The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decades of discrimination against Black farmers has resulted in lost land, economic instability, and a decline of diversity in the industry. During the pandemic, access to capital became an even larger barrier for farmers trying to keep their farms or, in the case of new farmers, obtain land.
Farmer-activists Olivia Watkins and Karen Washington met at a conference in 2017, sharing their frustrations about the disparities in government funding to Black farmers. Since that meeting, Watkins said, they have heard several stories of banks holding up loan applications and lenders setting interest rates as high as 12%. Other farmers simply felt “they could not trust” lenders because they didn’t see “people that look like them on the underwriting team or lending team,” she said.
The problems pushed Watkins and Washington into activism — informing government officials on challenges in farming, supporting farmers in filing civil rights complaints against agencies, and pushing for legislation that directly impacts their community.
They were particularly excited about the Justice for Black Farmers Act, a bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker in 2021. The act would have provided land grants, training, and education, as well as created a national bank for financing and credit assistance specifically for farmers of color. The bill did not advance.
Between 1910 and 2007, the USDA denied loans to women and people of color at higher rates than it did to white men, which contributed to the billions of dollars in land loss. During that same period, Black farmers lost 80% of their farmland.
More recently, when the USDA planned to offer more than $4 billion in debt relief for farmers of color, banking associations argued that paying back loans early would cause them to lose income. In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the organizations said that if the USDA “does not compensate lenders for such disruptions or avoid sudden loan payoffs, the likely result will be less access to credit for those seeking USDA guaranteed loans in the future.” This would impact socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, which are largely people of color.
Rather than reach out to agencies and lenders, many Black farmers turn to their fellow neighbors in times of need. They share equipment and other resources to stay afloat, but many others don’t survive.
To tackle this financial crisis, Watkins and Washington in 2017 formed the nonprofit Black Farmer Fund, an investment fund that offers grants and low-interest loans, technical assistance, and financial education in hopes of building wealth for folks in the agriculture community. Since last year, the organization raised over $1 million in its pilot cycle and invested more than $613,000 in grants and low-interest loans to eight Black farmers, herbalists, and food businesses across New York.
We spoke to Watkins, president of the Black Farmer Fund, to learn more about how the program provides financial support to Black farmers in the Northeast and the ways racial justice shows up in their food systems work.
Capital B: One challenge Black farmers face is being able to trust federal agencies like the USDA or government officials when it comes to funding. Was this a challenge for you, or did you find that it was a bit easier to build trust because you look like them?
Olivia Watkins: When the initial founding team came together, there was already that decades-long trust that had been built with the community and excitement around this work because the community that we have been serving knew that they could trust the founding individuals. As we’ve continued to build out the organization, we have made sure to make space for people who have passion for agriculture, who’ve had farms before and gardens before, on top of their skill sets. Our investment director, he’s mainly been working in finance and that’s a skill set. But, he’s had a hobby farm before where he managed livestock. We’ve been intentional around bringing people into the organization that have a connection to the community that we’re interested in serving.
What resources do you provide? What is the funding model?
We do three different areas of work. Our first area of work is growing community wealth. We do that by providing grants and loan capital. The second area of work is planting knowledge and resources. And so that is really once people get their foot in the door of having the access to capital, making sure that they have the networks and whatever technical assistance they need to be able to sustain that capital and sustain themselves in the broader agricultural community. Part of our work is feeding social capital. We work collaboratively with other organizations that are part of the larger food justice movement to make sure that we’re collaborating together — whether or not it’s collective fundraising, collective advocacy at the policy level, or partnering with one another to provide services — just making sure that we’re contributing to the larger movements of food justice and racial justice that has been here way longer than we have.
How many businesses have you helped so far?
We have eight businesses that we’ve invested in. With these businesses, we’ve been able to provide them with access to capital. Some of the really great things that have come out of that are being able to connect people with access to markets. We have farmers that we work with who are able to sell to vendors that were distributing their produce in Bushwick (a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York) and communities predominantly of color. We have folks who were able to access bookkeeping services, which is typically a high cost, so that they can be able to organize their finances better. We have folks that have been able to access greenhouses and have been able to triple the yield that they’re able to produce. And then we’ve also had people who have been able to continue to sustain themselves throughout COVID. A lot of farmers have had very hard times during COVID, and so just being able to provide that capital so that way people can stay on their feet has also been instrumental.
How do you choose which businesses to fund?
We have a very straightforward kind of intake and screening process that allows us to be made aware of some of the different organizations or businesses out there. We then are able to begin our relationship building, and the businesses will then be evaluated for whether or not they meet our investment criteria. Our investment criteria has three pillars to it. The first pillar is what they’re doing to contribute to economic justice; how are they building community wealth; and then the last pillar is, what’s their ecological impact. Once they meet those kind of criteria, the investment committee, which is a community governance committee, then essentially decides whether or not we want to move forward with continuing down the path of supporting the business. Then we’ll do a more extensive screen to understand what the financials are, and how we could be able to support them, and what type of financing they may want. We’re making sure that they also are able to have input into what kind of financing or terms they would want to make it beneficial for them, if they already know what it is exactly they want.
You’ve mentioned providing all sorts of resources and education for farmers. How are you able to accomplish all of this, especially with a small team?
We are really grateful that we have a really great team of talented, passionate people who are really excited about this work. The team internally works really hard every day in order to make this happen and build the capacity. We have folks across different roles and responsibilities to make that happen — not only from our investment team, but also our back office and operations team, and also our communications and programs team, to just make sure that our borrowers feel really supported. Additionally, we collaborate with multiple organizations that are outside of us in order to make sure that we are able to maintain our capacity of growing our organization. One of the ways that we do that is through a collective called the ecosystem. And that collective is filled with six different BIPOC-led organizations that serve Black, BIPOC businesses in the Northeast. We sit in the capital markets, and there’s some other organizations that sit on the education sphere to get people trained. There are organizations that support with policy and advocacy. We regularly are communicating with those organizations just in order to make sure that we’re best able to provide the larger, broader Black agricultural communities with the services that they need.
You mentioned you’ve done advocacy work on behalf of Black farmers. Are there any particular policies that y’all are pushing for?
A lot of the policy that we were really excited about was the Justice for Black Farmers Act, but that has since evolved into something less specific. Generally, while I think it can make progress in some areas, it’s definitely not enough. Our work really focuses on making sure that we’re also powershifting, which is hard to do. We’re still continuing to advocate for shifting power and shifting wealth and making sure that [the government] budget line items [go] specifically for communities that have been marginalized, and that the eligibility requirements aren’t extremely prohibitive. Those are the ways that we continue to advocate for our community.