Seeking Agricultural Equity

KaZoua Berry sits on a no-till grain-drill seeder, used to sow cover crop seeds while minimizing soil disturbances.

For many, getting food from anywhere but the grocery store or a farmer’s market seems unusual. For others, running a small farm is a way of life — or, they would like it to be. It is not easy to access and maintain land, and Minnesota farmers — especially those of color and those who want to use sustainable practices — are struggling.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Minnesota had 67,500 farm operations in 2020; slightly less than California and 20 percent less than Iowa. Most farmland is passed down through families. In 2017, the last year that the USDA performed a comprehensive agricultural census, less than 1 percent of Minnesota farmers were people of color. The total number of farms in Minnesota has decreased by 35 percent since 1978. Only 639 farms reported organic product sales.

For prospective organic farmers, access to land is only the start of the challenges. Farmers who do not grow conventional cash crops, such as corn and soy, find they have significantly less support from government programs than traditional farmers.

How can Minnesota achieve more agricultural equity, and what does that look like? We talked with KaZoua Berry, the program manager at Big River Farms, and Amy Bacigalupo, program co-director for the Land Stewardship Project (LSP).

Says Bacigalupo, “For us, equity means using our influence and the power that we have to address, take apart, and dismantle oppressive systems that are having negative impacts for people of color, and along race, gender and socioeconomic intersections.”

Obstacles to Launch and Growth

It is difficult for emerging farmers to launch a sustainable operation. For those who want to become a certified organic grower, the process is costly and requires inspections and detailed record-keeping. It takes three years to convert from conventional agriculture. Growing organic takes more work and time to see positive results. Yet the regenerative techniques in organic farming are necessary to combat climate change.

The USDA is starting to recognize this and support these organic methods — which were early traditions before commercial agriculture changed the landscape of farming.

Many Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) farmers, however, do not trust the USDA because of a long history of discrimination by government programs.

In 2019, The Counter published an investigation into how the USDA discriminated against BIPOC farmers: “Forcing people off their land, subjecting them to hostility and contempt in federal offices, and conspiring with banks and land developers to steal their property,” the authors report. “Even when that mistreatment took a more discreet form — like routinely denying Black farmers the same loans white farmers obtained with ease — its impact was still devastating.”

Between 1910 and 1997, Black farmers in the U.S. lost around 90 percent of the land they owned; white farmers lost only about 2 percent over the same period.

Because of this discrimination, many BIPOC farmers no longer turn to the USDA for assistance. “Once trust is broken, it takes a long time for it to build back,” says Bacigalupo. “I know several women and BIPOC farmers who brought their ideas to the local Farm Service Agency to get subsidized loans, for things like starting [a] farm by buying land. And they have been told that what they are doing is not farming. There is discrimination happening in Minnesota at the county level.”

Berry agrees. “There are more resources for white farmers,” she says. It also has been difficult for some farmers, such as those from Hmong communities, to be welcomed at some farmer’s markets, she says.

Market-building is a challenge for small producers, regardless of race. Many larger farmer’s markets only rent stalls to producers with proven experience in farming and many products to sell. To get around these obstacles, some farmers have been developing and joining cooperative organizations.

Cooperative Solutions

On a 150-acre plot of land northwest of Saint Paul, Big River Farms is an organic incubator farm, training immigrant and BIPOC farmers to work with the Minnesota climate, use organic methods, and navigate the USDA. They also engage in market-building, allowing their trainee farmers to sell produce through the organization.

Minnesota has an organic cost share program that helps pay for organic certification, says Bacigalupo. The state has financial support for beginning farmers and tax incentives for landowners that sell or rent to beginning farmers. These programs need more funding, however, according to the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy.

Due to lack of funding, only 17 percent of Minnesota farmers who applied to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in 2020 were able to obtain assistance.

LSP will launch a food systems campaign in February. According to LSP policy manager Amanda Koehler, legislative priorities in 2022 include:

  • Increased funding and other support for farmers navigating drought and other effects of changing climate
  • Increased soil-healthy and regenerative farming methods through Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the creation of a Continuous Living Cover Value-Chain Fund
  • Investment in the infrastructure needed for small and mid-sized farms, aggregators, and meat processors

Editor’s Note: In mid-January, House DFL leaders and Climate Action Caucus Members proposed a $1 billion 2022 Climate Action Plan, $50 million of which could be directed towards developing agricultural products and practices that conserve soil and water, establishing a cost-sharing program to maintain and improve soil health, and diversifying crops that provide ground cover and economic opportunities throughout the year. Public support will be needed to pass these priorities.

Action = Change

Eat at farm-to-fork restaurants that emphasize ingredients that are local, seasonal, and sourced from family farms. Seek out recipes that use local ingredients. Check out the Minnesota Grown directory of organic farms: certified-organic

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