These Farmer-Activists Are Fixing Our Racist and Unjust Food System
Olivia Watkins’s personal history with farming started 130 years ago when her ancestors purchased land in Wake County, North Carolina, 30 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Five generations later, Watkins is carrying on her family’s legacy of farming and forest stewardship, having returned to the land last year after spending six years working on small-scale regenerative farms in New York and Hawai’i, and rebirthing the family farm as Oliver’s Agroforest.
When she isn’t tending to her log-grown shiitake mushrooms, leading community workshops about the climate benefits of agroforestry, or working toward an MBA at North Carolina State University, Watkins is busy laying the groundwork for an innovative new project that also honors her ancestors’ legacy.
Born from a conversation between Watkins and fellow Black farmer-activist Karen Washington in 2017, Black Farmer Fund is a start-up community investment fund that invests in Black food system entrepreneurs—such as farmers, food business owners, and distributors—in New York State. Collaborating with other organizations both regionally and nationwide, it promotes farming education and advocates for government policies that support Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) working in agriculture and the food industry. Black Farmer Fund’s primary mission, though, is to provide Black food system entrepreneurs access to capital, recognizing that a history of systemic lending and banking discrimination informs the present reality of Black communities—with the ultimate goal of creating a thriving, resilient, and equitable food system. In its definition of wealth, Black Farmer Fund prioritizes social capital and ancestral wisdom alongside financial and intellectual capital.
“First and foremost, we need to always make sure to acknowledge and recognize that the food system we're working within is built on stolen land and exploited labor,” says Watkins, whose family’s land, for example, was originally stewarded by the Catawba and Tuscarora Peoples before European settlers displaced them. “And as a result of this foundation, a lot of folks have been—and remain—marginalized.”
In 1910, Black farmers owned and operated about 14 percent of the farms in the United States; today, that number is around 1.5 percent. In contrast, white farmers own 98 percent and operate 94 percent of all farmland. “So Black farmers have lost more than 12 million acres because of USDA discrimination, racial violence, legal loopholes, and other methods that have essentially pushed them out of being able to be owners and free agents in the food system, and have kept them in places of being exploited labor or being pushed out of opportunities to grow their own food,” Watkins explains.
In New York, only 139 of the state’s 57,000 farm owners are Black, and they are netting tens of thousands of dollars less in annual income than their white counterparts. This is the reason for Black Farmer Fund, Watkins says, “because Black folks have never really had an opportunity to thrive in this food system as producers.”
In addition to lack of access to capital, lack of access to land has been another significant barrier preventing BIPOC farmers from taking on food producer roles. The Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOC) wants to change that. Like Black Farmer Fund, NEFOC is naming and confronting the food apartheid—lack of access to healthy, fresh, and culturally appropriate food within one mile of where you live—that overwhelms BIPOC communities across the country.
”The food system is a mirror of a larger colonial system that privileges some while marginalizing and dehumanizing others for the benefit of profit and power, and we are working to address the root cause of those issues,” says NEFOC executive director Stephanie Morningstar. The majority of the organization’s work centers on land acquisition and lease facilitation, but NEFOC, like Black Farmer Fund, also provides farmer training and resources and advocates for policy change.
Black Farmer Fund and NEFOC are working closely together with three other BIPOC-led, New York–based organizations—Corbin Hill Food Project, Soul Fire Farm, and Farm School NYC—to create an ecosystem of BIPOC-led, allied food and farming organizations that share resources, skills, and knowledge to advance shared goals. “Something that's very different about BIPOC-led organizations is that we are committed to not siloing ourselves,” Morningstar says. “We're committed to not hoarding wealth and resources for our own benefit in that capitalist sense of the model. We're actually collaborating and doing what we call communal wealth building.”
Watkins agrees that this ecosystem model is critical to making our food system more just and equitable. “When we're doing this work, it's important for us to understand that we can't do everything,” she says. “Our role in this broader picture of food justice is being able to support the next generation of farmer-activists coming out of Farm School NYC and Soul Fire Farm, to support NEFOC as they acquire land, to support the pre-existing projects like Corbin Hill.”
The role, if any, that organizations like NRDC can play in these BIPOC-designed and -led models is one of partnership and support. Senior attorney Sara Imperiale stresses that when organizations like NRDC are invited into such coalitions and collaborations, “our task as attorneys from a white-led and well-resourced organization is to be responsive to the type of support our environmental justice partners are asking for.”
Margaret Brown, also a senior attorney at NRDC, adds, “It is essential that BIPOC-led, community-based groups at the heart of food-system change, like Black Farmer Fund, have the capacity to lead this work. There is a huge role for the funding community to play in shifting power to these organizations. Those closest to the negative impacts of our food systems already hold a deep and lived understanding of the problem—and they are ready with solutions. They simply need resources for the work ahead.”
Black Farmer Fund is currently working with 14 Black farmers, food business owners, and organizers across New York State to develop the investment strategy and to deploy capital into its community.
Watkins stresses that reflecting back with the community is an essential part of this phase. “It's always all about consensus building and making consensus decisions with our community rather than dictating what should happen,” she says. “We are all Black farmer-activists, so we are, in a sense, the community. But it's not enough for us to say we can represent and just call it a day and create something based on the experiences that we've had. It's also about creating opportunities and accessibility for power within our community.” She envisions transitioning from a pilot phase to a fully operational charitable loan fund by next summer. At that point, Black Farmer Fund will itself provide capital to Black food actors with financing from social impact lenders, investors looking to generate social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.
And there is a lot of work. Watkins says that both the COVID-19 crisis and the recent protests against systemic racism have made the efforts of Black Farmer Fund and other groups all the more critical, and have validated the importance of what they’re doing. She notes that COVID-19, which is disproportionately impacting low-income, Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, has laid bare the reality of food apartheid for Black people and BIPOC communities, while also shining a light on environmental racism, lack of access to health care, and the absence of worker protections. “For us,” Watkins says, “all these separate issues come back to access to capital to create opportunities within the Black food system.”
Watkins adds that, these days, the public is much more informed about how the issues are systemic and are receptive to understanding the urgency of fixing them. “For people who may not have necessarily felt or experienced or witnessed the grief and the anger that Black communities feel, they're feeling it now for sure,” she says. “They are expressing their frustration and anger with systems, so we're looking to focus on finding solutions in the food system and figuring out how we can alleviate some of the stress that has been inflicted on these communities. And I'm hoping that folks turn to Black-led organizations wherever they are to support them in the work that they have been doing and are going to continue doing.”
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