Can $3 billion persuade Black farmers to trust the Department of Agriculture?


The Biden administration is spending $3.1 billion to convince farmers and ranchers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon in the ground. It also hopes that the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities grants will help make amends for a century of systemic discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) against Black, Native and other “historically underserved” farmers.

The program already faces obstacles, though, amid criticism that many projects receiving the most money are run by giant for-profit companies and major agricultural lobbying groups that don’t appear to have a clear plan for how they will serve disadvantaged farmers, though every funded project includes an equity goal. Much smaller grants have gone to projects led by historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving organizations.

Then there’s the central question of trust — or lack thereof. The USDA’s history of discriminating against Black farmers and other ethnic and racial minorities — by denying them access to low-interest loans, grants and other assistance — resulted in significant financial losses for those farmers throughout the 20th century and in many cases led to the loss of their land. So there remains a significant lack of trust in the USDA and government programs generally. Some reject anything with the federal government’s stamp on it, while others may not even be aware of programs they’re eligible for.

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While strict measurements are in place for quantifying climate progress, grantees will evaluate their own success or failure on matters of equity. Also, the USDA’s definition of “historically underserved” farmers includes not just ethnic and racial minorities but veterans, young and beginning farmers, women and those operating at poverty level — so it’s possible for a project to meet the USDA’s equity goal without serving any Black farmers at all.

But even having an equity goal is consistent with what some see as a nascent effort by the USDA to improve relationships and foster trust with these communities. In the 2021 American Rescue Plan, the massive COVID-19 relief package, $4 billion was allotted to debt relief for Black farmers. Some white farmers filed a lawsuit claiming discrimination, and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act revoked the promised funds and created a race-neutral program instead. Many Black farmers eligible for the original debt relief felt once again that the USDA had broken a promise.

“This is an area that’s clearly been a challenge for USDA for a long time,” said Robert Bonnie, USDA undersecretary for farm production and conservation. “And as we think about everything we do, including climate stuff, we want to make sure we build in equity.”

The climate-smart projects run for five years, so it’s too soon to know whether any will meet the government’s equity goal or even how the USDA will measure success given the lack of clear metrics.

How the climate-smart initiative works

The $3.1 billion climate-smart program has two funding tiers. The first is for projects ranging from $5 million to $100 million, and the second is for projects up to $5 million. Of the 141 projects announced a year ago, so far 123 have been finalized, according to the USDA.

Projects in the first tier are dominated by multinational corporations like PepsiCo and Tyson Foods, land-grant universities such as the University of Illinois and Virginia Tech, large commodity groups like the Iowa Soybean Association and USA Rice, and nonprofits such as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Association of Conservation Districts. The second tier, meanwhile, explicitly targets projects led by historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving organizations.

Critics saw this funding discrepancy as a tacit acknowledgment that the organizations most likely to engage farmers of color lacked the infrastructure to manage tens of millions of dollars in federal grants. “Can we do it? Yeah,” said Ibrahim Katampe, a professor and administrator at Central State University, a public HBCU in Wilberforce, Ohio. “But it will just be a lot of outsourcing.”

The USDA’s Bonnie said the two pots of money reflect the fact that HBCUs and smaller nonprofits focused on minority growers would be at a disadvantage if forced to compete against the likes of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol or Truterra, the sustainability arm of Land O’Lakes, both of which are leading $80 million to $90 million projects.

“The idea was, let’s try to build something that had equity that cuts across everything, but to provide a particular option for smaller groups, smaller landowner groups, historically underserved producers, minority-serving institutions and others that may not get in the larger grants,” Bonnie said.

In other words, while anyone can say they will make equity a priority, a minority-serving university or organization of tribal growers will have an advantage when it comes to recruiting and retaining participants whom the USDA has historically not served.

“There’ve been so many decades of persistent underfunding, which then leads to a state of not having capacity over a long period of time,” said Antonio McLaren, who spent some 20 years managing grants at the USDA and is now vice president of programs at the 1890 Universities Foundation. The 1890 group represents historically Black land-grant schools that were founded in response to Blacks being denied access to states’ original land-grant universities.

McLaren said these schools tend to be much smaller than their original land-grant counterparts in terms of faculty, facilities, student enrollment and other resources. But they are deeply connected to their local communities of color, and leveraging those relationships could benefit both the farmers and the USDA. “The 1890s do play a large role in helping Black farmers,” McLaren said. Their outreach and technical support efforts — sometimes supported with federal money — lead to Black farmers “being able to trust them, but also to trust USDA as well.”

Because of these connections, the smaller projects should be nearly guaranteed to achieve their equity goals, which according to their proposals are often more specific and ambitious. The larger projects, meanwhile, are primarily focused on big farms, where they see greater potential for climate benefits. But their equity goals tend to be fuzzy.

How the small and larger projects differ

The Iowa Soybean Association, for example, received $95 million to “expand markets for climate-smart corn, soybeans, sugarbeets and wheat” in 12 Midwest and Great Plains states and to support “farmer implementation and monitoring of climate-smart practices.” For-profit partners include Cargill, JBS, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola. The project had enrolled more than 200 farmers through Sept. 30 and will not update its numbers again until sometime in January 2024. The project’s equity goal is for 20% of participating farmers to be women, veterans or people of color, but the plan for meeting that goal is not spelled out in its proposal.

The situation at Central State University looks very different. It’s running a $5 million project that will convert manure from a woman-owned cattle feedlot into organic fertilizer and distribute it to farmers of color and other underserved farmers in urban and high-poverty areas in Ohio and southeast Michigan.

The project will reduce the feedlot’s methane emissions through an innovative manure management system that prevents liquids and solids from separating. Without the separation, there will be fewer bacteria feeding on the manure and no need to agitate it before it gets pumped onto fields as fertilizer. The agitation, coupled with the bacteria feeding frenzy, is what leads to the release of methane, a planet-warming gas more potent than carbon dioxide. The resulting nutrient-rich slurry will lower both the farmers’ operating costs and their carbon footprint, as they will no longer have to purchase synthetic fertilizer that’s produced using fossil fuels.

The university’s extension program has built a network of Black farmers that gives Katampe, the project coordinator, confidence that urban and small rural vegetable farmers will sign on to participate, “especially those that have a minimum of 1,000 square feet to up to an acre of land.” And that group is a sweet spot for meeting the USDA’s equity goal, Katampe said.

Sharifa Tomlinson, who runs Arrowrock Farm in Riverside, Ohio, is the kind of farmer Katampe hopes to enroll. Tomlinson, a 62-year-old African American nurse, came to agriculture later in life. “Being my age and being my race and being my sex, we did not think that we could be farmers,” she said. “No one said, ‘Oh, Sharifa, when you grow up, you could be a farmer.’”

In 2021, she started selling tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, blueberries and other produce at farmers markets. Later, she added laying hens to her operation. In 2023, she joined Ohio CAN, a USDA-backed program administered by the state’s agriculture department, that buys, processes and freezes chicken for distribution at food banks. Raising chickens for Ohio CAN quickly became a major part of Tomlinson’s business.

Through another USDA program, Tomlinson got funding to install a high tunnel— a semipermanent structure that protects plants from severe weather and extends the growing season. “That’s going to be a whole new ballgame,” she said, enabling her to scale up her vegetable production.

In this area of the Corn Belt, Central State has played an outsize role in creating a network for producers of color. Tomlinson was pleasantly surprised when she discovered other Black farmers like her, and it was one of them who encouraged her to apply for the high tunnel. She said now she’s ready to help someone else tap into a USDA program.

“USDA did do some junky stuff back in the day,” she said. “It’s trying to right its wrongs now. And, so, I’m part of that.”

Jordan Roach, who grows herbs, garlic and berries at Biddy Bobbie Farm near Yellow Springs, Ohio, said she’s interested in free fertilizer but would want to see where it’s coming from to ensure that it meets her farming objectives. Hearing that Central State would be the catalyst to connect her with the product increased her confidence.

“We already have really good established relationships, so that would be something I would trust,” said Roach, who identifies as Black and Indigenous.

Connecting with minority farmers

Rosemary Galdamez would love to have access to that kind of network. She is responsible for signing up minority farmers for the Iowa Soybean Association project — but first she has to find them. She hopes to do that by “connecting with other organizations in the Midwest that work with underserved farmers to build those relationships,” she said. So far, she has produced outreach materials in Spanish and met with groups that support women and veterans in agriculture.

The premise of the Iowa Soybean Association’s program is to pay farmers for measurable emissions reductions, regardless of what strategies they use. Galdamez recognizes that across the Midwest and Great Plains states, where the project is based, and in the target commodities of corn, soybeans, sugarbeets and wheat, most farmers are white men. “There are some underserved farmers who grow corn and soybeans,” she said, “but in the Midwest specifically it is somewhat limited.”

Participating farmers are asked to complete a voluntary demographic survey, which is how the project will tabulate its outreach success.

Galdamez wrote in a follow-up email that as of Sept. 30, “we have 49 contracts (21 %) with participants from underserved groups. The contracts are with beginning farmers, veteran (former military) farmers, women farmers, and socially disadvantaged farmers.” She declined to provide specific data regarding whether any of those contracts are with farmers of color.

McLaren, the former USDA grant manager, said the equity goals for a project like this one may have been undercut even before it was funded because none of the project’s official partners focus on producers of color. “The main driver for any successful collaboration or partnership ­is developing intentionality and making sure that there is trust established from the very beginning,” he said.

A project led by the grain buyer and broker ADM, for instance, included the National Black Growers Council (NBGC) from the start. Paul Scheetz, who manages ADM’s investments and partnerships in climate-smart solutions, said that this was a natural outgrowth of the company’s existing relationships with the council and with the Black farmers it does business with. “Prior to the grant, we were working directly with them,” he said, noting that the company has participated in field days sponsored by the council where it meets with farmers potentially interested in selling to ADM.

Scheetz said that during a brainstorming session about how to structure the grant’s incentive payments to growers, a Black farmer noted that “some of the ground that we farm isn’t always the most productive ground.” ADM had been thinking payments would be based on bushels of grain produced, but that comment prompted a reconsideration. They decided instead that payments would be based on the number of acres a farmer commits to conservation practices; that way, lower-yielding fields are not penalized.

Torre’ Anderson, an agriculture specialist with the NBGC, said the council will connect grantees — ADM as well as a number of other big projects that the council is participating in — to the farmers they need in order to meet their equity goals. Anderson said ADM will require Black farmers who participate to join the council, which will boost its membership and help it track the number of Black farmers involved. The NBGC is still working out the details of how other projects it’s working with will recruit and retain Black growers.

ADM plans to enroll 3,000 farmers over the five-year life of its climate-smart project, and Scheetz said all $90 million of the USDA grant will go directly to them. ADM and its partners, which include Costco, Field to Market, Farmers Business Network and Keurig Dr Pepper, are putting up nearly $48 million in matching funds to cover all other project expenses. ADM said that of the 500 farmers enrolled as of Dec. 1, more than 100 are members of the NBGC.

The range of approaches to equity amid a vast and varied set of climate-smart projects means this USDA investment will reach every state and territory in some way. How much of an impact it has on communities that have historically been mistreated or ignored by federal programs will become clear over the next several years.

The advantage that HBCUs and groups like the NBGC have as trusted advisers in their communities makes them critical for getting funding to farmers who might not seek the government’s help. “We’re a conduit to help alleviate some of the tension from USDA,” Anderson said. Farmers are more likely to engage in a conversation with someone from the National Black Growers Council than with the USDA, he added, even if the subject is how to get money from the USDA.

Donnetta Boykin, who owns Endigo’s Herbals & Organics in Trotwood, Ohio, is part of the Black farmer network in her area. She said even if they recognize that a bit of USDA money has trickled down to them in recent years, some Black farmers remain hesitant to engage directly, especially if that means a farm visit from a stranger.

“I have to trust you to welcome you into my space,” Boykin said. “There needs to be some healing done” between federal officials and Black farmers. “And that’s not happened.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit news organization.

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