past, USDA had not made a sincere effort to support them in the manner in which they supported other farmers (for more information on that legacy read the following article).

The distrust and hesitancy that Junior’s farmer constituents feel is an embodiment of why outreach programs are a critical part of changing the relationship between USDA and farmers of color. Programs like Section 2501 support farmer and farm advocate organizations in helping to form and better solidify these connections, and they serve to fill longstanding gaps in resources, communications, and technical assistance services. In some cases, organizations supported by Section 2501 grants go beyond just providing outreach and resources by adding hands-on work with local farmers. For instance, many organizations will connect farmers with advocates who can accompany them in person to meetings with USDA offices or with lenders, and who can also help them understand contracts or fill out program applications.

Compounded Challenges for Beginning Farmers

Challenges for farmers of color are compounded when they are also just starting or seeking to start careers in agriculture. Much of this struggle is caused by a large and persistent wealth gap between White Americans and African Americans – on average, Whites hold 13 times more wealth than African Americans, a gap that holds across income and class levels (for more information on the racial wealth gap click here).

Tyler Nesbit is the Education and Outreach Coordinator for Florida Organic Growers (FOG), an NSAC member organization based in Gainesville FL. During his interview with NSAC, Nesbit made some particularly pointed observations about the potential for organic and urban agriculture to create economic opportunity for communities of color.

“One of the things I’ve encountered while working in the Learning Garden [a space at a local community garden where FOG holds training workshops] is that there is a lot of ‘untapped’ informal knowledge around farming and gardening in the surrounding community,” Nesbit said. “There is a lot of intergenerational [agricultural] knowledge in the community.”

In spaces like FOG’s Learning Garden, beginning farmers have the opportunity to learn and gain skills directly from those in their community. In these types of environments, they are able to get started on their path to a career in agriculture without putting forward substantial resources of their own.

“Neighborhood association leaders [in Gainesville, FL] have communicated to us that there is a need for local economic development in the area – so FOG is incorporating that piece into our outreach activities,” said Nesbit. “[Organic farming] is a way to gain valuable skills in an industry that is continually growing – folks can begin to think of organic farming as a career path and as a viable way of producing economic security. That is part of our objective and goal at FOG.”

In addition to their education resources, FOG also operates an organic cost share program, which provides financial assistance to producers and handlers of agricultural products who are obtaining or renewing their certification under the National Organic Program (NOP). This assistance is especially critical for many beginning farmers and farmers of color, who often do not have the up-front capital to pay for costly organic certification. FOG is also considering applying for a Community Food Project (CFP) grant through USDA in the future. Many other organizations around the country have used funds from CFP to launch programs that support tribal food sovereignty, community garden development and urban agriculture, youth food justice, and healthy food access. Click here to see project abstracts from past awardees.

While barriers to entry in agriculture exist for all new and aspiring farmers, it is critical that organizations and governmental programs also recognize the unique barriers experienced by farmers of color, which include distrust resulting from historic discrimination. If that distrust persists, then programs like the Section 2501 program will never fully be able to bridge gaps in access and quality of services. Additionally, more must be done to increase the accountability, transparency and enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination in the administration of federal programs.

Barriers for Low-Capacity Organizations

Just as beginning and aspiring farmers face unique challenges, so too do many of the organizations that serve those farmers and communities. This can true in both rural and urban areas, and can be especially acute for organizations that lack non-profit status, which in many cases prohibits them from even applying for many federal grant programs. There are many unincorporated community-based groups that are committed to farm viability and increasing food access to marginalized individuals — in particular people of color and low-income individuals in urban areas.

Qiana Mickie, Executive Director of the a NYC-based non-profit and NSAC member organization Just Food, talked to NSAC about the struggles urban farms or farm organizations without nonprofit status face:

“[These organizations] are unable to access funding, and so cannot fund or sustain themselves financially. These same organizations, however, are also the ones doing incredibly valuable work in the community. We face persistent challenges that are rooted in systemic inequity. That [inequity] looks like land displacement, unfair/illegal labor practices, economic/wealth disparities, and the devaluing of community-based work. More concretely, this leads to under-resourced grassroots organizations trying to meet their issue, and have an impact in their communities.”

As the Executive Director of Just Food, an NYC-based food justice and food access non-profit and NSAC member, Mickie is acutely familiar of these challenges on the organizational level, as well as being informed by their network of CSAs, community-run farmers markets, and small-mid scale sustainable rural and urban farmer partners. Even organizations like Just Food that have nonprofit status can still struggle with the federal grant process. According to Mickie, Just Food has actually had to pass on opportunities to apply for a CFP grant, even though CFP would greatly benefit Just Food’s grassroots capacity building efforts.

“There are multiple times in which we have had to pass on applying for federal grants even though we were eligible and the funding would have helped tremendously,” said Mickie. “Many times it came down to capacity. We simply couldn’t apply. I had to decide between applying for the grant; a process that looks like balancing the metrics and grant application requirements, RFA (Request for Applications) window, and deciding how to devote the time, as opposed to direct programming and other fundraising. I know I am not alone. I have heard from other urban based agriculture leaders around the country that also felt that the application barriers were too high to access these critical USDA grants. It is an even harder decision for the leaders that run community-based groups that are volunteer-led or do not have dedicated paid staff.”

Mickie also noted that many federal grants include requirements for organizations to provide matching funds, something that often discourages otherwise qualified lower-resourced organizations from applying.

Structural Challenges Require Structural Changes

Many NSAC member groups have experienced similar challenges to the ones outlined in this post, challenges which USDA can and should address through concerted and intentional policy change. The administrative burden placed upon both farmers and organizations in accessing federal resources is also an issue. This burden oftentimes leads to very qualified organizations that provide crucial services being overlooked or boxed out of federal resource and training opportunities. In order to avoid further marginalizing these already underserved farmers and communities, we – both public and private institutions – must make structural changes to the way we approach and conduct policy work and programming.

In our final post in this series, we will dive into some of the structural changes that would be needed to address these longstanding barriers and begin to dismantle historic discrimination and institutional racism in our food and farm systems.

For more information on racism in the U.S. food system, we strongly encourage folks to read An Annotated Bibliography on Structural Racism Present in the U.S. Food System. This amazing resource, created by Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems, is a compilation of essays, writing, and media on structural racism in the food system, ranging from agricultural guestworker programs to land use policy.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Farm Bill

2 responses to “Racial Equity in the Farm Bill: Barriers for Farmers of Color”

  1. As a USMC VET MALE LATINO, I own approximately 40 acres. However, I applied for Minority Beginning Farmers Program with USFA located in Poplarville, MS and have been DENIED TWICE while I was employed with MS Forestry. Now retired with Pension I would love to pursue as a Beginning Minotity Farmer.. HELP! Thx

  2. Fabulous piece! Thank you.


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