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Funding and decision-making power are needed to address structural inequality for BIPOC farmers

Moving past rhetorical “equity”

Not surprisingly, statements pledging a new commitment to “equity,” and acknowledging the effects of racial discrimination began to appear in many public documents after the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the summer of 2020.

I’m familiar with these statements, especially in the realm of agriculture. I co-founded the Haki Farmers Collective in 2020. Haki is distinct not only because we are beginning farmers, but because we are led by African-American women with a mission to serve marginalized community members.

In 1920 black farmers controlled 14% of US farmland. Today they control 1%.

The persistent effects of racial discrimination

We quickly learned that to farm successfully in Thurston County, we needed wholehearted participation from the community and access to land and capital. We got the former; we’re still working on access to land and capital.

In a recent op-ed piece promoting a new $2 million program to improve access to land and preserve farms into the future, Councilmember Dani Madrone made such an acknowledgement, saying that the program would prioritize historically underserved farmers: “those who experience racial discrimination face the greatest barriers, including decades of biased lending practices at the US Department of Agriculture.”

Buy-protect-sell to increase opportunities for all farmers

Madrone was referring to the Farmland Protection and Land Access (FPLA) program. This program, if funded, could keep agricultural land in farmers’ hands by allowing conservation organizations to acquire farmland directly. The organization would establish a conservation easement and then offer the land to a farmer at a price reflecting its constrained use.

The State Conservation Commission’s request for funding the FPLA includes repeated references to “equity impacts” that will satisfy “one of the governor’s priorities.” Specifically, this would be to increase opportunities for farmers who are part of “underrepresented communities” including “young, beginning, female and BIPOC farmers” to get land to farm.

Experience tells a different story

Unfortunately, experiences I’ve had as a black female farmer lead me to believe these proposals will do little to support black, indigenous and other farmers of color. Benefits to farmers of color (“underrepresented communities”) are given special prominence in arguments for programs, but no priority in their operation and funding.

Benefits to farmers of color (“underrepresented communities”) are given prominence in arguments for programs, but no priority in operation and funding.

Agricultural relief programs are not designed to attract small-scale black and brown farmers. They are less inclusive and lack an equity lens in design and implementation. Although they claim to be designed for farmers of color, there are no provisions for outreach.

Application materials include stringent rules and requirements that disqualify or discourage many deserving applicants. Language is a barrier when English is not a farmer’s first language. Where the farmer has few existing resources, they may give up, defeated by a long qualification process.

In the case of the FPLA, there is not an actual priority for black and brown farmers. Instead, there is this bureaucratically convoluted provision:

“To advance equity and reduce disparities, the degree to which the proposed project will provide access to a Farmer or Rancher eligible and planning to pursue the beginning farmer or rancher loan program or a historically underserved farmer/rancher as defined by USDA will be included in the project selection criteria.”

A rare chance to be in on the conversation

In 2021 Haki Farmers Collective was part of a Washington State University study formed to identify food supply chain disruptions and disproportionate negative impacts on BIPOC communities related to the COVID-19 pandemic. *

Our involvement was by accident. We happened to be in the right place when everything was starting, otherwise none of my counterparts would have even known that such an opportunity existed, let alone been able to be in the conversation. As it was, we were able to recommend steps that can help assure food security for Washingtonians based on data that reflects the contribution and gaps related to BIPOC farmers.

Other agendas take precedence

Haki Farms experienced another instance where detailed acknowledgement of historical discrimination in an organization’s statement didn’t lead to matching action. When a donor reached out to Haki Farms to preserve specific farmland, we recommended a model and a process that would make it possible for us to steward the land and increase ownership by black and brown people.

Initial conversations were supportive. However, over the course of discussions, ideas from Haki’s model were rerouted to serve a purpose identified by the City of Olympia. Haki was shut out of a decision on the eventual proposal, which involved a relatively short-term (20-25 years) lease to an intermediary who would lease to Haki. At the end of the lease term, the City would be free to take the land for any other use.

The arrangement didn’t remove development rights from the property. There was no long-term agricultural land preservation benefit—let alone a benefit for black and brown farm ownership.

If the goal is to shift the paradigm and enable black and brown farmers to steward the land, then decision–making has to be inclusive and not be determined by the agendas of those who possess power and have resources and capacity already in place.

The wins of the fathers

Another goal of programs to address the loss of farmland and farmers is to attract younger farmers. The idea that programs should help children acquire the farms of their parents is implicit in the FPLA. The older generation passes land to their children. This ignores the fact that racism, exclusion and displacement mean that black families have no land to pass down to their children. Assisting children to acquire their parents’ land will not put land in the hands of black and brown members of the younger generations.

Will FPLA money stop the turnover of land to developers?

I have had the opportunity to sit on the Thurston County Agricultural Advisory Board for the last couple of months. As we discuss zoning and permitting issues, I’ve observed that the older generation of landowners shows no intention of passing land to the younger generation. They are rather quick to invite the idea of massive developments that create fast access to capital and removes the burden of land maintenance. The fact is, no equity considerations are in place nor are measures to ensure that the decision-makers who will consider zoning will take conservation into consideration first.

“Equity” requires black and brown people in decision-making roles

We must have planning policies and preservation goals that acknowledge the history of the land, ideally including mechanisms and funding for that land to be regranted back to the native owners—or reassigned to black and brown farmers—so that the rhetoric about equity and providing access to land for black and brown people translates into action. That is what is needed to broaden and diversify land ownership, to give BIPOC a start on building the generational wealth that can begin to address radical structural inequity.

If the stated commitments to equity are meant to improve the status of “the underserved,” people of color must be at the table in the design, creation, implementation and evaluation process. All agricultural programs currently lack such an equity lens.

Mercy Kariuke McGee is an active farmer and the co-founder of Haki Farm Collective.

* The 63-page report is available on the Haki Farm website.


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