How to Raise Black Farmers and Food Entrepreneurs

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Today, only 1.4% of American farmers identify as black or mixed race, compared to about 14% 100 years ago. Systemic discriminatory policies and practices, for example regarding access to land and finance, have led to this decline. How can we turn the tide, ensuring that black farmers are part of a sustainable food system?

Co-founded by Olivia Watkins and Karen Washington, Black Farmer Fund is an organization that is making progress on this issue. The New York-based nonprofit raised its first $1 million fund last year and has donated approximately $600,000 to companies to foster wealth and health for the black community in the north -is American.

I checked in with Watkins to understand the lessons she learned along the way and to get her recommendations on how food and agriculture businesses could best support the black food and agriculture community.

Build trusting and long-term relationships

When Watkins and Washington began working 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 faced in the workplace. over the generations.

“A lot of shady things have happened in financial institutions, and that has informed our work,” Watkins said. Examples of this ‘shadow’, she says, include black farmers who get higher interest rates than their white peers and young black farmers who don’t qualify for loans due to higher levels of student debt. . Financial access for black farmers is lacking in both private institutions and public funding, such as USDA grants and loans that have intentionally discriminate against blacks and have resulted in a large gap of wealth.

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

The work of the Black Farmer Fund with Soumppou Kaffo is a success. The cooperative farm has 55 members who are West African and Muslim immigrants and serves the greater New York area with halal meat and culturally relevant vegetables such as African eggplant and okra. The cooperative has limited resources because its Muslim roots do not allow farmers to accept a regular loan. To meet his particular need, Watkins engaged with a specialist law firm in Dubai to structure a loan that was Shariah-compliant and respectful of culture and religion.

“One of the hardest parts of this work has been figuring out how we can balance getting enough information from farmers to make decisions and respecting self-determination,” Watkins said. “So learning to believe that people are capable of making good investment decisions.”

One of the ways the fund puts this value into practice is by filling its investment committee seats with people from the communities they try to serve – and giving them full decision-making power rather than just using them. as advisers or figureheads.

More than money

Beyond tweaking how to improve access to financial resources and prepare to disburse larger sums, Watkins also understood that financial support alone is not enough to ensure the success of black farmers and food entrepreneurs. .

Grantees have come to know the fund as a reliable and trusted resource and often turn to it as their first point of contact for other challenges they face. In response, the Black Farmer Fund has prepared to provide technical assistance and peer learning networks. It also curates a community of trusted service providers that their beneficiaries can rely on for everything from accounting best practices to filing civil rights complaints.

They like to see more personalized programs for these farmers outside of the usual company distribution channels that cater to their production capabilities.

“We now think funding is just a foot in the door,” Watkins told me. “People will need other things along the way as their businesses grow, and we want to work alongside them as they progress and grow, even if they encounter challenges along the way.”

Replicating Lessons Learned

The Black Farmer Fund aims to continue to deepen its work in New York and surrounding states rather than expanding geographically. And even if they wanted to expand their reach, a single organization could never unearth the deep roots of racial discrimination. So what lessons can other organizations, including large food and agriculture companies, incorporate into their equity efforts?

One of Watkins’ recommendations goes back to the approach the Black Farmer Fund has taken for its investment committee – handing over decision-making capabilities to the community one is trying to serve. This practice has equipped the fund’s investment decisions with more nuanced information and, more importantly, has helped distribute power. So when companies ask black people to serve on committees or advise programs, Watkins urges companies to not only listen to their advice, but also let them make the 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 truly serve marginalized communities is to work with grassroots grassroots organizations. For Watkins, small organizations with long and deep local ties can better ensure that resources reach farthest and are distributed democratically. Beyond financial donations, companies could also consider what unique training opportunities or technical resources they have access to and could offer to Black farmers and food entrepreneurs.

Finally, benefits can materialize when companies establish supplier relationships with black farmers. But Watkins observed that corporate procurement programs are often too rigid with unwavering requirements on purchase orders and product standards, barring marginalized farmers from participating.

She would like to see more personalized programs for these farmers outside of the usual corporate distribution channels that cater to their production capabilities. Upfront payment options could also allow farmers to invest in their production before harvest rather than waiting for 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 and iterating along the way will be more important than waiting for the perfect solution.

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