How to uplift Black farmers and food entrepreneurs

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Today, only 1.4 percent of American farmers identify themselves as black or mixed race, compared to about 14 percent 100 years ago. Systemic discriminatory policies and practices, such as those related to land and financial access, have led to the decline. How can we reverse it and ensure black farmers become part of a sustainable food system?

The Black Farmer Fund, co-founded by Olivia Watkins and Karen Washington, is one organization making strides on this issue. The New York-based nonprofit last year raised its first $1 million fund and distributed approximately $600,000 to businesses to promote the prosperity and health of the black community in the American Northeast.

I reached out to Watkins to understand the lessons she’s learned along the way and to get her recommendations on how food and farming companies can best support the black food and farming community.

Building trust and long-term relationships

When Watkins and Washington began work on the Black Farmer Fund in 2017, their goal was to create a new financial institution that black farmers and food entrepreneurs could trust to offset the long history of discrimination they had experienced over generations.

“A lot of shady things have happened in financial institutions, and that has affected our work,” Watkins said. She believes examples of this “shadowiness” include black farmers receiving higher interest rates than their white counterparts and young black farmers being unable to access credit because of higher student debt. Financial access for black farmers has been lacking in both private institutions and public funds such as USDA grants and loans, which intentionally discriminate against black people and have created large wealth inequalities.

Watkins and her team are working closely with their Northeast regional community to rebuild some of that trust and offer financing options that meet the needs of small businesses. The organization invests in long-term relationships with food and agriculture entrepreneurs, offering a wide range of grants and loans with flexible terms and patient capital with higher risk tolerance and longer repayment periods.

The Black Farmer Fund’s work with Soumppou Kaffo is a success story. The cooperative has 55 members who are West African and Muslim immigrants and supplies the New York City metro area with halal meat and culturally relevant vegetables such as African eggplant and okra. The cooperative is short on resources because its Muslim roots do not allow the farmers to take regular credit. To meet his specific needs, Watkins is working with a specialist law firm in Dubai to structure a Sharia-compliant loan that respects culture and religion.

“One of the most challenging parts of this work was understanding how we balance getting enough information from farmers to make decisions and respecting self-determination,” said Watkins. “So learn to trust that people are capable of making good investment decisions.”

One way the fund practices this value is by filling seats on its investment committee with people from the communities it seeks to serve — giving them full decision-making authority, rather than just using them as advisors or figureheads.

More than money

Aside from fine-tuning how to increase access to finance and prepare for larger payouts, Watkins also understands that financial support alone is not enough to make black farmers and food entrepreneurs thrive.

Grantees have found the fund to be a reliable and trusted resource and often turn to it as their first port of call for other challenges they are working on. In response, the Black Farmer Fund has prepared to provide technical support and peer learning networks. It also curates a community of trusted service providers that its grantees can lean on for everything from accounting best practices to filing civil rights complaints.

They would like to see more tailored programs for such farmers outside of the regular distribution channels of the companies that respond to their production capabilities.

“We now believe that funding is just a foot in the door,” Watkins told me. “People will need different things along the way as their business grows, and we want to work with them as they keep going and expanding, even if they face challenges along the way.”

Replicate what you learn

The Black Farmer Fund intends to continue to deepen its work in New York and the surrounding states rather than expand geographically. And even if they wanted to expand their reach, one organization alone could never dig up the deep roots of racial discrimination. So what lessons can other organizations, including large food and agriculture companies, apply to their justice efforts?

One of Watkins’ recommendations harks back to the approach the Black Farmer Fund took for its investment committee — entrusting decision-making authority to the community it’s trying to serve. This practice has provided more nuanced information to the fund’s investment decisions and, more importantly, has helped distribute power. So when corporations ask black people to serve on committees or advise programs, Watkins urges corporations not only to listen to their advice, but to let them make decisions.

[Interested in learning how we can transform food systems to equitably and efficiently feed a more populous planet while conserving and regenerating the natural world? Check out the VERGE 22 Food Program, taking place in San Jose, CA, Oct. 25-28.]

Another way to ensure that corporate racial justice programs are truly serving marginalized communities is to work with local grassroots organizations. According to Watkins, smaller organizations with long and deep local ties are best placed to ensure that resources go furthest and are distributed democratically. Beyond financial donations, companies could also consider what unique training opportunities or technical resources they could access and offer to black farmers and food business operators.

Finally, there can be benefits as companies build supplier relationships with black farmers. But Watkins has observed that company sourcing programs are often too rigid, with unwavering ordering requirements and product standards that prohibit marginalized farmers from participating.

She would like more tailor-made programs for such farmers outside of the regular distribution channels of the companies that react to their production capacities. Upfront payment options could also allow farmers to invest in their production before harvest, rather than waiting until the next planting season to make improvements.

There are many ways for companies to help black farming communities in the United States thrive again. Starting with one of them and iterating along the way will be more important than waiting for the perfect solution.

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