Almost all Minnesota farmers are white and the barriers to change are high


RUTLEDGE, Minn. – Two Pine County farms, less than 40 miles apart as the crow flies, are on the other side of a debate over racial discrimination in American agriculture that is resurfacing but has deep roots in it. history of the country.

Outside the small town of Rutledge, Harold Robinson and Angela Dawson joined Minnesota’s small list of black farmland owners a few years ago with a purchase of 40 acres of land they built on a small farm in Minnesota. hemp and a cooperative without government help. The acreage was symbolic: “Forty Acres and a Mule” was a post-Civil War military policy that briefly transferred ownership of farmland to people freed from slavery. The white owners quickly took over most of it.

“It looked exactly like a sign,” said Robinson, an army veteran and former Hennepin County deputy, as he stood among tall, fragrant hemp plants in one of their new greenhouses.

A short drive south, near Pine City, Jon Stevens cultivates row crops and raises cattle on approximately 750 acres. He borrowed heavily to buy land and equipment and owed the US Department of Agriculture more than $ 270,000 in April, he wrote in a recent affidavit.

Stevens and six other white Minnesota farmers are among the plaintiffs in a series of federal lawsuits aimed at preventing the Biden administration from distributing $ 4 billion in USDA loan forgiveness to farmers of color.

“Just because you’re white doesn’t mean you can automatically pay your bills,” Stevens said.

Federal judges suspended the loan cancellation program over the summer, a victory for the Conservative legal foundations behind the lawsuits and a setback for the efforts of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to rectify the well documented model of government neglect of farmers of color.

But the agricultural sector continues to face the kinds of institutional biases and equity gaps that also face leaders of government agencies, businesses, schools and other circles.

Robinson and Dawson have no vested interest in the legal skirmish over the loan program. The USDA Farm Service Agency turned down Dawson’s request for a small loan a few years ago, she said, citing an overdue student loan payment in her past. But she was dismayed to learn a few months ago that another Pine County farmer was part of the legal assault on a program she sees as a drop in the bucket to end discrimination.

“It’s like this is the first time you’ve been upset about discrimination? When did you realize it was happening to a white person?” Dawson said.

Few colored farmers

The last USDA Census of Agriculture, conducted in 2017, found that Minnesota had a total of 39 black farmers, compared to 110,824 who are white. The number of other colored farmers was also very low. The state as a whole is about 76% white in last year’s general census, but its farmers are 99% white.

Prior to the Biden administration’s efforts to help farmers of color, the efforts of Democratic Governor Tim Walz, who took office in 2019 with similar vows to increase opportunities in an industry of aging white men and intimidating barriers at entry not only for people of color but also for young people, women and others with non-traditional backgrounds.

“Most Minnesota farmers look exactly like me – a white man in his 50s,” state Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said. Shortly after taking office in 2019, he hired Patrice Bailey as deputy commissioner, the highest-ranked black person of all time in the small state agency.

Early on, Bailey asked Petersen if he would consider removing the photos of his predecessors, all white men, that adorned a wall of the executive offices at the department’s headquarters in St. Paul.

“I told Thom, if a colored employee or a woman comes upstairs, this photo says you’re not welcome,” Bailey said. They replaced it with a plaque that only lists the names.

In early October, Bailey attended a meeting of the ministry’s Emerging Farmers Working Group. In the past two years, the legislature has authorized both the task force and an emerging farmers’ bureau – the first of its kind in the country, Bailey said.

At the meeting, Janssen Hang, co-founder and executive director of the Hmong American Farmers Association, said opportunities in agriculture are increasingly shifting to small to medium scale crop farms. “It’s up to us to make sure it’s inclusive,” he said.

Hindolo Pokawa, an immigrant from Sierra Leone who works with the Midwest Farmers of Color Collective, presented a cover crop research project he is working on at the University of Minnesota that pays farmers of color a stipend of $ 400 to participate. Naima Dhore, an organic farmer who founded the Somali American Farmers Association, said independent small farms like hers struggle to pay the myriad costs associated with expanding capacity and marketing produce.

“I can’t continue to park in Target parking lots to meet my clients,” Dhore said. “I have to move forward, expand and reach more people so that I can sell more products. I hope resources are included for emerging farmers like me. “

More federal money is on the way: Next year Walz and the legislature will split an additional $ 1.5 billion in US bailout money. Peder Kjeseth, the department’s chief lobbyist, said Walz would seek additional subsidies for emerging farmers.

“I met a farmer”

Dawson and Robinson met at a bar in downtown Minneapolis six years ago. Dawson was in law school and Robinson, who had toured Iraq and Afghanistan twice, worked as a truck driver and lived on a farm in Wisconsin.

“I remember calling my girlfriend the next day and saying, ‘I met a farmer!’,” Recalls Dawson.

Robinson spent part of his childhood on a farm in northern Iowa. Dawson’s father was a farmer for some time before he was born in Southeast Iowa. But none of the family members who worked the land owned it.

Deeply in debt to his students, Dawson left law school and traveled with Robinson to Oregon in the summer of 2017 to learn about the legal cultivation of hemp, immediately seizing the potential for profit. They returned to Minnesota on leased land in Sturgeon Lake, intending to start an organic hog farm. “Get a $ 50,000 micro loan and we would go to the races,” Dawson said.

After being turned down, Dawson and Robinson sold their pigs and purchased an 8-acre property along the Kettle River that includes their home, several outhouses, a greenhouse, and a few small animal enclosures. They acquired the 40 acres nearby shortly thereafter and put the hemp farm into operation.

“We prime it,” Robinson said.

The 40 Acre Co-op now has 30 active members, who paid a one-time fee of $ 500 to join, and a long waiting list, Dawson said. The company helped raise seed money for their fledgling hemp farm while mentoring and providing resources to underprivileged farmers with similar ambitions.

“We want people who are ready to get into farming,” Dawson said. “We favor people who are ready to develop, who want to start making money on their land.”

Prior to joining the other white plaintiffs, Stevens was best known in agricultural circles in Minnesota as a zealous advocate for the environmental benefits of regenerative agriculture. He recorded a series of YouTube videos on the practice and even hosted Walz on his farm for a water quality event.

“There’s a bit of hippie stigma. I thought so myself,” Stevens said of regenerative agriculture. His parents owned the land he once farmed, he said, but he bought it rather than inheriting it.

The program that Stevens and the other plaintiffs are contesting would pay up to 120 percent of direct or guaranteed loan balances for Black, Native American, Hispanic, Asian American, or Pacific Islander farmers. Their lawyers say there are many legal precedents that prohibit the federal government from distributing money in this way.

“A court ruling after court ruling has found our Constitution to be color blind,” said Dan Lennington of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, who represents the group of plaintiffs that includes Stevens.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment on the prosecution. The USDA team asked the courts to combine all of the cases into one in order to defend the program. This request is on hold and the legal battle is likely to drag on for months or more.

Even if the program continues, Farmer of Color advocates say federal and state governments should do much more to break down racial barriers given that too many farmers have never qualified for loans in the first place.

More recently, said Dawson, USDA officials have been paying more attention. But she is reluctant to ask for a government loan again, and Robinson opposes it.

“Look at what we did without any of their help,” he said.

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