With the upcoming renewal of the farm bill, Senator Tina Smith (D-MN), hosted a roundtable discussion of BIPOC farmers at The Good Acre co-op in Falcon Heights, last Wednesday, April 5. Smith gathered a group of nine Minnesota farmers, including Black, Asian, Latino, and Native American farmers to get feedback from the group—who represent the small number of farmers of color in Minnesota.
The farm bill is a major piece of federal legislation that expires every five years and affects agriculture, nutrition, rural infrastructure, and housing, among other farming economic impacts. The bill will expire later this year and any updates to it will need to be passed in the House and Senate before the bill can be renewed.
“I think this is a moment where we have an opportunity for real transformation,” Smith said. “If you think about what’s happening in agriculture right now in this country, we see the status quo puts us in a place of increasing concentration in agriculture. There are some outdated policies that have led to some of these systemic inequities that we know exist in farming and agriculture.”
According to Smith there were 5.3 million farms and 560,000 Black farmers in the United States in 1950. But many farms consolidated, which often pushed out BIPOC farmers. By 1997, there were under two million farms, with only 18,000 Black farmers, a drop of more than 95 percent since 1950.
Smith opened the panel by asking about issues around land and capital resource restrictions for BIPOC farmers, and what could be done to address those concerns.
Angela Dawson, a fourth-generation farmer who runs Forty Acre Co-op, spoke about how small farms often lack the resources to hire a grant writer, and that it is difficult for farmers to find time to compete for grants on top of fieldwork. Dawson says grants are vital for small farms to compete against larger ones.
Jane Windsperger, who is the director of Gedef Organic Farm agreed, saying grants are especially difficult for farmers whose first language is not English.
Dawson also wants to see more funding for farming co-ops.
“We should be encouraging cooperation, in agriculture especially, especially among multicultural, different folks with different needs and different resources,” Dawson said.
Metric Giles of the Urban Farm and Garden Alliance called for environmental reparations as part of the farm bill.
“We have a farm bill that was not created for all of us. It was created for White people,” Giles said. “For the urban farmer, one of the things when we talk about is reparations. We need to have environmental reparations because we cannot grow healthy food, especially with the soil we have in our urban communities—and that’s an issue.”
Following the panel, Smith said she was looking to add a provision to the farm bill to help Native farmers, and to add a provision to support new and BIPOC farmers with access to capital and land.
According to the USDA, in 2017, less than 2 percent of American farmers were Black. Dawson blames the lack of Black farmers on discrimination and systemic racism in the USDA, calling the agency, “the last plantation in the United States government system.”
Dawson said she believed the USDA would need a cultural shift before the number of BIPOC farmers could increase, citing racism, barriers in employment, and sexual harassment throughout the history of the USDA.
Vitalis Tita, who grew up farming in Cameroon but now farms in Montrose, MN, agreed that past policies shaped the racial makeup of today’s farmers who are primarily White.
“The way resources have been positioned has been disproportionately disadvantageous to people in the minority community. That’s why you find more White people [farming],” Tita said.
Tita is hopeful that progress can be made and that more BIPOC people can join the farming community.
“I think we’re now having the conversation around how we can change that [demographic],” Tita said. “Not to dislodge the White people, but how can we join them to do what is good, provide food for our community?”
Tita currently grows ethnic African vegetables for the community. He started because he wanted to eat vegetables from his home country of Cameroon, such as bitter leaf, but had trouble finding them in Minnesota.
“I come from Africa, and I desire eating this type of food that I grew up eating for 25 years of my life,” Tita said. “I want to do that not just for me because I see that other people have the same yearning and desire to eat that culturally oriented type of food, so I just specialize in growing that and providing that to the community.
“Together we can be able to provide culturally diverse diet that this country needs,” Tita said. “America is a country of diversity, so we want everybody to be included.”