We begin with social justice, equity and inclusion because true sustainability in our food system ultimately involves, and benefits, everybody who participates in it. When we take steps to understand the challenges that members of our community face around issues of equity and social justice, and when we support improvements in the social conditions of all farmers and farmworkers, we’re creating a community that is like the farm we wish to have for ourselves: It’s more diverse, has more assets and is more resilient. Also, while equity and inclusion are critical to farm and ranch sustainability on their own merits, the topic of social justice threads its way through all the other aspects of social sustainability that are described in this publication. 

A middle aged farmer and his father posing next to a hay bale
Nivory Gordon, Jr. (left) works with his father Nivory Gordon, Sr. (right) at the family’s livestock and horse farm in Snow Hill, Ala., and serves as a USDA rural development area director in northern Alabama. He takes pride in his efforts to improve the sustainability of the farm and to make a difference in local communities. Photo by Preston Keres, USDA

According to the John Lewis Institute for Social Justice, the concept of social justice includes “... a communal effort dedicated to creating and sustaining a fair and equal society in which each person and all groups are valued and affirmed. It encompasses efforts to end systemic violence and racism and all systems that devalue the dignity and humanity of any person. It recognizes that the legacy of past injustices remains all around us, so therefore promotes efforts to empower individual and communal action in support of restorative justice and the full implementation of human and civil rights … .”

There are many forms of adversity and discrimination that farmers, farmworkers and others in the food system must face simply because they are people of color, women, LGBTQ, immigrants or of a low economic class, etc. However, the majority–farmers who are white, heterosexual and male are very often in positions of power as employers, primary farm operators, holders of assets and influencers of political and social institutions. As a result these farmers have many opportunities to support positive change throughout our communities and the food system.The social sustainability and quality of life issues discussed throughout this publication are important for all farmers in one way or another, but how you experience them can be quite different if you’re part of a marginalized group or if you’re seeking to collaborate with people from one of those groups. Because equity is a key goal of social justice, we include an Eye on Equity section in each part of this publication to identify some of the issues that uniquely affect farmer groups that have been traditionally discriminated against, and how we can work together to improve equity and inclusion in those areas.

What is Equity

A concept at the core of social justice is undoing the effects of discrimination by empowering populations that have been consistently disempowered through history. We can do this by recognizing discrimination and making our farms, communities and institutions more equitable and inclusive at all levels. It’s important to keep in mind that seeking equity in our communities and social institutions is different from equality. Consider the well-known proverb, “If you give a person a fish, you feed them for a day. If you teach a person to fish, you feed them for a lifetime.” In the context of solving social problems that are rooted in discrimination, this proverb reflects an equity-based solution. An equality-based solution would be to make sure that every person has the same number of fish, regardless of their circumstances or needs. But equity is when you take a person’s circumstances into account and make sure they have what they need to do their own fishing: the knowledge, time, gear, access to a well-stocked pond and so on.

A woman stands with a box of greens
Berta Mendoza participated in a beginning farmer training program offered by the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), located in the Salinas Valley of California. ALBA’s training programs reach many Latino farmers, including former field workers, seeking to start a farm business. Photo by Nathan Harkleroad, ALBA

Thus, equity is not about giving or redistributing wealth, it’s about creating pathways for success through fair access to the sources of wealth. In the case of agriculture this can mean access to learning opportunities, farmland, capital, technical support and government programs.

For example, McIntosh SEED is a development nonprofit that works to improve conditions for low-income, largely Black communities in the rural South, many of which are either unaware of or have been unable to access USDA’s conservation and financial programs such as NRCS-EQIP and the FSA. This is part of a widespread pattern: According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the amount of support farmers of color receive from government payment programs is roughly one third of what white farmers receive (Table 1).

To help address this inequity, McIntosh SEED Executive Director John Littles, Sr. used a SARE grant (LS18-293) to conduct outreach and build networks between farmers and service providers, eventually reaching 225 farmers in three states. Along with helping some farmers apply for and receive financial and technical support, the project had a lasting impact by providing communities with important social resources, according to Littles. 

TABLE 1. Income received through government payment programs by race of principal operator1
Race2Percent of farmers who received income from government programsAverage amount received per farmAverage amount received as a percent of what white farmers receive
American Indian or Alaska Native13%$1,64137%
Black or African American24%$1,59636%
Hispanic or Latino11%$1,66737%
Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander12%$1,52434%
1Government payment programs include payments from Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), Farmable Wetlands Program (FWP) and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP); loan deficiency payments; disaster payments; other conservation programs; and all other federal farm programs under which payments were made directly to farm producers, including those specified in the 2014 Agricultural Act (Farm Bill), including Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC). Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) proceeds, amount from state and local government agricultural program payments, and federal crop insurance payments are not included. Source: 2017 Census of Agriculture, tables 59 and 62.
2Data reflect producers who identify as this race alone or in combination with other races.

“The project has incorporated opportunities for trust and relationship building,” Littles says. “The farmers and landowners are interacting with their peers and are forming cluster groups and networks for implementing conservation practices. The project intentionally engages and empowers farmers and landowners to assist with recruitment and outreach to other farmers and landowners.”When we talk about equitable access to the sources of wealth, we’re talking about more than just financial capital. (Different kinds of capital are described in “Community Connections.”) As a result, we need equity in our political institutions and social networks, in our access to clean, abundant natural resources, and more. Ensuring equity and inclusion also means creating solutions that work for everyone, including those with the least access.

A farmer is in his field talking with a USDA FSA agent
Rick Davis (left) talks with a USDA Farm Service Agency loan officer at his farm in Quitman, Ga. Davis has received financial support from government programs that many farmers of color struggle to access, including FSA loans, conservation programs and crop insurance. Photo by Preston Keres, USDA

Equity in Agriculture

Today, the consequences of discrimination and inequities permeate our society and food system in many ways, whether it’s policies that over time have dispossessed Black and Native American farmers of their land, extremely poor working conditions for migrant farmworkers, or low-income communities (both urban and rural) that struggle disproportionately for access to affordable, healthy food, good schools, quality health care and a clean environment. Agricultural policies and conditions that continue to promote industrialization and economic concentration have often worsened the effects of discrimination, because the benefits associated with these trends usually go to people who are already relatively well off and less likely to experience similar challenges.

Social equity captures the idea of fairness in all relationships on the farm, in our communities and more broadly in society, including those with service providers, businesses, public institutions and consumers. Whether you’re a farmer, educator or service provider, there are many steps you can take to advance the cause of equity. A few common examples:

  • Fair and just compensation and treatment of farmers and farmworkers, including safe working and living conditions
  • Promoting access to farmland and capital for beginning farmers and farmers of color
  • Providing support for women farmers
  • Knowing and respecting the fact that different cultures, values, languages and communication styles may affect farmer groups in your area
  • Advocating for changes that directly address problems faced by others in your community (e.g., a lack of broadband, environmental degradation, food deserts, poor access to health care, education or social services)
  • Hosting or participating in peer networks and community events that encourage the involvement of diverse heritages and cultures

The Resources section at the end of this publication includes a few examples of agricultural organizations that engage in education, service and advocacy in different areas of social justice and sustainability. Supporting or working with existing organizations that align with your values are relatively simple ways to begin contributing toward positive change.

Working for equity means identifying and letting go of some assumptions that have taken hold in the current food system, assumptions about what counts as a farm or as a farmer, or about which ideas are automatically seen as more viable or “correct.” To be truly inclusive, all stakeholders in the food system need the opportunity to shape support programs and to have fair access to resources.


We present only a few examples of the many organizations that provide valuable resources and support on the topics presented in this publication. Most of the ones listed here work at a regional or national level. Consult with other farmers and educators to identify useful resources at the local and state level.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion eXtension community of practice (for educators)

Farmworker Justice

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives

Intertribal Agriculture Council

Women Food & Ag Network