Think Out Loud

BIPOC farmers in Oregon organize

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Feb. 22, 2022 6:50 p.m. Updated: March 1, 2022 10:39 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Feb. 22

A few of many crops growing at the Black Futures Farm in Southeast Portland. The farm, led by Black and African-identified people, grows food, builds community, and promotes Black food sovereignty.

How have policies in Oregon shaped who has land to farm? Crops growing in Southeast Portland.

Courtesy of Malcolm Shabazz Hoover

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How have policies in Oregon shaped who has land to farm? How can micro-farming increase access? How can implicit bias affect farmers? We hear more about what it means to farm in the state while contending with these issues. Surabhi Mahajan, Letty Martinez and Spencer Suffling are farmers in the state. They join us to tell us more about how BIPOC farmers can organize and network in the state.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller:  Earlier this month, you were one of the people who took part in this networking fair for small scale farmers of color in the Portland area. What was the idea behind this fair?

Surabhi Mahajan:  The fair was meant to connect farmers of color that operate and live in the Portland Metro area with the wider community. Individuals, restaurants, chefs, nonprofits, other organizations that are looking to buy local produce but that are [also] very value centric: values on racial justice on how people grow their food, culturally specific vegetables.  We wanted to connect farmers for long term market access instead of a one-off sales event.

Miller:  What came from the networking fair? I mean where did you see the results?

Mahajan:  We had over 300 people come through for both days, Saturday and Sunday. Everybody talked to all the farmers and we’re currently doing an evaluation from the farmers themselves.  We didn’t have Day of Sales or [information regarding] people signing up to purchase from farmers right then and there, but over the course of the past few weeks, farmers have experienced a lot of their CSA sales going up and then connections with larger scale purchases like restaurants and wholesale buyers.  So they can set that up for the season. So a lot of farmers have made connections that they said that they wouldn’t have otherwise made.

And then another thing that came out was that this is one of the first events that we’ve done as a community and we’re really wanting to organize within ourselves and be transparent about our prices, about our growing practices, share about all of these larger scale issues that impact all of us individually, but if we band together we can solve them easier. So this was one of the first events and I think the community will also come out of this.

Miller: Letty Martinez, can you describe Flying DogHeart Farm where you work?

Letty Martinez:  Sure.  Flying DogHeart Farm started out as a micro-farm at my home. I’m also a veteran, so I was able to purchase a house using the VA Loan and I practiced growing things there and have since scaled up.  I’m part of the Raceme Farm Collective. We share two acres on Wapato Island, also known as Sauvie Island. I primarily grow medicinal herbs and some traditional foods. I also raise chickens for eggs and rabbits for meat.  But mostly what I do as a disabled veteran, (I’m not so much as big into production) I do a lot of community connecting– connecting folks to land and access to knowledge around herbal medicine and growing medicine and connecting to these lands that we’re guests on here in the Pacific Northwest.

Miller: There are some real echoes there in terms of your use of the word “connecting” to what we heard just now from Surabhi. I’m curious, Spencer Suffling, how you think about the community of, in many cases, relatively young farmers of color in the Portland Metro area. What does it mean to you to not be doing this alone?

Spencer Suffling:  I think that sort of gets at the way that this is such a huge opportunity for small farmers of color in Portland, but also there are a lot of barriers to get through. I think that as Portlanders, we know some of the allure and the trendiness of small farms in the area.  We’re proud to go to farmers markets or have CSA memberships or other ways to connect with small farmers of color, but along with a lot of that trendiness come barriers.  A lot of the resources that end up going to small farms aren’t necessarily going to farmers of color or small farms. And so part of what we want to do is to make sure that those farmers who often are the most underrepresented and get some of the least attention, we want to highlight them and we also want to be networking ourselves together.  And part of the point is to connect together so that we have more power to advocate for our own needs as a group.

Miller:  Surabhi, I want to turn to some of the structural issues here. The USDA recently came out with a new designation–a micro farm. What is it?

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Mahajan:  It’s farms between 0 to 100 acres. Small farms are usually considered in the thousands of acres, which in the scheme of the USDA commodity program and the loans, that’s pretty typical.  We call ourselves small farms, but that’s not how the USDA would necessarily recognize us. But micro farms have become a way for them to recognize that farms smaller than 100 acres exist and feed parts of the community as well.

Miller: How significant is the fact that the USDA now has this designation? What does it mean in practice?

Mahajan:  It’s still new and it’s something that hasn’t impacted us. So a lot of the history between farmers of color and the USDA is so fraught and there’s so much disconnection and displacement of land and food and culturally specific food practices that this designation is one step, but there needs to be a lot more outreach, a lot more culturally specific materials.  Taking down language barriers, barriers for loans and access and grant programs because those are really hard to apply for. And there’s big paywalls for that to even for people to access them. So this is one step. It’s still new.   Not a lot of people even know, like even farmers don’t even know about this as much. We’re still seeing how it’s working out.

Miller:  Spencer Suffling, Politico did an analysis of recent USDA grants last year for one program that helps farmers pay for land or equipment or repairs. Politico found that the agency only granted loans to 37% of black applicants, but 71% of white applicants. They also found that for a different program for a pandemic relief program, farmers of color received less than 1% of the payments, even though they are about 5% of all U. S. farmers. What’s your experience been with federal support if you’ve sought it?

Suffling:  I think that there’s a number of barriers. As Surabhi mentioned, sometimes it’s as simple as not knowing what those resources are and how to apply for them. A lot of times there’s a pretty extensive application process to go through, language barriers as well. But I think beyond that there seems to still be a disconnect in what it is that these small or micro farms really need. And a lot of times what we really need is a lot less time spent jumping through hoops and doing logistical tasks. There’s a million hats that farmers have to wear from production and fieldwork to managing a business and administration details. So we need to save time and energy wherever possible. And a lot of times these different funding options are preventative just in the time that it takes and the energy that it takes to jump through the hoops to get the resources.

Miller:  Letty, whenever we talk about farming, it seems like we can’t talk too much about access to land. It is one of the most important issues. How does that work for you in terms of your access to land?

Martinez:  This is a really great question.  Land access, what we know about just having land in the United States on Turtle Island means having power and control. The number of Black and Brown people who own land in any form is [a] very small percentage.  The government owns most and then there’s white landowners and then there’s corporations and then there’s everyone else.  And in Oregon specifically, Black and Indigenous people were not allowed to own land. So the majority of land that is farmable is not in our control.

So for me, specifically, my story, I have some privilege right? I served in the military. I was able to purchase a little bit of land so that I could practice growing food. That’s not everyone’s experience. Some people maybe have a little bit of a backyard or they have access to a community garden, that’s pretty much it. For me, participating in the Pathways Program (which was a farm incubator program for Black and Brown farmers here in Oregon that was a partnership with the Oregon Food Bank and Mudbone Grown), I was able to connect more with other people and make connections and community that helped me and the collective that I’m part of to gain access to some land on Sauvie Island, Wapato Island. And again, we don’t own that land right? We’re renters.  The person who owns that land has 126 acres and we use two, with potential to grow but also recognizing that’s not our home, that’s not our forever home.  And we’re also on stolen land. So acknowledging that the Indigenous people who still exist, who still practice their culture and participate in their own traditions are displaced. And so it’s a complicated conversation to have when we have this incredibly nutrient rich land that we live on. That historically has been tended to by Indigenous people who took care of stands of food through what we now know as agroforestry and also managed crops of their own. It is an interesting and important conversation for us to have, especially as guests on these lands, uninvited guests. What does it look like for us to do this in solidarity and in a good way recognizing the systems that we work in?  It’s complicated. And we need to eat.

When we come together as farmers, we talk about these things, we acknowledge these things and it’s part of our work.

Miller: Surabhi, I want to turn to one of those last phrases that you just mentioned that people need to eat because we’ve been talking a lot about systemic issues whether we’re talking about Oregon’s history of redlining or exclusion laws or the current reality of the way USDA grants work. But what role do you think consumers can or should play in this particular conversation?

Mahajan:  Consumers put a lot of focus on consumers’ individual purchasing power, which is very important. If you can align your purchasing power with the larger systemic values and create systemic change for that, that’s amazing. We really encourage people to purchase from farmers of color, the CSA shares this season, as well as following them at farmer’s market. There’s a Come Through market that features all BIPOC vendors. We do have a list of all of the farmers of color where CSA shares are still available to purchase. So purchasing power is really important and if you can align that.

But consumers can also see where their role in the larger system is because we all have some sort of power and we all are impacted by the system in some way or form.  Some of us hold institutional power, some people have land. And so thinking about what we can do more than just buy things, focusing on buying things from people of color or restaurants, which is important, but there can be more done besides that:   People giving up land, maybe handing over land, not owning land themselves, maybe thinking about sharing power or giving up their own seat at the table if at a school board or running for city council or something like that. It’s thinking about what do our individual actions do and what do they contribute to on a larger systemic level.

If people are in charge of grants or in charge of programming, how to make those as easily accessible as possible,  what Spencer was talking about.  So farmers of color don’t have to spend that much time applying or reporting for funding. Making things accessible and looking at things from a racial justice lens to really identify how you fit into the larger system. I think there’s a lot that can be done and it’s a bigger conversation to have.

Miller: Spencer Suffling, before we say goodbye. What are your hopes for what your operation could look like or be like in 10 years?

Suffling: That’s a fantastic question. And that’s something that’s probably the number one thing that farmers seem to want to talk about is how things could be better in the future. And I think some of the recurring themes that I and other farmers have had is a centralized space where the farmers actually own and control the land that they’re farming and they have a long term stewardship of that land and they also have a place to come together and learn from each other and cooperate and collaborate together. And they could also have the room for projects that could build off of a centralized community farm.  There could be a lot of opportunities for distribution and food preservation on site and cooking and classes and events. So I think what we would like to see in 10 years is more projects that are directly empowering the small farmers of color and bringing them together in a central place but also decentralizing that power within the group that is the local farm community here.

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