Farmers Are Looking to the 2023 Farm Bill for Transformational Agriculture Reform

May 20, 2024 | 12:48 pm
photo of a large group of people posed at the base of the US Capitol's steps, with the dome behind them, holding a banner that reads "Land Access Now"Tom Daly
Angelina Montez
Fellow, National Young Farmers Coalition

NOTE: The original text published on April 27, 2023, contained an error. The amount the National Young Farmers Coalition is calling on Congress to invest in equitable access to farmland is $2.5 billion, not $2.5 million.

Policy and legislation are supposed to be routes to resources and advocacy. Unfortunately, things like challenging language, lack of promotion of programming, and lack of adequate support for people whose first language is not English makes policy feel inaccessible for a lot of people. As a young queer Latine and aspiring farmer of color, I have personally struggled with farm policy and how to make use of it for my own projects. For the 2023 farm bill to adequately support farmers, the voices of farmers of color must be amplified and implemented. As a fellow with the National Young Farmers Coalition, I aim to discuss and analyze my own lived experiences in order to understand the various ways in which the upcoming farm bill will dictate farm policy in the United States and impact the farming future of people like me.

Food is history

Food access has always been an issue close to home for me. The lack of nourishing food for my community, increased access to nutritional information, and access to land are the main reasons I personally wanted to start farming. Growing up in a predominantly Black and Brown neighborhood in New York City, I’ve seen a lot of my community buying and consuming food products that are detrimental to their health because it was cheaper and more accessible to them than fresh produce and meat. Along with lack of access to quality food, people in my neighborhood lack access to quality education and knowledge surrounding food, nutrition, and the cultural impact of food apartheid. Over the holidays, I told my mom about the various ways in which I want to decolonize my diet. I went into the conversation excited about my newfound connection to unique hot pepper varieties and my use of more warming spices when cooking. I asked her about some of her favorite Puerto Rican/Nuyorican spices and seasonings, with which she replied, “I’m Puerto Rican, the only seasoning I know is Sazón.”

Though I love sazón and Goya’s seemingly unlimited products, hearing her only able to connect to her gastronomical ancestry through a company founded by Spanish immigrants making highly processed, high-sodium products was kind of heartbreaking. It’s been during conversations like these within my own family that I saw how forced migration and assimilation into whiteness has impacted our food culture and the way we view it.

From food to education, people of color have disproportionately faced a lack of access to all aspects of agriculture. Every sector of agriculture has been purposefully constructed to exclude and silence communities of color. From enslaved people laboring on land, to inhumane working conditions, to food apartheid and lack of food sovereignty, people of color have historically been—and are currently—being denied access to the basic human rights that agricultural policy should be providing them. Through policies such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Homestead Acts of the mid-1800s, the revocation of Field Order No. 15, and the Alien Land Laws of the early 1900s, among others, Congress has been responsible for the dispossession of hundreds of millions of acres from Indigenous people and other people of color, while facilitating land ownership and access for white Americans.

Land is power

Land to me is agency, power, and sovereignty; having access to it has radically changed my life. During my time as a farmer I have struggled with a lack of long-term land options, extreme weather caused by climate change, and working within white supremacist, capitalist structures. Living in the Hudson Valley means I’m fortunate enough to be situated in a significant food hub of New York. Even though there are an abundance of farms around me, due to my lack of reliable transportation I can’t get to any of them. Because of this, I am farming on my own on some rented plots at my local community garden.

Access to health, wellness, and medicine are all deeply intertwined with my work as I deliberately grow many herbs and medicinal plants to be used in teas, tinctures, and salves for my community. My goal with these plots was to experiment with various forms of farming and eventually to sell my crop. However, the land I am farming on is not climate-stable. Every year since I started farming there, the community garden has flooded and everyone has lost all their crops for the season. The Wallkill River is prone to algae bloom, which is toxic if ingested; after the garden floods, growers are advised not to eat anything that survives or to plant in the soil for a couple of weeks to months. That first season I lost all my crop and the countless hours I dedicated to growing that summer. It would have been even more heartbreaking if I had been growing for market, as I would have lost all my profit and potentially my customer base.

The instability of the land I am currently farming means I will not be able to stay there long-term. As an aspiring farmer this is devastating. Finding affordable land to work was challenging enough without the addition of working climate-unstable land.

These challenges are exacerbated by farmland loss due to the purchasing and development of agricultural land by non-farmers, with Black and Indigenous communities having a disproportionately high rate of farmland loss. These realities can be seen through farmer feedback to the Young Farmers’ 2022 National Survey: finding affordable land was very or extremely challenging for 59 percent of respondents overall; however, 65 percent of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) farmers named the same issue as very or extremely challenging.

Environmental impacts from development—things like topsoil loss, degraded soil quality, and water contamination—further threaten opportunities for farmers to grow on the remaining land. Land that is properly stewarded plays a critical role in climate change mitigation and resilience, yet these accelerated trends make it incredibly difficult for farmers to implement and sustain those practices. Similar to my situation, nearly a third of young farmers rely solely on rented land to run their businesses. Unfortunately, lack of access to safe, stable, and long-term land agreements are all too common for young farmers of color and they are often left in situations where their agency and security are jeopardized.

The 2023 farm bill can facilitate more equitable land access

This is why the National Young Farmers Coalition is calling on Congress to invest $2.5 billion in the 2023 farm bill to facilitate equitable access to one million acres of land for the next generation of farmers. The main issues I feel must be targeted are: getting people of color back on land, trusting in their knowledge, and supporting their projects.

1. Getting Farmers of Color Back on Land

As land loss is such a significant challenge for farmers in being able to continue their work, federal policy must be able to acknowledge land stewards’ endeavors and strengthen incentives for farmland owners to transition their land to future generations of farmers. Investing in a dedicated source of multi-year funding for technical service providers will support both farmers seeking access to land and landowners transitioning out of farm ownership, with priority given to state mediation programs that focus on outreach to underserved farmers and heirs’ property landowners.

2. Farmers of Color Have the Experience and the Knowledge—They Need Resources

Equitable and culturally appropriate outreach to young and BIPOC farmers, in addition to reduced application requirements and streamlined processes, would help more farmers benefit from federal programs. Specifically, making sure US Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs are accessible to communal land ownership, since many BIPOC-run farms and aspiring farmers are interested in communal models of operation. Similarly, funding the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Grant Program will offer farmers access to more skill building and more training in varied farm tasks, and enable them to fund new projects or endeavors on their farms.

3. Great Ideas Should Be Met with Great Support

USDA funding that would be distributed directly to community-led land access projects will allow farmers to fund projects specific to their farm and their personal agricultural mission. We must make sure that USDA funding would be available to eligible entities, with priority for projects led by, and benefiting, “Socially Disadvantaged and Economically Distressed” farmers and ranchers as defined by the USDA, who are often overlooked in opportunities for government funding.

To adequately move forward, US agriculture needs to end its disregard and silencing of BIPOC voices and goals. We must not forget that alongside and despite significant suffering, the connection between people of color and the land they occupy is full of survival, recreation, and joy. As a part of Young Farmers’ One Million Acres for the Future campaign, I am asking Congress to pass a 2023 farm bill that makes this historic investment in equitable land access. Creating and implementing measures like those listed above will serve to set farmers up for success. Farmers’ success means a more localized and sustainable food system for everyone.

This upcoming farm bill is our time to make actual and lasting change for our farmers. Regardless of your position within our agricultural system, this farm bill is for and about you, so make sure your voice is heard. To get involved with the campaign and receive action alerts, sign up here.