Editor’s Note: Because of our self-defined focus on Ecolution in Minnesota Women’s Press, I was invited to a virtual conference about regenerative agriculture and equity hosted by former Vice President Al Gore. The second day, December 9, included a panel discussion with Minnesota’s 40 Acre Co-op farmer Angela Dawson, who has been integral to our coverage for more than a year. She spoke alongside Leah Penniman, founder of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, NY, whose mission is to “end racism in the food system and reclaim our ancestral connection to land,” and John Boyd Jr., who in 1995 founded the National Black Farmers Association to counter the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s discriminatory practices against Black farmers.
Boyd: Access to credit. It takes 387 days on average to process a loan request from Black farmers and less than 30 days for white farmers. The Department of Agriculture has been killing us with time and paperwork. Farmers rely on these loans every year to plant and harvest on time. It is true of the Top 10 banks, and equipment companies like John Deere. White males on average receive $1 million per farmer; for Black farmers it is roughly $200. These disparities are too wide. The time it takes is too long. We need real resources.
Penniman: Access to land and training. Farming acreage by value is owned 98 percent by white males. Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren have drafted the Justice for Black Farmers Act to help facilitate land transfer and training for the next generation of farmers. Farm owners are aging out.
Dawson: There is also a need for tech assistance. Our co-op program has a waiting list of 350 people — we do not yet have the capacity to provide the training needed. As a fourth generation farmer, I remember my father’s and grandfather’s farming. Things have changed since then, with forms, applications, time periods, and regulations. We used to say that my grandfather could grow beans out of rocks. He had the skills and traditions to grow with his hands, without machinery needed today. Now there are so many rules and requirements that require training and tech assistance — everything is online, and 60 percent of Black rural farmers do not have access to high-speed internet.
I also wanted to raise up this question about a cultural shift needed. Why does someone as experienced as John Boyd Jr., who has been farming for decades, need to wait for farm loans to be approved?
Dawson: Minnesota became ground zero when George Floyd was killed. We also are less known for the fact that we have the highest co-ops per capita, and the highest revenue for co-ops. Yet there were no Black co-ops in Minnesota until 40 Acre Co-op was founded. It is a successful model that builds wealth and gives access to opportunities that no government or bank can offer. I decided to create a co-op for Black farmers after I was denied a microloan by the USDA for an organic hog farm.
Boyd: The National Black Farmers Association has 116,000 members. Our average age is 61. I formed the association in 1983; none of my original board members are living anymore. We need to invest real resources into the next generation in this country. To change our approach to climate change, we ahve to invest in rural America. We cannot let Black communities to remain boarded up because they cannot get the resources to buy seeds, fertilizer, and equipment for the next year’s crop.
Everything great and good comes from land — clean water, the food we eat, clothes from cotton, timber for houses. It is hard for Black Americans to appreciate this when we have been treated so brutally by sharecropping and slavery associated with land. We need funding to expand what we are doing together to restore land communities.
Penniman: I think of Dr. George Washington Carver and his legacy, which was regenerative. It comes from the African Dark Earths of Ghana, where women created highly fertile soil with ash and bone char. The original compost. A soil ethos. In contrast, in one generation European settlers took the plow to the Great Plains and reduced the soil health by 50 percent. At my farm in upstate New York, the soils were so depleted that people laughed to think we could farm here. Yet this is where we can afford land, at $1500/acre. Using African methods — cover crops, raised beds, composting — we are returning soil health. To have solutions to climate change, we must invest in these original farming communities as ‘solutionaries’ or we will not have a habitable planet. Regenerative farming and land reclamation is the solution to feeding the world without destroying the planet.
Boyd: I bought my first farm in 1983. My first corn crop was planted with my dad the last week of March. Now, we are planting in May because of severe changes in weather patterns. I am harvesting soybeans in November instead of the second week of October. There is extreme heat and drought impacting harvest and production.
Penniman: In 2013 there was a major string of hurricanes and tropical storms — the first time in my lifetime that it hit the mountains of upstate New York. My family was sleeping when the heavy rains came, and we were awakened by what sound like a Mack truck barreling through the forest. It was a river rushing through, where there was no river before. We knew it would wash out our garlic crop. My kids were in elementary school then, and we all grabbed shovels to dig trenches to divert the water. Neighbors lost their topsoil that year, and again, and again.
This year, in November, we have two feet of snow. There is too much precipitation. When you have feet of rain and no sun, there is rot, cucumbers are destroyed, pests don’t die. It is unpredictable, from drought to flood. Plants don’t adapt that fast. We are resilient with our regenerative practices, but not immune.
Dawson: It is the unpredictability of extremes. It is already risky becoming farmer. It is even scarier when you do not have the proper support. We have the Kettle River here, sourced from Lake Superior. There is a 100-year flood every century — but now it is happening every five years. It makes you nervous to grow crops. How much investment can we make in the land. We also are missing pollinators beneficial to crops — the rusty patched bumblebee in Minnesota is losing its habitat. If we want regenerative practices on the backs of farmers, we have to give resources to weather storms in between floods and climate crises.
Gore: All food crops today were patiently selected by generations — scientists say by Neolithic women in the Stone Age — for conditions. Now it is so much hotter, with decreased yields. Droughts are the harshest impacts worldwide of climate change. There are atmospheric rivers as well — an average of 25 times water vapor moisture as that of the Mississippi River — in the atmosphere. When a downpour is triggered, it is an atmospheric tsunami. Plant diseases are more common, pests are supercharged by erratic conditions. [See related visual depiction from Climate Underground.]
Penniman: When my daughter was young she said the food system is how we get sunshine on our plate. Tragically, getting sunshine to our plates has been infused with racial injustice. The rights of farm workers, mostly Latinx, have not been protected under federal labor laws. Food access and diet-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease and Alzheimers disproportionately affect people of color. When given a choice — we see it on our farm with kids — we will eat healthy, but discrimination and redlining has restricted access. My vision is to infuse every step from sunshine to plate with true democracy. It will be about the well-being of all people and the earth itself.
Dawson: Like music, our foods and mealtimes define our cultures. It is time to put the culture back in agriculture. In Minnesota, we have the second largest Somali refugee population, large numbers of Hmong and Laotian. These are people who are agricultural in nature. We need to offer culturally appropriate foods, what we are used to having in our diets, and the current food system does not allow for it. We need more farm to fork. It is the seed to community wellness. We need more agricultural operations that are human centered.
Boyd: I want to extend an olive branch to white farmers. There was $5 billion in COVID relief for farmers of color to receive debt relief. White farmers sued in 12 courts to sue in complaints. It would have been preferable to talk to each other instead of turn to courts. Look at the food we can add to the food chain if we support each other. Instead of destroying crops in the pandemic, we could have opened up farms to let people pick food for free. We don’t do the right things when it comes to food and farming because of the divisions in this country. In my 39 years of farming, I have never seen us so divided on race. We are not having the real conversations like this. Sitting together to talk about why we are so divided. I extend the olive branch to ask that we make farmers of color part of the agricultural culture. Every Black person is one or two generations away from working on a farm. It is where we came from. We need to return to the land — it is our history, our heritage. When species are facing extinction, Congress jumps in with laws until the numbers come up. We need to do that with the oldest occupation in this country: farming.