When farmer-activists Olivia Watkins and Karen Washington met at a conference in 2017, they recognized there weren’t any programs geared towards Black farmers that addressed their economic needs. So they set out to fill the gap.
“Farmers have one chance in a season to get it right. There were great organizations educating Black farmers, but there was not an organization pooling capital and giving it through a grant or a loan to Black folks to close the racial wealth gap,” says Watkins. “There’s no incentive to Black farmers to feed Black communities at all.”
While most people know that enslaved Africans were brought to America in order to do the hard work of building a country, perhaps it is less well known that not only was their physical labor desired but also their agricultural knowledge and skill in cultivating the land. After the Civil War, African Americans continued to grow crops either as sharecroppers or by owning the land they farmed outright—100 years ago, they made up 14 percent of the country’s farmers. Today, Black farmers represent only 1.4 percent of the industry.
The amount of Black farmers in the US has been on the decline for decades. According to the USDA, the number of Black farmers peaked in 1910, when they owned an estimated 16 to 19 million acres. That number has dropped to less than three million acres today.
Although there is a variety of factors for this decline, the major causes are systemic governmental racism and lack of access to finances.
Not long after their meeting, Watkins and Washington launched the Black Farmer Fund, which welcomed its first cohort of recipients this year. The fund provides capital and resources such as business coaching to Black farmers. The organization aims to build community power and wealth, while working to shift and change the way food justice happens.
It’s important work because, according to Watkins, the average income for an American farmer is $42,000 per year, while the average income for a Black farmer is -$906 per year. The economic disparity creates larger issues than just a lack of Black farmers. “This is why there is food apartheid in certain communities,” says Watkins. “This is why we are so disconnected from our food, because our communities are not producing food, and the ones that are producing are struggling.”
The Black Farmer Fund was especially meaningful during the pandemic, when Black farmers were hit hard economically. Watkins saw the need to create an emergency relief fund where farmers could access capital quickly. So they launched a special grant to pay down personal or business debt, assist with labor costs or purchase equipment and infrastructure such as greenhouses. “Farming is a challenging experience. There were a lot of emergencies happening in our community and we didn’t want people to dip into their investment capital,” says Watkins. Additionally, a rapid response fund for farmers who were not in the fund’s portfolio was created in order to distribute funding on a wider scale.
The level of thoughtfulness and dedication is part of what attracted farmer Denise Scott of 716CBD and Black House Growers to the Black Farmer Fund. Part of the first cohort of recipients that includes farmers, herbalists and collectives from across New York state, Scott compared the Black Farmer Fund staff to feeling like family. “As you start to meet people behind the scenes, you start to build up a family with them…Some of these people have stayed in my home,” she says. “We grew up in this as a family.”
Located on the New York side of Niagara Falls, Scott’s 716CBD is a holistic healing space where she makes and sells butters, tinctures, salts and scrubs. Her microfarm, Black House Growers, occupies just one-tenth of an acre, and every inch is covered with mint, chamomile, tomatoes, cabbage, celery, cucumber, peppers, kale and collard. She plans to add flowers and sweet potatoes, too. Ultimately, Scott wants to own 100 acres and give some of the land to the Black Farmer Fund. “It always goes back to the earth,” says Scott. “When you start talking about farm to table—that’s sustaining on your own.”
Scott has historical family ties to farming as well. Her father was a farmer in North Carolina, and when she started learning more and more about food justice and shortages, she knew she needed to start farming herself. “I started looking at Black people being able to sustain and how were we able to sustain prior to this. Everyone’s mother had a garden in the backyard,” she says. “I went back to what my ancestors did for centuries.”
The Black Farmer Fund’s first cohort also includes: Black Yard Farm Collective, a collective of Black farmers that creates space for the community to learn about farming; Trinity Farms, a small fruit orchard in Clintondale, New York; and Farm Fresh Caribbean Growers, which produces hard-to-find Caribbean produce in New York. In total, the organization provided funding for eight farms, and the growing demand for education about farming in local communities and the broadening of the agricultural space to Black farmers emphasizes that there is still more work to be done.
Even with all the obstacles that Black farmers face, there is still abundant hope. “Black farmers are incredibly resilient, gifted and talented people,” says Watkins. “There is that ancestral lineage of being agricultural experts and sustaining communities.”