Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 017 - The Fight for Equal Rights in Agriculture featuring Barbara Norman and Savi Horne

Savi Horne: In 2018 we're, seeing a slight uptick in numbers, but black farmers that had to deal with racial discrimination by local offices of the USDA, but particularly the work of the county committee system that at one point was your access point to whether you could get a loan, whether you could get emergency assistance, crop disaster. All of that was being determined by a very clubby atmosphere that excluded African-Americans and minorities from consideration.

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future. A podcast by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. I’m your host, Mal. Today on the show, our guests discuss breaking down barriers to entry for farmers of color. That was Savi Horne, Executive Director of the Land Loss Prevention Project in North Carolina. Savi works to help financially distressed and limited-resource farmers secure access to land, educational tools, and other forms of support. She’ll be speaking with Barbara Norman, third-generation Michigan blueberry farmer. Here’s Barbara:

Barbara Norman: In Colvert, that’s the name of my town, C-O-L-V-E-R-T. Colvert is in the new African American Smithsonian. Most people think that it’s in there as a black community. It’s not. It’s in there because we’ve never been segregated. I think that's part of our success because and that's the key to everything, being able to work together. Nothing should make you not be able to work together. We are all human.

Savi Horne: Okay, well that really is a good example coming out of Colvert, but that example is not universal in the United States, particularly in the south where Black farmers had to really fight for getting into programs that had been historically denied to them. We are coming back slowly but surely, but that legacy of discrimination has colored the vision of the Department. I think the Department itself has worked really hard at cultural transformation and we need to keep it honest and we need to say that's important. It's nice if Washington has the policy, but it's the implementation and being able to be co-implementers with the Department at the local level. So we need those programs funded. Or else I think we're going back down that rabbit hole of, you know, of people not having access and that would be very sad, indeed.

Mallory Daily: Savi and Barbara first met in the late-nineties when Black farmers around the country organized a lawsuit against the USDA to address historic discrimination. That lawsuit called Pigford vs. Glickman awarded $2.5 billion in damages to black farmers for discriminatory loan practices by the federal government. This court decision was a major advancement for Black farmers in America, but according to today's guests, there's still a lot of work to do to even the playing field. Here's Savi.

Savi Horne: So Barbara, we met through the sustainable agriculture movement and that was the very beginning of the Kellogg Integrated Farm System that then became Integrated Farm and Food System. I started out going to Michigan to meet with Michigan Integrated Farm System, MIFS, which Barbara was a key part to the success of that program. And when the issues got to a place of Black farmers organizing a lawsuit to deal with historic discrimination, Michigan played a very key role. We had a meeting in Michigan in which Senate, I think, Congressman Conyers convened. And it was the very first time for me that I saw all these wonderful Black farmers and up and coming urban farmers from Detroit who said they had three acres of land in the city that they were growing. And so from that, there was this integration between, say, what was going on in Michigan and what was going on in North Carolina and what was going on in Southwest Georgia. So it brought African American farm leaders and farmers together around sustainable agriculture. And from there we were able to figure out how best to continue to grow this movement and be about civil rights and get those barriers removed and to work hard at it and the work in Michigan was a key part because of the historic nature of the farm struggle in Michigan and how it was informing the national scene.

Barbara Norman: And I think the urban cities, even though they're not really "farmers". The Census of Ag, maybe not the last one--the one before that. We did do some recruiting in Detroit because, see, with so many different definitions in USDA, everybody has their own definition of what a farmer is. Well, but Ag Census, they say if you grow $1,000 worth of food, whether you sell it, give it away or whatever, but you have the potential for selling it so you can be registered as a farmer. But it's all tying in together. So with the people, with them having what they call "food deserts". And like I went to the city of Detroit and there was no grocery stores in the entire city. You had to go to the suburbs, the Jewells, and all of the stores, whether they had healthy food or not, was outside of the city. And we started teaching people, you know, you can do your windows here. You can do anything to grow you some healthy food. I started bringing, I've had five years of a hundred students from Detroit Public Schools coming to the farm for Ag Day. And so when you are introducing it to the children, then you've got the younger adults doing CSAs to get natural food or healthy food and not put chemicals on it. It's all working for sustainable ag. So, and then maybe 13-years ago, we started working on the Good Food Charter from Michigan. So it's out. And then there's some younger people who are doing it now and, but another young lady that worked on it with me, Sandy, we'd look at it and it's the same basis that we did 13-years ago. 

So when you can help start something and it's successful and the next generation takes it over--I did the first farmer's market at the Capital about, it's about 11-years old now, too. And it's still going. The younger generation. So sustainable ag farming will stay and we will have new and beginning farmers, but they will automatically be sustainable because they don't like all those chemicals. It is a concern because the average age of farmers now are about, it's about 50 or 60. But they're not noticing the urban young people and the CSA group, they're bringing it, they're coming in and coming in fast and then they're coming in already sustainable, cause like the older farmers, they're crying every time they take a chemical off the market, they want to just roll over and pass out. They're mad.

Savi Horne: I know. That's right. And I do believe that the urban growers or farmers are really providing the kind of, not just growing the food but the community education piece of how to cook the food and why it's important to your health to eat better. I know that at Wayne State Medical Center, they did some real cutting edge work around prescription, using food as a way to cure people. And so that was pretty advanced going into the movement. So now people are looking at that system and replicating it elsewhere. And so Michigan and the work in Detroit around sustainable ag and just leading the way in terms of even making regulations much more seamless to accommodate urban agriculture and the growth of more nuanced, very small niche agriculture in the state. You would have to give Michigan, and I must say that Senator Stabenow is one of the leaders in movement around sustainable agriculture and urban ag. 

There are quite a few examples coming out of Michigan, like a Fair Food Double Up programs that has led the way to other places looking at similar programs that would assist poor households or food insecure households with SNAP to be able to get more at their farmer's market. And so there's been a lot of development that came out of Michigan, including the support, the critical support for the Black farmers civil rights case, but also for the just settlement of it and get in even into the situation where the farmers who had been left out of the first settlement, some of them were able to come back in and were able to get their claim settled. And all of that was being driven through the support from Michigan, but also working collaboratively with other Black organizations in the Southeast. So I think there's been that very, very good space that being engaged in sustainable agriculture has helped to not just look at barriers to growing, but also the social justice aspect to food and making sure that people have what they need in their families. So for me, SARE is a very special place. I got to know SARE within its first 10 years. And so my experience of SARE, it's common from the Southeast under the good leadership of Dr. Jeff Jordan coming out of Athens. And now the successor, Brennan Washington, working with the 1890 institution there to help limited-resource African American farmers to grow more sustainably and to get the resources they need. So I have seen where SARE has really empowered. Even through the small grants, farmers are able to get the resources they need, not a lot of money, but enough to begin to tie up their research and expand it into sometimes value-added from the research in the region. So I think, SARE as a program has carried a big punch in the movement for a food system that is sustainable and help farmers. So I'm wondering, Barbara, in terms of your engagement with SARE, perhaps, maybe you could describe how that has helped to grow the movement in Michigan?

Barbara Norman: SARE has been around. It's part of the USDA, but it's a different part and their only job is to give grants, but it's just like the other programs in USDA because SNAP and all of those. I did the Project Fresh maybe 20-years ago when I first did that, I called Lansing because there's federal dollars in every state. But if you don't use things, you know, they'll just shut them down and they says, "Well, no." When they found out where I live. First of all, I need to mention that Michigan, the urban part is catching up, but Michigan is the second state with specialty crops. We're second only to California. We have 120 specialty crops and my county grows more fruits and vegetables than anywhere in the state. So that's one thing. And SARE's been around a long time helping and pushing sustainable ag. So as I look at sustainability today, it means more than just not chemicals. It means that I can put something here and it can sustain forever. So in that it made me start working with the farmers on that whole piece.

Savi Horne: The whole farming piece.

Barbara Norman: The whole, the whole life, the environment and everything, just like you mentioned earlier. Now everybody just about can put something in the ground and grow it. It'll come up, but you might not be meeting your maximum production. So I'm going back now and trying to teach the younger ones and work with the soil. Everybody does soil up. I'm doing soil down, because that's a sustainable system. I need to have my soil balanced and even throw in no-till. You see, now, I know the evolution, the food movement, the sustainable movement, then the cover crops in soil. Because if you look at it, if every year I got to go take that tractor and I plow up my soil and stuff, think about all the worms and everything that's in there that's doing the system. If I just let the worms aerate and, you know, do their business and make the fertilizer, the whole ecosystem will just keep going, keep going. And so that's the big part to me of sustainable. And so I found out that the barriers are the same for the urban growers. The growers in Michigan, the growers in the South, the farmers, and so it's the lack of knowledge, if they're not aware of SARE. SARE has been very beneficial. North Central SARE did a call for a grant on barriers and diversity. Out of 12 states, 13 people applied. Knew nothing about it. Course I got the grant, but it wasn't that it was--it was good, but it might not have been so astronomical--It was just nobody knew. Do you realize what that's saying? Twelve states involved and only 13 people wrote a proposal. So SARE has been there and they're doing their power to farmer, ranchers. I've been all over with SARE and for SARE. So until that's going to be to me the crux of the food movement, of keeping black farmers, just getting it out there, just working with people and more than likely get to do a lot of handholding or even more one on one or small groups because you have to teach them.

Savi Horne: I really thank you and for your passion. I know recently, you were participating in a process in Atlanta that was pulled together by the class counselor in the Pigford or In Re Black Farmer Settlement cy pres. So it is what is remained after the claims have been paid out of, which out of the 12 million there is now 8 million and the consideration as to what to do with that money. And I feel this is like a real momentous change in terms of bringing together black farm leaders in one place to look at what the universe could do if they were resourced in the way that they need to be resourced, but how they themselves could build their own philanthropy moving forward so that the next generation can benefit. But farmers who are presently, and their organizations, struggling could also benefit, and for that matter rural communities will benefit. Right? So I was just wondering, you could just maybe just say a few things about what that process meant to you? Cause, for me, from my mind, it would seem to me coming full circle for you.

Barbara Norman: I think the whole thing and the goal and the passion that we have is helping people and sometimes people think that help only comes in the form of money or a car. This movement is going to do help you with your life, is helping you with your health, you know, has given you years to your life because you're healing yourself through food. And that's one of my ways of getting beginning farmers or helping urban people start growing. I've had people just put lettuce in their flower pot on their window seal and let them eat that lettuce for a while. I work with Debbie Stabenow. I work with Detroit Public Schools. I think I have blueberry plants in probably 20 of the schools up there 'cause they started doing raised beds and then when the students come from Detroit, every year they have an ag class and they pick berries. They take a plant home. And so this is what you have to do. If you see a hundred farmers, if you have two dozen children, three of them are going to grow some food.

Savi Horne: I should hope!

Barbara Norman: But it sounds like a small number, but no, those three are gonna multiply theirself. If I have what, 20 or 12 people or students, if I get three, they're going to get the rest of them. And are you got to do is start feeding them and teaching them, teaching them about the soil, you know, and also letting them know. Most of my farmers don't think that farming is a business. It's depicted, you know, through the TV and different things of seeing people of color behind a mule, broke down, or they're sharecropping. And so they don't realize and they don't put enough respect on the business of agriculture.

Savi Horne: And I think that's where this new generation of urban farmers and those located in rural, small towns have made that difference because they've looked at the struggles of their parents and they've heard about their grandparents, but they also saw the independence that comes with farming and the potential to really impact your local community by providing good, healthy food. And I think they have basically said, "Yes, there was no problem with us hearing about sharecropping. That was part of a system and our parents worked through that and we're trying to get to a place where in their generation they don't to become sharecroppers." And so what they're looking for is access to land and capital. As young people, they're burdened with student debt and can't afford land. Land sometimes in their families basically caught up in heir property. And so what they're looking at is like newer models. And I think that's what Dr. Ray was trying to do at that research station. It wasn't just teaching urban kids how to grow, but looking at the farm that he had and how to reposition it so that future farmers could have access to the land. I'm not really sure if his vision actually came to fruition because he died prematurely as he was working the estate plan to make that happen. Which brings me full circle to the work that we do at Land Loss. So for us, we see estate planning and risk management by farmers, adoption of risk management tools is as key as learning how to grow things and that they need to be done from the very beginning, you should have some sense about how your farm will transition and put that in place, put the business structure, the right business structure that you need in place so that the business can grow and that you will have flexibility to participate in USDA programs and remove those barriers from now. So are you seeing the farmers that you know adopting risk management strategy? Perhaps SARE could also not just be about the mechanic of agriculture, but begin to fold in the need for risk management and estate process in terms of how you farm?

Barbara Norman: Well, the farmers that I work with, they get all of that because in risk management you're managing your risk and the five major risks would include the production and all of that. And then everything that I do in all my projects, I use a holistic. I've taken Dr. Ray's thing a step farther because, well, he always did, too. We do whole families because no matter what you teach, if I teach your daughter and I don't get you, then it's not meaningful because when they leave, what I'm doing, you know, they forget it. So that's one thing. But with the land thing, I've taken it a step farther because you have to just make children aware. And I think in agriculture we wait and in a lot of cultures, we'll wait until the child is in school or something to start really working that mind. But my grandkids has been gardening since they were three. They used to carry the gallon jugs or whatever. But I have found for the land and the interest in land, every summer when it's time to plant a garden, I take my little four age group and I would lease them. I would sell them actually a piece of land. It could be as big as this table or half as big. The amount didn't matter. And I'd sell it to them for a quarter. And then I'd let him plant tomatoes and then I'd direct them to the church, to the women at Church and they'd give tomatoes. And you know, if you give somebody something once or twice in this little child, they will start giving them quarters. At the end, the power of this is when I wanted to buy my land back, my five year olds, nobody would sell it back to me for a quarter. They learned the value of what that land could do. That land gave them food, the land gave them an income. The land made them friends. So if you start teaching the value of land. And then I didn't grow up with that slave thing or the sharecropper thing and where I live isn't as much difference than the children who family owned the land as the kids who had to pick berries for their school clothes. So when you get that whole story, it's a whole different piece. And, see, I was always taught, he who owns the land makes the rules. I would rather have some land than a large bank account because that land brings me more wealth. So it's this whole big picture you've got to do and I know it can be done.

Savi Horne: Yes. And I really feel that to really assist this next generation of farmers, we're going to have to come up with some very nimble models that would give them access to land and also work with retiring farmers and transition that land. But I think it's gonna be heavily in need of resources and commitment by the Department of Agriculture. And it would be a commitment on the part of the Administration that if you really serious about food security of the country, that the resources will have to be increased, not only for new and beginning farmers. You must have security for socially-disadvantaged minority farmers and you must have a program in place to help retire student loan debts so that the next generation of young farmers can really come at it and give it the best that they have got, right? And not feel the crush of the finances going in from the very beginning. So I think there has to be more creative processes within institutions that do research, that have gotten SARE's money for research and development, that risk management, access to land has to be part of the research, and grounding in those programs to assist the next generation of farmers.

Mallory Daily: That’s it for this week’s episode. You were listening to Savi Horne, the Executive Director of the Land Loss Prevention Project in North Carolina. And Barbara Norman, a third-generation blueberry farmer in Michigan. Throughout their conversation, they referred to the work of Dr. LeRoy Ray, a Western Michigan University professor who started the Farm Research Cooperative. You can learn more about Savi and Barbara's projects by looking at our show notes where we'll post links to their work.This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform, like iTunes or Stitcher. We’re releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at . SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA or SARE. Thanks for listening!