Some Minnesota farmers of color started their farms for business reasons, some to raise the crops they grew up eating in other parts of the world, and others to strengthen community bonds and increase access to healthy food.
But all who spoke at a recent roundtable felt a similar constraint: farming in America is an overwhelmingly white, aging field where most farmers harvest on large stretches of inherited land—issues they say are reflected in federal agriculture policy.
“We have a farm bill that wasn’t crafted for us,” said Metric Giles of the Urban Farm and Garden Alliance.
Several Minnesota farmers of color suggested updates to the federal farm bill during a roundtable discussion Wednesday hosted by DFL Senator Tina Smith.
The farm bill is a massive piece of federal legislation that impacts how farmers earn a living, how food is grown, and even what food is grown. The bill includes crop insurance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to provide food access for low-income households, grant programs and subsidies, and infrastructure like rural broadband internet. Traditionally, a new farm bill is passed every five years, and the current version expires in September 2023.
Smith listened to a group of farmers of color and farmers who come from immigrant backgrounds at The Good Acre in Falcon Heights, and asked how a new version of the bill could work better for them. Smith and fellow Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar are on the Agriculture Committee, which plays a significant role in drafting the legislation.
“There are outdated policies that have led to systemic disparities in farming,” Smith said.
Of the estimated 68,822 farms in Minnesota, the vast majority are operated by white farmers, according to the 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture. Latino farmers run 583 farms in the state; Asian farmers run 281; and African American farmers run 48.
The field is also aging; the average American farmer is 58 years old, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data.
Access to land is a major barrier to new farmers, especially people of color and immigrants, panelists said Wednesday. Moses Momanyi came to the United States from Kenya in 2004, and has been farming since 2009. Today, he has about 20 acres of land in Cambridge at his family farm Dawn2Dusk, and helps other immigrant farmers get started through a nonprofit training program called Kilimo.
He asked for the updated farm bill to include down payment assistance for emerging farmers, and for amendments that would allow large landowners to receive tax incentives to lease land to new farmers. That could create more incubator systems that would help newcomers get started, he said.
Momanyi traveled to Washington D.C. last month and met with Smith to discuss the farm bill. He’s been able to help other immigrants start farming with his land and experience, but knows more support is needed to mentor farmers on a larger scale.
“At some point, we need to have resources out there to support this kind of work,” Momanyi said.
For immigrants, navigating bureaucratic systems to apply for small grants or loans to acquire land can be a challenge. Jane Windsperger, who came to Minnesota from Kenya, said that she struggled to navigate complex grant applications in English. Although she speaks English fluently, she still got caught up in minor details when applying for a grant to pay for fencing.
Windsperger wanted to put up a fence to keep wildlife out of her vegetables, but was rejected because the grant was for fencing to keep farm animals penned up. She said those forms could be modified for clarity to help farmers whose first language isn’t English.
The average Minnesota farm is 375 acres and large operations typically produce commodity crops like soybeans, corn, and grains. Participants in Wednesday’s panel said current federal farm policies are set up to help those farms, not the smaller parcels available to people of color and immigrants.
Rodrigo Cala, who grew up in Mexico, farms in western Wisconsin, and helps other immigrant farmers get started through his work with the Latino Economic Development Center.
Cala is an organic farmer specializing in vegetables. He said the federal government needs to think about ways to help small farmers who are growing healthy food, instead of large farmers harvesting corn for ethanol production. He also thinks the farm bill should include more programs to help farmers adapt to climate change.
Cala is a well-known organic farming consultant in the upper Midwest who works with farmers from around the world. But he’d never attended a political discussion with so many farmers from different backgrounds.
“I really like the diversity we’ve seen here,” he said.
Smith said she is optimistic that the farm bill will pass through a divided government in Washington D.C., and said she will try to incorporate amendments about access to land and funding based on feedback she received Wednesday.
“It’s about really turning the USDA around so that doors are open to new farmers, especially farmers of color,” Smith said.
Agriculture committee hearings on the farm bill started last year with field hearings where members of Congress solicited input from constituents, similar to the roundtable hosted by Smith. Formal committee hearings on the bill are ongoing, with a goal of sending a new farm bill to President Joe Biden to sign in the early fall.