Today, only 1.4 percent of American farmers identify as Black or mixed race, down from about 14 percent 100 years ago. Systemic discriminatory policies and practices, for example concerning land and financial access, have led to the decline. How can we turn it around, ensuring that Black farmers will be part of a sustainable food system?
Co-founded by Olivia Watkins and Karen Washington, Black Farmer Fund is one organization making progress on this issue. The New York-based non-profit raised its first $1 million fund last year and has disbursed about $600,000 to businesses to nurture Black community wealth and health in the American Northeast.
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 farming community.
Building trust and long-term relationships
When Watkins and Washington started working on Black Farmer Fund in 2017, their objective was to establish a new financial institution that Black farmers and food entrepreneurs could trust to counterweigh the long history of discrimination they had experienced over generations.
"A lot of shady things have been happening in financial institutions, and that has informed our work," Watkins said. According to her, examples of this "shadiness" include Black farmers getting quoted higher interest rates than their white peers and young Black farmers not being eligible for loans due to higher levels of student debt. Financial access for black farmers has been lacking both in private institutions as well as public funding, such as USDA grants and loans that have intentionally discriminated against Black people and resulted in a large wealth gap.
Watkins and her team are working closely with their regional community in the Northeast to rebuild some of that trust and provide funding options that meet the needs of small businesses. The organization invests in long-term relationships with food and farming entrepreneurs and offers a wide range of grants and loans with flexible terms and patient capital with higher risk tolerance and longer repayment time horizons.
Black Farmer Fund’s work with Soumppou Kaffo is one success story. The cooperative farm includes 55 members who are West African and Muslim immigrants and serves the greater New York City area with halal meat and culturally relevant vegetables such as African eggplant and okra. The cooperative has been resource-constrained because its Muslim roots don’t allow farmers to accept a regular loan. To meet its special need, Watkins is engaging with a specialized law firm in Dubai to structure a sharia-compliant loan respectful of the culture and religion.
"One of the most challenging parts of this work has been understanding how we can balance between getting enough information from farmers to make decisions and respect self-determination," Watkins said. "So learning to trust that people are capable of making good investment decisions."
One way the fund is practicing this value is by filling the seats on its investment committee with people from the communities they’re trying to serve — and giving them complete decision-making power rather than just using them as advisers or figureheads.
More than money
Beyond fine-tuning how to improve access to financial resources and getting ready to disburse larger sums, Watkins also came to understand that financial support alone doesn’t suffice to set up Black farmers and food entrepreneurs for success.
Grantees have gotten to know the fund as a reliable and trusted resource and often turn to it as the first point of contact for other challenges they’re working through. In response, Black Farmer Fund has been gearing up to provide technical assistance and peer learning networks. It is also curating a community of trusted service providers their grantees can lean on for everything from bookkeeping best practices to filing civil rights complaints.
They like to see more customized programs for such farmers outside companies' regular distribution channels that respond to their production capabilities.
"We now believe that funding is just one foot in the door," Watkins told me. "People will need other things along the way as their businesses grow, and we want to be working alongside them as they move on and expand, even if they experience challenges along the way."
Replicating lessons learned
Black Farmer Fund aims to continue deepening its work in New York and surrounding states rather than expanding geographically. And even if they wanted to broaden their reach, one organization alone could never dig up the deep roots of racial discrimination. So what lessons can other organizations, including large food and agriculture businesses, incorporate into their equity efforts?
One of Watkins' recommendations goes back to the approach Black Farmer Fund has taken on its investment committee — entrusting decision-making abilities to the community one is trying to serve. This practice has endowed the fund’s investment decisions with more nuanced information and, more important, helped distribute power. So when companies ask Black people to serve on committees or advise programs, Watkins urges businesses to not only listen to their advice but let them make decisions.
Another way to ensure companies’ racial justice programs truly serve marginalized communities is to work with local grassroots organizations. To Watkins, smaller organizations with long and deep local ties can best ensure that resources go the furthest and are distributed democratically. Beyond making financial donations, companies could also think about what unique training opportunities or technical resources they have access to and could offer to Black farmers and food entrepreneurs.
Lastly, benefits can materialize when companies establish supplier relationships with Black farmers. But Watkins has observed that corporate sourcing programs are often too rigid with unwavering requirements on purchase orders and product standards, prohibiting marginalized farmers from participating.
She’d like to see more customized programs for such farmers outside companies' regular distribution channels that respond to their production capabilities. Upfront payment options could also allow farmers to invest in their production before harvest rather than waiting until the next planting season to make improvements.
There are many ways for companies to help Black farming communities in the U.S. thrive again. Getting started with one of them and iterating along the way will be more important than waiting for the perfect solution.