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Arizona Black farmers fight against long-standing federal discrimination

USDA pledges to address longstanding discrimination against Black farmers

James and Rachael Stewart have seen their ranch grow tremendously since starting it from scratch in October 2020. They tout their 10 acres near the border with Mexico, which they run with their four kids, as the state’s first Black-owned protein ranch, with more than 150 pigs, sheep, goats, chickens and alpacas.

The former Chandler residents, who call their operation Southwest Black Ranchers, spent their first year learning to work with livestock and becoming familiar with the animals. But in the second year, Rachael said, they want to focus more on production and aggregating products from a growing network of private farms that includes operations in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas.

“We want to support other people getting into farming, getting into livestock and normalizing it,” she said. “Our main missions are food security and building diversity in food and agriculture.”

But the biggest struggle for Southwest Black Ranchers is access to money. When applying for grants and funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Stewart said, she learned their ranch doesn’t qualify for any assistance in its first three years – lamenting the lack of support for people trying to get into farming.

“We’re still trying to hopefully get some grants from the USDA, but we have not had any success in the private sectors yet,” she said.

In 1920, Black farmers accounted for 14% of all farmers in the U.S., which at the time was mostly agrarian. But according to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture in 2017, they account for just 1.4% of the total, farming 0.5% of the country’s farmland and producing 0.4% of agricultural sales. Black farmers blame this decline on discrimination by the USDA, which the agency acknowledges and has pledged to change.

The USDA announced in September its plans to establish an equity commission to address decades of discrimination that have kept Black farmers from succeeding.

Dewayne Goldmon, who was appointed to be the senior adviser for racial equity to the secretary of agriculture in March, said the equity commission will be a steering committee providing broad direction to the USDA on how to better serve “underserved farmers.”

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“We understand that prior efforts to achieve the kind of racial justice and equity that we’re trying to achieve have fallen short of addressing those cumulative effects,” Goldmon said. “I think the time is right for it now – that we finally get this right and we have sufficient resources to do that.”

The USDA was founded in 1862, a time when sharecropping and land-rental contracts were among the few ways for Black people to start their own farms. But that left Black and minority farmers out of important conversations and led to the denial of access to resources.

“That has resulted in us having a pretty big gap in the way we’re able to service the customers we’re trying to serve,” Goldmon said. “So this whole issue around equity is geared toward addressing that gap.”

Although many farmers are glad to see that progress is being made toward addressing USDA discrimination, Stewart said it will take more than forming a committee to fix the generations of systemic racism and discrimination.

“The committee and all of these things are nice, but results are what really matter,” she said. “The equity part is important, but you need the right people handling it.”

“You can’t change that 1.4% without taking care of the farmers that are already there,” said James, her husband. “By lending that 1.4% more money to help them grow, that’s a great thing, but it doesn’t change that 1.4% by lending money to the same people.”

James sees their ranch as an opportunity for their family to continue farming for generations to come. He said by the time their kids are 18, they’ll be prepared to take it over and continue to help it expand.

“The education is right here for our children; they’ve got blood, sweat and tears in it,” James said. “They can start making their own decision, putting their input in it and putting their stamp on it, and they can just continue to grow it. Then when they have children, next thing you know, that’s three generations. As long as we continue to grow and build it, it’s going to make a change.”

Goldmon, who’s a third-generation farmer himself, said most farmers of color have parents and grandparents who over the decades were left out of USDA discussions and denied access to resources and opportunities that were widely available to white farmers. But when effective policies are implemented correctly, he said, farmers of color can build on the successes of their forebears.

He said success in his position would mean that the commission no longer would be needed and all farmers would be treated equally.

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“When you look at where we are today, I don’t know that four or even eight years is long enough to adequately address all of these issues, but I continue to keep that as my goal,” he said. “These changes won’t happen overnight, but I think if we are cognizant of that fact, and can be open minded enough to look at not just the programs but the underlying situations, we will make sufficient progress.”

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Kasey Brammell/Cronkite News

Black farmers only make up 1.4% of all farmers nationally. James Stewart and his wife, Rachael, hope to make farming more accessible to anyone who wants to pursue the profession.