Finding Solidarity in Fields of Color

The Color of Food’s Natasha Bowens discusses the need for diversity in agricultural media and organizations.

by Nicole L. Garner

In early May, I took a trip to Fort Scott, Kansas, 20 miles from where I live in Missouri, to visit a Tractor Supply Co. store. My fiancé David and I were venturing there for some gardening supplies in an effort to expand our organic garden, which is part of the mini-homestead lifestyle we’ve been working to create.

Pulling into the parking lot, I pointed out two men with a cattle trailer — something not at all unusual where we live (our only neighbors are cows, after all). We gawked. It was the men repairing a trailer tire — two black men.

And then, we laughed. Of the two of us in the car, one is a person of color (me), and I couldn’t believe we were staring, in awe, at two people who also have an interest in agriculture, but just so happened to be black.

Afterwards, I felt strangely happy and almost resolved, to see someone like me also involved in handling livestock and moving hay bales.

While farmers of color are in the minority, they make up nearly 4.5 percent of farmers who work with livestock or crops as a primary form of employment (called primary operators), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Because of how the USDA records ethnicity and race, that statistic does not include Hispanic and Latino farmers, who make up 3.1 percent of primary operators; the USDA Agriculture Census states that 94 percent of Hispanic and Latino farmers report their race as white.

Those numbers are only for the primary operators of farms, and do not include part-time or volunteer farm workers.

So, if minority agriculture workers have a stake in the market, albeit small, then how come I was surprised to see black farmers, especially as a black woman involved in agriculture? Why is it that I wasn’t used to seeing farmers outside of the Old MacDonald stereotype of white, middle-aged and male — what Slate called the “white, rural corn farmer in a state that starts with the letter ‘I.’”

Since the 1990s, newspapers have reported the eminent decline of minority farmers, specifically black farmers. The Washington Post called black farming a “dying business” in 1990, and The New York Times called black farmers an “increasingly endangered species” two years later. Both articles cited a lack of interest by younger generation farmers, and the struggles of being taken seriously in the agriculture industry. These calls for the doom of diversity in agriculture can only have fueled the notion that minority farmers aren’t interested in working land and livestock. Some farmers have recognized that this continued trend of excluding minorities from portrayals of farming hasn’t made the situation better.

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Author and farmer Natasha Bowens calls the feeling I had at the Tractor Supply Co. store “solidarity.” Bowens, who is biracial, set out to research the relationship communities and people of color have with agriculture after looking for other farmers like herself. Her book, The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming, released on May 5, highlights the experiences of farmers of color, a demographic that’s often ignored or unknown, or only shown as being a cog in a low-paying migrant profession. Bowens’ book is one of few that celebrates minority farmers and takes a stand against lackluster imagery that perpetuates the idea that farmers of color do not exist.

The feeling of solidarity — knowing that you’re not a lone person of color involved in agriculture — is one she’s heard from many farmers and communities who have struggled to see themselves reflected in agriculture organizations and media.

Bowens started her venture into agriculture on what she calls a “small scale” in 2009. Her focus was to immerse herself in creating a self-sufficient lifestyle and to understand the process of food production. Since then, Bowens has left a career in youth advocacy in Washington D.C. to participate in volunteer farming programs like the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), which placed her at farms around the country, and the Beginning Farmer Training Program, which trains farmers in Maryland. Both programs pair beginning farmers with seasoned agriculturists to teach hands-on farming skills through regular farm work. Bowens also works with youth and urban farmers in Maryland, where she manages a community garden effort for the Housing Authority of  the City of Frederick.

Like many individuals who “break molds” by entering non-stereotypical professions or hobbies, Bowens says she still encounters shock from people who discover her involvement in agriculture.

“People look at me — it still happens now. [They say] ‘Oh, you’re a farmer? Are you sure?’ It’s not initially accepted that an African-American woman wants to raise livestock,” she told me, laughing.

Bowens says this reaction comes from all kinds of people. In the first pages of The Color of Food, which is one of a few books to discuss and celebrate the intersection of ethnicity and agriculture, Bowens describes how her black friends were confused by her interest in farming. They pushed back at the idea of being involved in farming themselves because of its ties to slavery and sharecropping.

Participants in a juvenile work program at Soul Fire Farm in New York, which offers farm work as an alternative to jail time for theft, said they didn’t expect to work alongside people of color. One teenager was surprised to find out that the experience wasn’t at all like slavery.

And photo essay about black cowboys and ranchers spotlighted on Buzzfeed in Feburary 2015 highlighted similar reactions from readers who didn’t know that black people would have an interest in working with livestock.

Searching for farmers of color, like herself, pushed Bowens to discuss the farming and ethnicity on her blog, Brown. Girl. Farming, which she began writing in 2010. That same year, she began working with Grist, an environmental magazine, which gave Bowens a national platform to encourage conversations about farmers of color, and challenge the idea that they are a demographic unworthy of inclusion.

“I started hearing from farmers [of color] nationwide. They were saying ‘I’m happy to know I’m not alone,’” she says. “It was then that I was hearing this overwhelming voice of communities of color. People need to hear from them. Why aren’t we hearing from them? They’re out there, and they have powerful voices.”

With those experiences in tow, Bowens traveled the U.S. for five months in search of farmers of color who would share their stories for The Color of Food. During her trip in 2012, she interviewed more than 75 farmers of color.

“First, it was kind of poking around and saying, where are all the people? I know we’re out here. Why does it look like we’re not represented?” she says. “I started searching for that solidarity and for other folks like myself.”

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The stereotypical image of an American farmer is white, middle-aged and wearing plaid. While women increasingly begin to take leadership roles in agriculture, the stereotype remains the same. And, it continues to exclude people of color.

Bowens has two questions: “I think the question to ask is why aren’t we being represented? Why aren’t folks at the decision-making table?” Those tables include farming organizations, committees and programs at local and national levels.

Bowens says she’s attended events that focused on diversity in agriculture that fell short because they didn’t feature those voices.

“I’ve been to conferences that are supposed to be about these kinds of conversations, talking about racism, and the whole entire panel is all white academics. It’s mind-boggling, and we have a long way to go.”

Even with the boom of urban agriculture occurring in many inner-city areas, people of color are often left out of the picture. Features like New YorkMagazine’s “What an Urban Farmer Looks Like” only included one person of color (which Bowens said shocked her). Commercials for the American Farm Bureau Federation, one of the country’s largest farm organizations and insurance providers, regularly omit people of color from their commercials and video tributes to farmers. Even FarmersOnly.com, a dating site for lonely farmers looking for love, consistently excludes farmers of color from its marketing efforts, and reinforces the idea that only country bumpkins understand farming with its tagline: “City folks just don’t get it.”

This persisting idea that people of color, and entire communities of color, aren’t involved in agriculture — or can’t afford to have ownership roles in agriculture — is a stretch.

The number of minority farmers who work in agriculture as their primary job, currently at 4.5 percent, has grown since the last census in 2007, where 4.08 percent of primary operators identified as not white.

In addition, the agriculture census can’t touch on the number of ethnic farmers who have turned away from the profession due to persistent hurdles. In 2013, nearly 17,000 black farmers were awarded funds from a settlement with the USDA for racially biased practices that unfairly denied loans and financial assistance for farming fees, equipment and start-up costs between 1981 and 1996. This settlement came years after a class action lawsuit in 1997, and after President Obama signed a bill that authorized payments to farmers. But, during years of litigation and following the bill, backlash ensued.  At one point, political commentator Rush Limbaugh called the settlement payments “backdoor reparations,” a term used to suggest the payments were a financial means of apologizing to African Americans for slavery.

“It was this kind of really coincidental parallel [to The Color of Food research] to be looking at what’s behind all the reasons why farmers of color have lower numbers and are less supported. It really traces back to systematic racial discrimination,” Bowens says.

Bowens anticipated apprehension from farmers and communities of color following harsh media criticisms of the black farmers settlement, and considered those feelings to be  fully justifiable. Instead, she was embraced during her research.

“I think they were shocked by a brown girl showing up in an old station wagon that wanted to talk about farming,” she says.

She expected to discover anger at systematic practices and biases that made land ownership and agricultural involvement more difficult, but was surprised to discover a “refreshing” approach from those she interviewed.

“I had a lot of farmers really content and almost advocating for independence [from the traditional farming system of large farms and government subsidies] and not wanting to work with the system at all, not wanting to get tied up in the politics of it all,” she says. “Many are carrying out family traditions on land that’s been in their family for hundreds of years or are really celebrating the sufficiency that owning lands and food sovereignty gave them.”

That relationship between history and ethnicity is also rooted in many communities. “We appear to be suffering from an [sic] historical amnesia about the relationship between agriculture and people of color in the U.S., when we assume that black people are not into good food and farming,” Civil Eats writer Melissa Danielle expressed in a 2010 article. Bowens says this misrepresentation should be broken down by celebrating the legacy of the land, and the positivity of agriculture.

The impacts of these negative stereotypes – that farmers of color don’t exist – set our culture up for failure. Failing to include people of color from agricultural roles sets up a vicious cycle of continuing to see farmers and communities of color in limited roles. Cultural researchers call this “symbolic annihilation,” where groups are initially excluded from roles or representations and individuals have a difficult time changing those stereotypes over time because media and organization imagery — in this case, of farmers only being male, middle-aged and white — has become so persistent.

It also breeds mistrust. Bowens refers to a situation where trust among farmers of color can influence bottom lines. At one point, she worked with the Southeastern African American Farmer’s Organic Network (SAAFON), an organization that helps black farmers learn organic farming practices and strive for certification.

Many participating farms are small ventures that follow organic guidelines but have not obtained USDA organic certification for various reasons, such as cost — which starts with a $325 application fee, a $500 to $700 certification, fee and annual renewal costs of up to $500. Bowens said many SAAFON farmers found it difficult to sell produce, despite clarifying their farming practices, without an official certification stamp.

“They would go to the market and set up a sign [explaining their organic practices despite not being organic certified], but people didn’t believe them,” Bowens says. That distrust from farmers’ market patrons led to difficult conversations about addressing the problem, and finding ways receive a USDA organic designation. “If you look at a lot of aspects of our society, people of color jump through extra hoops just to level the playing field,” Bowens says.

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If you ask Bowens how we fix these stereotypes, she’ll tell you that she doesn’t have all the answers, and that she doesn’t know all the “practical steps.” But she does mention education, support and pride; her book focuses on these elements, as well as the resilience of communities of color.

“We can change the conversation. We can celebrate the contributions and beauty of food, and working the land that a lot of communities have,” she says.

And networking with other farmers of color has an impact, too. In 2010, the Black Farmers and Urban Growers (BUGS) conference drew in nearly 500 attendees in its first year. Gathering places like that allow farmers to meet one another and develop a larger sense of community — solidarity among those passionate for agriculture. Posts from BUGS’ social media pages show that in the four years since, the conference has continued to have upwards of 300 attendees each year.

Publications like Blavity, an online publication for black 20-somethings, are fighting back against group biases; during the Baltimore protests following the death of resident Freddie Gray, the magazine encouraged readers to support local black farmers instead of a local Whole Foods. In April, The Root published a profile on seven urban farmers of color making impacts in their community. The Color of Food website also lists a nationwide map for locating farmers and food activists of color.

That support also includes allowing communities to develop their agricultural relationship in a way that works best for them.

“A lot of communities [of color involved in farming] are trying to preserve and bring back that cultural relationship with agriculture. Some are trying to build their communities stronger and just want to be left alone to do that, and build momentum. We have to be careful about respecting that and letting communities have that,” says Bowens. She suggests allowing change to come from within the community.

For Bowens, her next projects include continued work with community gardens and the Beginning Farmers Training Program. Her long-term goal is to turn property she owns with her husband, a teacher, into an educational farm. Many of the farmers she spoke with for The Color of Food regularly opened their gates for educational programs.

“It’s wonderful. I’m hopeful that this next generation will get into farming,” she says.

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Nicole L. Garner is a freelance copy editor and writer who focuses on diversity in media. She spends her time away from the computer barefoot in her rural Missouri garden or knitting sweaters for her jumbo-sized cats. You can follow her on Twitter @nlgarner.


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