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.

“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.”

– 30 –

This content was originally published here.

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