By Chelsea Blahut, CUESA Volunteer
The image of the average U.S. farmer as an older white man is steadily changing, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. While 95 percent of the country’s roughly 3 million farmers are white, the number of Latinx farmers increased 13 percent and black farmers rose nearly 2 percent, while female producers increased 27 percent over the previous five years. This last point is in part due to the revised design of the census, which allows for multiple producers to be listed—an indication that the Department of Agriculture realizes that womxn have often acted behind the scenes and not received credit for their contributions.
The big takeaway is that people of color and womxn farmers are shaping the future of the industry. Yet access to land, capital, and resources is not distributed equitably, and under-resourced and marginalized farmers continue to face large barriers to success.
On September 25, farmers came together to share their stories and discuss racial equity and social justice in California agriculture at “The Food Change | Sowing an Equitable Future for Farmers.” Cohosted by CUESA and California FarmLink, the panel was moderated by farmer Chanowk Yisrael, cofounder of Yisrael Family Urban Farm and President of Slow Food Sacramento, and included Marsha Habib of Oya Organics, Ge Moua of Moua’s Farm, and Javier Zamora of JSM Organics. They each spoke about their journeys as farmer-entrepreneurs in an unpredictable industry, as well as challenges they encounter as womxn, people of color, and immigrants in agriculture.
Here are eight takeaways from their conversation, including what we as eaters can do to be accomplices in supporting small farmers and advocates for an equitable food future for all.
Family farming is rooted in community.
A shared value among all of the farmers was a deep love for their community and family. Yisrael shared how he became passionate about growing food when he realized his neighborhood outside of Sacramento, South Oak Park, was considered a food desert. “What we were doing in our backyard…is something that our community needed,” he said.
Marsha Habib of Oya Organics started her own one-acre farm and gradually brought in her partner and their family members to help them. And Ge Moua, a Laotian immigrant with parents who are sustenance farmers, became a backyard farmer because she wanted to provide quality produce for her seven children.
Farmers must always be ready to adapt.
Moua realized she could make a profit from selling her own backyard produce at a local farmers market in Sacramento, enough to eventually take her kids to Disneyland. As she became more involved in the agricultural industry, she wanted to expand her operations beyond her own backyard, worked with California FarmLink to find a lease for her first four acres.
This relationship was pivotal this past year when Moua lost her lease because the owners sold the land. California FarmLink helped her purchase her own land when they helped her collect data to submit to the USDA, reflecting how much profit she made per acre every year. While her profits have been cut due to having to limit the number of crops she grows, she at least has a more secure piece of land.
“You have to find a way to inspire and pick yourself and move forward. It’s a niche that we all have to do individually,” she said.
Farming, as a profession, is complicated.
While farming is a public service, it often comes with stigmas in a society that equates success with monetary gain. “Farmers are usually the lowest social status in any culture,” Habib said, who experiences this tension even in her own family, when they compare their vocations to hers. But she believes that having autonomy over her work is more fulfilling than seeing out someone else’s vision.
As Yisrael pointed out, young people of color may struggle with the painful history of slavery and farming, knowing that their ancestors were forced to perform hard physical labor in order to support white, male-dominated farms. More so, farmers of color have also been systemically discriminated against and pushed off of their land through racist policies. Because of generational trauma, young farmers may be steered away from farming by their older family members and want their children to pursue other professions that are considered more profitable. However, growing food can also be a way for farmers of color to reclaim their power and sovereignty in a food system where inequities persist.
We need to cultivate young farmers now more than ever.
A growing concern in agriculture is that the farmers are getting older, and there aren’t enough new farmers stepping in to replace them, due to the many barriers to entry. According to a 2016 report from the USDA, only six percent of farmers are under the age of 35. To help cultivate young people’s interest in agriculture, Zamora invites students from local schools and universities to visit his farm in Aromas, California, to learn more about the profession and the importance of sustainable farming. “We are here for a short period of time. When we leave, the land has to be here for future generations to benefit from it,” he said.
Today’s farmers must adapt to climate change.
Selling produce locally reduces a farm’s carbon footprint by using less fossil fuels for transportation, but there are many climate-wise practices that farmers can employ on the farm to support healthy ecosystems. All of the farmers cited healthy soil practices, composting, planting native plants, attracting pollinators, and integrating solar energy.
“I feel like I have to relearn the climate every year,” Habib said of farming in a state increasingly beleaguered by heatwaves, droughts, and wildfires. One response is looking at certain types of crops and species that do better with warmer climates. Yisrael noted that he has been farming Ethiopian kale, which performs better in soil that has suffered from droughts.
Tech companies need to support small farmers.
Large Bay Area tech companies often provide perks such as an in-house kitchen and snacks for thousands of workers, meaning that a lot of buying power is concentrated in these companies’ cafeterias. While buying from larger farms and distributors is often easier, tech companies can make a huge impact by shifting their sourcing to local farms.
“I don’t think it’s a production problem at all,” said Habib of small farmers being able to meet the needs of these large companies. “The power is in who is in charge of the kitchen…and they may resort to the easier way, working with a larger distributor.”
Organic farming isn’t always pretty.
Moua also noted the unreasonably high produce standards of some shoppers, who sometimes complain about imperfections or bugs in the products they buy from organic farmers. Her solution is treating it as a learning process for her customers, wherein she tells them to simply throw out the caterpillar they find in their chili peppers and that they are still good to eat. “I tell them ‘If the insects are eating it, you know you have something good in your hands!’” she said.
You play a vital role in supporting the next generation of farmers.
There are many ways to support the next generation of small family farmers, particularly farmers of color. The most obvious is buying directly at your local farmers markets, because the majority of that dollar goes directly to the farmer, rather than to a large, corporate grocer. If you buy from a grocer that does source locally, investigate its sources and recommend additional local farms you know to support.
One specific way to help small family farmers gain access to land and loans is to donate to FarmLink Investment Notes, a community capital strategy to support its loan fund, with an emphasis on providing funding for immigrants, womxn, and farmers of color.
Another resource is the California Farmer Justice Collaborative, which works to systematically address structural oppression for farmers of color and promote a fair food and farming system. They worked to pass the Farmer Equity Act of 2017, a bill that requires the California Department of Agriculture to ensure the inclusion of socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers in agricultural policy and programs. You can learn more and support their work here.
Chanowk also recommends Soul Fire Farm’s Food Sovereignty Action Steps for many more recommendations and resources for ending racism in the food system, from policy reform to individual actions.
“There are a lot of powerful people that can make a change, we just need to convince them that they should do it,” Zamora said.
Listen to the full audio from Sowing an Equitable Future for Farmers.