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Can $3 billion persuade Black farmers to trust the USDA?

By Amy Mayer, January 8, 202

The story republished with permission from the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

The Biden administration’s $3.1 billion Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities grant program hopes to convince farmers and ranchers to adopt practices that will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon in the ground. It also seeks to make amends for a century of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the grants. In its program description, USDA said Black, Native, and other “historically underserved” farmers needed to be a key part of all projects in the climate-smart program. 

It is a laudable goal, but one that faces many obstacles. The climate-smart partnerships are just underway, but it’s clear that some of the biggest projects—the ones that got the most taxpayer money and are led by giant for-profit companies and major agricultural lobbying groups—have not thought through in any detail how they will serve BIPOC farmers. 

And while strict measurements are in place for quantifying climate progress, grantees will evaluate their own success or failure on matters of equity. Also, USDA’s definition of “historically underserved” farmers includes not just ethnic and racial minorities but veterans, young and beginning farmers, women, and those operating at poverty level—so it’s possible for a project to meet the USDA’s equity goal without serving any Black farmers at all.   

Ibrahim Katampe, a professor and administrator at Central State University, a public HBCU in Wilberforce, Ohio, runs a climate-smart project that will provide free organic fertilizer to Black and other minority farmers. Photo by Amy Mayer.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for meeting the equity goal isn’t structural, but a matter of trust. The USDA’s long history of discriminating against Black farmers and other ethnic and racial minorities—by denying them access to low-interest loans, grants, and other forms of assistance—resulted in significant financial losses for those farmers over the course of the 20th century, and in many cases led to the loss of their land. 

Not surprisingly, there remains a significant lack of trust in the USDA, and government programs generally, among Black and other minority farmers. Some reject anything with the federal government’s stamp on it, while others may not even be aware of farm support programs they’re eligible for. 

But the equity goal is consistent with what some see as a nascent effort by USDA to improve its relationships and foster trust in these communities. In the 2021 American Rescue Plan, the massive Covid relief package, there was $4 billion allotted to debt relief for Black farmers. Some white farmers filed a lawsuit claiming discrimination, and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act revoked the promised funds and created a race-neutral program instead. Many Black farmers eligible for the original debt relief felt once again USDA had broken a promise. 

“This is an area that’s clearly been a challenge for USDA for a long time,” said Robert Bonnie, USDA undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation. “And as we think about everything we do, including climate stuff, we want to make sure we build in equity.”

The climate-smart projects run for five years, so the verdict on whether they will meet the equity goal—and even how to measure success given the lack of clear metrics—will evolve. But some projects seem designed for success, while others have work to do if they hope to benefit minority producers in meaningful ways.

The climate-smart program has two funding tiers. The first is for projects ranging from $5 million to $100 million and the second is for projects up to $5 million. Of the 141 projects announced a year ago, so far 123 have been finalized,according to USDA.

Projects in the first tier are dominated by multinational corporations like Pepsi and Tyson Foods; land-grant universities such as the University of Illinois and Virginia Tech; large commodity groups like the Iowa Soybean Association and USA Rice; and nonprofits such as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Association of Conservation Districts. The second tier, meanwhile, explicitly sought projects led by historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) and other minority-serving organizations. 

Critics saw this funding discrepancy as a tacit acknowledgement that the organizations most likely to engage farmers of color lacked the resources to manage a $90 million federal grant. “Can we do it? Yeah,” says Ibrahim Katampe, a professor and administrator at Central State University, a public HBCU in Wilberforce, Ohio. “But it will just be a lot of outsourcing.” 

Bonnie said the two pots of money reflect the fact that HBCUs and nonprofits focused on minority growers would be at a disadvantage competing directly against the likes of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol or Truterra, the sustainability arm of Land O’Lakes, both of which are leading $80-$90 million projects. “The idea was, let’s try to build something that had equity that cuts across everything, but to provide a particular option for smaller groups, smaller landowner groups, historically underserved producers, minority-serving institutions, and others that may not get in the larger grants,” he said.

In other words, while anyone can say they will make equity a priority, a minority-serving university or organization of tribal growers will have an advantage when it comes to recruiting and retaining participants who USDA has historically not served. Even if they have fewer resources. 

“There’ve been so many decades of persistent underfunding, which then leads to a state of not having capacity over a long period of time,” said Antonio McLaren, who spent some 20 years managing grants at USDA and is now vice president of programs at the 1890 Universities Foundation, which represents historically Black land-grant schools that were founded in response to Blacks being denied access to states’ original land-grant universities. 

He said these schools tend to be much smaller than their original land-grant counterparts in terms of faculty, facilities, student enrollment, and other resources. But they also are deeply connected to their local communities of color, and exploiting that could benefit both the farmers and USDA. “The 1890s do play a large role in helping Black farmers,” McLaren said. Their outreach and technical support efforts—sometimes supported with federal money—lead to Black farmers “being able to trust them, but also to trust USDA as well.”

Because of these connections, the smaller projects should be nearly guaranteed to achieve their equity goals, which according to their proposals are often more specific and ambitious. The larger projects, meanwhile, are primarily focused on big farms, where they see greater potential for climate benefits. But their equity goals tend to be fuzzy. 

A project run by Central State University will reduce this feedlot’s methane emissions through an innovative manure management system. Photo by Amy Mayer.

The Iowa Soybean Association, for example, received $95 million to “expand markets for climate-smart corn, soybeans, sugarbeets, and wheat” in 12 Midwest and Great Plains states and support “farmer implementation and monitoring of climate-smart practices.” For-profit partners include Cargill, JBS, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola. It had enrolled more than 200 farmers through Sept. 30, and will not update its numbers again until January 2024. The project’s equity goal is for 20 percent of participating farmers to be women, veterans, and BIPOC producers, but the plan for meeting that goal is not spelled out.

The situation at Central State University looks very different. It’s running a $5 million project that will convert manure from a woman-owned cattle feedlot into organic fertilizer and distribute it to BIPOC and other underserved farmers in urban and high poverty areas in Ohio and southeast Michigan.

The project will reduce the feedlot’s methane emissions through an innovative manure management system that prevents the liquids and solids from separating. Without the separation, there will be fewer bacteria feeding on the manure and no need to agitate it before it gets pumped onto fields as fertilizer. The agitation, coupled with the bacteria feeding frenzy, is what leads to release of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. The resulting nutrient-rich slurry will lower both the farmers’ operating costs and their carbon footprint, as they will no longer have to purchase synthetic fertilizer that’s produced using fossil fuels.

Funding for the project was announced in December 2022, but Central State didn’t receive its final go-ahead until late November. So recruiting participants is barely underway. But the university’s extension program has built a network of Black farmers that gives project coordinator Ibrahim Katampe confidence that urban and small rural vegetable farmers will sign on when he is ready for them, “especially those that have a minimum of 1,000 square feet to up to an acre of land.” And that group is a sweet spot for meeting USDA’s equity goal, Katampe said, because “unless you have targeted programming, it will seem to fall through the cracks.”

Sharifa Tomlinson, who runs Arrowrock Farm in Riverside, Ohio, is the kind of farmer Katampe hopes to enroll. Tomlinson, a 62-year-old African American nurse, came to agriculture later in life. “Being my age and being my race and being my sex, we did not think that we could be farmers,” she said. “No one said, ‘Oh, Sharifa, when you grow up, you could be a farmer.’”

In 2021, she started selling tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, blueberries, and other produce at farmers markets. Later, she added laying hens to her operation. This year, she joined Ohio CAN, a USDA-backed program administered by the state agriculture department, that buys, processes, and freezes chicken for distribution at food banks. Raising chickens for Ohio CAN quickly became a major part of Tomlinson’s business.

Sharifa Tomlinson, who runs Arrowrock Farm in Riverside, Ohio, sells her chickens to a USDA-funded program that processes them for food banks. She wants to help other Black farmers tap into the agency’s programs. Photo by Amy Mayer.

Through another USDA program, Tomlinson got funding to install a high tunnel—a semi-permanent structure that protects plants from severe weather and extends the growing season. “That’s going to be a whole new ballgame,” she said, enabling her to scale up her vegetable production.   

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In this area of the corn belt, Central State University has played an outsized role in creating a network for producers of color. Tomlinson was pleasantly surprised when she discovered other Black farmers like her, and it was one of them who encouraged her to apply for the high tunnel. She says now she’s ready to help someone else tap into a USDA program. 

“USDA did do some junky stuff back in the day,” she said. “It’s trying to right its wrongs now. And, so, I’m part of that.” 

Jordan Roach, who grows herbs, garlic, and berries at Biddy Bobbie Farm near Yellow Springs, Ohio, said she’s interested in free fertilizer, but would want to see where it’s coming from to ensure that it meets her farming objectives. Hearing that Central State would be the catalyst to connect her with the product increased her confidence.

“We already have really good established relationships so that would be something I would trust,” said Roach, who identifies as Black and Indigenous. 

Rosemary Galdamez would love to have access to that kind of network. She is responsible for signing up minority farmers for the Iowa Soybean Association project—but first she has to find them. She hopes to do that by “connecting with other organizations in the Midwest that work with underserved farmers to build those relationships,” she said in an interview. So far, she’s produced outreach materials in Spanish and met with groups that support women and veterans in agriculture.  

The premise of the Soybean Association’s program is to pay farmers for measurable emissions reductions, regardless of what strategies the farmers use to achieve them. Galdamez recognizes that across the Midwest and Great Plains states, where the project is based, and in the target commodities of corn, soybeans, sugarbeats, and wheat, most farmers are white men. “There are some underserved farmers who grow corn and soybeans,” she said, “but in the Midwest specifically it is somewhat limited.” 

Participating farmers are asked to complete a voluntary demographic survey, which is how the project is tabulating its outreach success. 

In a follow-up email, Galdamez said that as of Sept. 30 “we have 49 contracts (21 percent) with participants from underserved groups. The contracts are with beginning farmers, veteran (former military) farmers, women farmers, and socially disadvantaged farmers.” She declined to provide specific data regarding whether any of those contracts are with farmers of color.

McLaren, the former USDA grant manager, said the equity goals for a project like this one may have been undercut even before it was funded because none of the project’s official partners focus on BIPOC producers. “The main driver for any successful collaboration or partnership ­is developing intentionality and making sure that there is trust established from the very beginning,” he said. 

A project led by the grain buyer and broker ADM, for instance, included the National Black Growers Council (NBGC) from the start. Paul Scheetz, who manages ADM’s investments and partnerships in climate-smart solutions, said that was a natural outgrowth of the company’s existing relationships with the council and with the Black farmers it does business with. “Prior to the grant, we were working directly with them,” he said, noting that the company has participated in field days sponsored by the council where it meets with farmers potentially interested in selling to ADM.

Scheetz said that during a brainstorming session about how to structure the grant’s incentive payments to growers, a Black farmer noted that “some of the ground that we farm isn’t always the most productive ground.” ADM had been thinking payments would be based on bushels of grain produced, but that comment prompted a reconsideration. They decided instead that payments would be based on the number of acres a farmer commits to conservation practices; that way, lower-yielding fields are not penalized.

Torre’ Anderson, an agriculture specialist with NBGC, said the council will connect grantees—ADM as well as a number of other big projects the council is participating in—to the farmers they need to meet their equity goals. Anderson said ADM will require farmers who participate to join the council, which will boost its membership and help it track the number of Black farmers involved. NBGC is still working out the details of how other projects it’s working with will recruit and retain Black growers.

ADM plans to enroll 3,000 farmers over the five-year life of the program, and Scheetz says all $90 million of the federal grant will go directly to them. ADM and its partners, which include Costco, Field to Market, Farmers Business Network, and Keurig-Dr. Pepper, are putting up nearly $48 million in matching funds to cover all other project expenses. ADM said that of the 500 farmers enrolled as of December 1, more than 100 are members of NBGC.

The range of approaches to equity amid a vast and varied set of climate-smart projects means this USDA investment will reach every state and territory in some way. How much of an impact it has on communities that have historically been mistreated, or ignored, by federal programs will become clear over the next several years.

The advantage that HBCUs and groups like the NBGC have as trusted advisers in their communities makes them critical for getting funding to farmers who might not seek them out.

“We’re a conduit to help alleviate some of the tension from USDA,” Anderson said. Farmers are more likely to engage in a conversation with someone from the Black Growers Council rather than with USDA, he added, even if the subject is how to get money from USDA.

Donnetta Boykin, who owns Endigo’s Herbals and Organics in Trotwood, Ohio, is part of the Black farmer network in her area. She said even if they recognize that a bit of USDA money has trickled down to them in recent years, some Black farmers remain hesitant to engage directly, especially if that means a farm visit from a stranger. “I have to trust you to welcome you into my space,” she said. “There needs to be some healing done” between federal officials and Black farmers. “And that’s not happened.”

This article was produced in collaboration with National Public Radio. It may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact info@thefern.org.

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