Above: Amira Iwuala (left) and Morgan McKinney, 28th Class Emerson Fellows.
Born and raised in Boston, I have unfortunately been blinded to the realities that Black farmers have faced in the U.S. Accustomed to urban poverty and food insecurity due to my own lived experience, the experiences of rural poverty in communities of color were unfamiliar to me. Moving to Kentucky for my field placement at Community Farm Alliance (CFA) was not only a culture shock but an enlightening experience that gave me the opportunity to get a snapshot of the experiences of Black farmers in Appalachia and the rural South, and how white-led organizations may unknowingly act as gatekeepers and reflect structural racism.
Racism has long shaped the landscape of agriculture that we see today in the U.S. The percentage of Black-owned farms has declined significantly over the past few decades to less than 2% of all U.S. farms. From a false promise of 40 acres and a mule to the institution of the Jim Crow regime after Reconstruction, rural Black Americans have been forced to build their farming communities from scratch. Land ownership is an imperative source of economic and political power that Blacks farmers have been divested of, making them unable to gain credit to acquire and keep land and reach equitable economic outcomes. The unequal distribution of programs implemented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that have been salient in protecting vulnerable farmers from an inherently risky industry has had significant and disproportionate impact on rural communities of color, especially rural Black communities. Berea, Kentucky—a vibrant small town filled with history of racial justice in rural Appalachia and home of the first racially integrated and co-educational college in the South—is the home of my field site placement. CFA is a small non-profit organization that primarily advocates for urban and rural small-scale farmers in Kentucky by providing them a political platform to speak on agricultural policies that impact their farms and livelihoods through leadership development and grassroots democratic practices.
In Kentucky, less than 450 of the more than 76,000 agriculture operations are represented by Black farmers. Decades of exclusion and discriminatory practices have led to a near disappearance of Black farmers in Kentucky, further exacerbating racial economic inequities and contributing to the high rates of hunger in Kentucky’s Black communities. In order to eradicate food insecurity and poverty in these communities, the power of local food systems, and Black farmers’ contributions to these food systems, should not be underestimated. Black farmers are valuable assets to addressing food insecurity in Black communities.
In recent years, CFA has made it a part of their mission to be more intentional and proactive in addressing issues of equity and diversity in the systems and institutions they seek to influence. To address the dearth of understanding of the challenges that Black farmers face in Kentucky, CFA launched the Black Farmers’ Needs Assessment to create a space of listening and identify opportunities for interventions that are defined by Black farmers. It recognized that community needs are an integral part of creating a pathway towards racial equity and provided the framework to identify the manner in which local and statewide resources can target the needs of Black farmers.
The needs assessment also informed and inspired my field placement project. I co-created a Black Farmers’ toolkit that was a compilation of materials specifically for Black farmers. This evolving toolkit serves as just a scaffold of the intentional equity work for farmers of color in Kentucky including business development tools , financial assistance, and mental health resources. With the guidance of community food justice organizer Tiffany Bellfield El-Amin and deep understanding of the needs and assets of Black farmers in Kentucky through literature, interviews, and podcasts, we identified topics for the toolkit that highlighted a range of resources that Black farmers can use to make their operations more sustainable, profitable, and connected to their communities.
Besides researching USDA financial and technical assistance programs, I researched organizations that are specifically grounded in empowering and supporting Black farmers, such as Kentucky’s local NAACP chapters for legal aid and voting assistance and agritourism organizations like Black Soil Kentucky, a group that is doing work to broaden the reach and exposure of Black producers. In addition, I was able to support coalition building efforts by connecting with local Black food leaders and institutions that are doing racial equity work. I spoke with extension service agents and faculty at Kentucky State University, a historically Black land-grant university, that serves and provides technical assistance to Black farmers.
Creating this toolkit does not completely remediate generational trauma of and distrust in federal government agencies by Black farmers. An integral component of the toolkit was not just providing the information for local farm service agencies but also providing specific and trusted contacts in these departments for Black farmers to reach out to. This also supported CFA’s work in developing effective partnerships with these agencies to hold them accountable to supporting Black farmers and ameliorating the relationships between Black farmers and these agencies. Equitable resource sharing is part of the solution to address the unequal access to resources and empower communities to have the autonomy to make decisions that will make their farms sustainable.
Although many of the Black food leaders that I interviewed had their own visions on how Black farming should be restored, they all agreed on one thing: efforts to support the viability of Black farming and land ownership should be defined by Black farmers themselves and not by gatekeeping organizations. They are completely right. Lived experience should not only be a way to identify gaps in policy but also be used to define and co-create policy solutions. Unfortunately, white supremacy has disadvantaged farmers of color by centering an exclusively white vision of what food system reform should look like based on their priorities.
White-led organizations may at times unintentionally gatekeep resources from communities of color by not incorporating their persectives and unique situations in policy solutions. Instead, their role should be utilizing their privilege to open doors to give these communities institutional access and agency to make change themselves, and provide community-based organizations with the tools to define restorative food justice by their own means. Resources are being gatekept from the communities that need them most, partially because organizations are not intentionality broadening their reach and making this information more accessible. White-led organizations should partner with organizations that work closely with Black farmers and formulate collective vision of community-driven solutions. White-led organizations should also take a step back and reexamine how their practices may be sustaining the racial inequities that they are aiming to combat.
This experience also filled me with an enduring connection to the land that extends beyond my future small backyard farm. It made me realize why Black communities have a profound but complicated relationship with American soil; a relationship that has been strained due to trauma from the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, and the intentional dispossession of land from Black families. But there is beauty in the struggle, and it has deepened my appreciation for Black farmers. Black farmers are an embodiment of fortitude and resilience that derives from their deep ties to agricultural production that continue to nourish their communities. I will continue to support efforts that reclaim self-sufficiency for Black farmers so that they can continue to feed their communities culturally relevant and affordable produce. In farming, tilling is to turn and agitate the soil to prepare for crop farming. I argue that to cultivate an equitable food system, advocates must embrace tilling current white supremacist practices that gratifies the food-justice ideals of white-led organizations and erases the histories and concerns of Black farmers and low-income communities of color.