Farmer Alena Steen

Farmer Alena Steen points out that a lack of diversity in leadership positions in agriculture is a missed opportunity.

I’ve spent my last few columns discussing the state of agriculture in the Carpinteria Valley. I’ve considered the context of land being lost to agriculture via urban development and a farmer population that is “aging-out” without being able to pass farmland to the next generation. Another consistent theme is the importance of building farming systems and economies that are more resilient in the face of a rapidly changing climate. However, this complex patchwork of needs and services – augmented by the realities of drought, wildfire and disrupted national supply chains – is just one part of the story of sustainable agriculture. Another important part of the conversation, both locally and nationally, is equity.      

Truly sustainable agriculture and farmland access considers the economic, environmental and social consequences of farming practices and models. This means that our shifting agricultural paradigm must include not only climate-wise and water-conserving farming practices, but social and racial justice within land ownership and food access. 

I wrote about food insecurity and disparate access to healthy, nutritious food in Carpinteria in an article for the CVN in Feb. 2019. Many of the facts remain the same: within the Carpinteria Unified School District, according to recent census data, roughly 62% of the student population is eligible for free or reduced-price meals. While the Carpinteria Valley and Santa Barbara County remain powerhouses of agricultural production, much of this fresh produce is exported out of the county (about 99%). We live in a land of abundance, which conceals the fact that many of us are unable to access fresh, nutritious food. Although the data available online is not fine-grained enough to account for a breakdown of food insecurity along lines of race and ethnicity within Carpinteria, state and county-level demographics show that a disparate proportion of food-insecure people are people of color. 

This disparity is also reflected on the production side of agriculture. According to the most recent Census of Agriculture for Santa Barbara County, only 2.5% of farms are owned and operated by non-white farmers. Meanwhile, according to field data from a local farmworker-advocacy non-profit, CAUSE, roughly 91.3% of farmworkers are Latinx. This is statistically consistent across the country and represents a deeply unequal power dynamic which exposes people of color to the many and varied risks of farming (low wages, demanding physical labor, chemical exposure, workplace accidents, etc.) without any of the benefits of farmland and farm ownership (the ability to accrue generational wealth, build capital, protect and conserve land, etc.). 

A lack of diversity in leadership positions in agriculture is a missed opportunity. Agriculture is only enriched by a greater pool of farming knowledge and skills, since there are many traditions of truly sustainable agriculture from all over the world where people have been successfully producing food for their local communities in ways that conserve and even increase natural resources for millennia. Many modern “permaculture” and organic or no-till practices are not recent discoveries – instead, they stem from traditional farming practices from many different corners of the world. 

If we can agree that access to fresh, nutritious and affordable food is a human right, and that a diversity of farmland and farm-based business ownership enriches agriculture, we can begin to problem solve to truly reflect a more inclusive and ethical farm future. One critical part of the solution is to make sure that people of color are included in leadership and land ownership positions within agriculture via increased resources to own and maintain farms. 

There is a long history of inequality and racism which is partly to blame for the lack of non-white farmland ownership and operation. One striking example is the long-term racial profiling and loan-denial practices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA is a primary driver of farmland ownership, primarily via loans for land purchase and business expansion. The USDA has a well-documented history of discrimination against minority farmers, including documentation from within the agency itself. The USDA is working to correct these systemic patterns by creating increased opportunities for farmland and business loans for farmers of color, though there is still much improvement needed. 

In addition, many non-profits across the country are engaging in promising works of farmland access and equity. Many land banks are beginning to prioritize farmland conservation, as well as creating low-cost, long-term rental opportunities which are available specifically for younger farmers without access to generational wealth or farmland, many of whom are Black, Indigenous or Latinx. If you’re interested in learning more about this aspect of sustainable farming, one great resource is Soul Fire Farm, a Hudson-Valley based Black and Indigenous-led farm with lots of online resources for land and food access and equity, as well as farm-based training programs for young farmers of color. Additionally, the Agrarian Trust is a nationwide non-profit committed to transitioning intact farmland to next-generation farmers with a focus on equity with several California-based initiatives. If you are a farm or landowner interested in exploring alternative models of farm succession, there are also resources available online at California FarmLink and Land for Good. 

 

 

Alena Steen is the former coordinator for the Carpinteria Garden Park. She and her partner now own and operate a small, diverse flower and herb farm just behind town. You can learn more at nightheronfarm.org.

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