The following is an excerpt of the Introduction to the Young Farmers Racial Equity Toolkit. This guide, written by the National Young Farmers Coalition, is an important and useful resource for anyone of any age working in US agriculture.
The history of U.S. agriculture is inseparable from the history of U.S. racism. Indigenous land dispossession, slavery, the ongoing exclusion of racial minorities from federal agricultural programs and support systems, present day exploitation enabled by lack of labor protections for agricultural workers, and disempowering immigration policies are all examples of the ways in which racism has been woven into agriculture on every level since this land was colonized. Examples of racism in agricultural contexts exacerbate inequity and injustice throughout the food system and society more broadly, contributing to community food insecurity, labor exploitation, and other forms of racialized oppression.
Dismantling racism in our society must involve deep change in our agricultural systems. It is crucial that farmers, organizations that work on agricultural issues, and people involved in food systems at every level directly address racism, the myth of white supremacy, structural inequity, and the ways they manifest as ongoing violence and dispossession in relation to land, food, climate, and labor.
The legal and social constructs of race in the U.S.—and the very idea of “Blackness” and “whiteness”—were created early in the history of this nation by wealthy landowners who understood that an alliance of European and African-descended slaves and indentured servants posed a major threat to their power and wealth. Race and the idea of white supremacy served to prevent natural alliances between Black and white working class people, and protected the ruling class and the prevailing economic system. Understanding this history helps us understand that racism and oppression affects all of us, not only people of color. Because racism and white supremacy undermines our relationships and coalition building, it is destructive to our society, our economy, and our movement.
Agriculture in the United States is based on the exploitation of land, water, other natural resources, and labor—all for the benefit of a select few. The barriers young farmers experience are directly related to this exploitation. Our labor is devalued. Land is primarily accessible to wealthy people and white people: beneficiaries of land theft, labor exploitation, and slavery. Many young farmers enrich land in ways that are wholly uncompensated. These systems of exploitation harm the environment, forge an unjust food system, and contribute to insurmountable barriers to entry into agricultural careers.
Racism is the root of innumerable injustices in the food system. 24 million people in the U.S. live under what has been described as food apartheid conditions, through which access to healthy, nourishing foods is extremely difficult. Thirty-eight percent of the U.S. population is made up of people of color, and yet the 2017 Agricultural Census found that 95% of U.S. primary producers surveyed identified as white; and the number of Black, Latinx, Asian American, and Native American primary producers all decreased between 2012 and 2017 (USDA 2019). And the significant contributions of people of color to agriculture in general, and to the sustainable agriculture movement—as farm owners and farm workers; and as pioneers of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), farmer cooperatives, regenerative practices, and community land trusts—often go unmentioned.
We will only succeed in establishing a more just food system if we recognize and address the exploitation and inequity that shore up the entire agricultural system. Historical and contemporary reliance on resource and labor exploitation disproportionately harms Black, Indigenous, and people of color. By centering racial equity, we commit to working toward a food system that is not based on exploitation. By prioritizing marginalized communities, we commit to building an agriculture system that is different from the one that does not serve us now. Racism harms people with certain identities more egregiously than others; and ultimately living under systems of oppressions harms all of us. Challenging racism requires that we both recognize and reckon with the benefits afforded to us through the power and privilege we hold. It requires us to refuse the systems that have caused such harm. We must relinquish our privilege and its benefits toward solidarity with those who do not have access to the same privileges.
Our movement in support of young farmers will not be successful unless it is inclusive and addresses the deep structural racism in agriculture and our food system that affects all of us.
In collaboration with the New Mexico chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition, we invite you to join us once a month over the course of a year in a study group based on the National Young Farmers’ Racial Equity Toolkit, adapted for our New Mexico context. We get together in small groups of maximum 10 people on zoom and work to recognize and transform inequities in New Mexico agriculture.