Once, when Northern California wheat farmer Mai Nguyen went to a local farm equipment center to rent a tractor, the employees taunted her by asking, “Do you know where to put the key?” and other questions they probably wouldn’t ask a white, male customer.
Over the last three years, various farm plots Nguyen leases throughout middle and western Sonoma County to grow heritage wheat and southeast Asian crops have had trash dumped on them. She sometimes finds that parcels she’d like to rent are located in neighborhoods awash with Confederate flags.
“It’s hard to feel safe out there,” said Nguyen, a 32-year-old Vietnamese-American with six years of agriculture experience. “There are already signs that I’m not welcome.”
While there’s no simple fix for racial discrimination—and the current political atmosphere is only making the situation worse—minority farmers in California may soon get more support, thanks to legislation Nguyen and a group of other advocates have proposed.
The Farmer Equity Act of 2017, introduced by California Democratic Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry and backed by bipartisan support, would amend the California Food and Agriculture Code to include a more diverse set of farmers in the “development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement” of food and agriculture laws at the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture.
The bill applies to producers that have been federally classified as “socially disadvantaged,” which includes people in groups whose members have been subject to racial, ethnic, or gender prejudice. The bill would create a department-level staff position for an employee to help those farmers navigate the agricultural landscape, and it would oblige the department to make recommendations on how to help California’s socially disadvantaged farmers in the future.
Like the state’s overall population, California’s farmers are a diverse group. According to data from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, despite having just 2.9 percent of the country’s farmland acreage, California farmers represent 14.6 percent of the nation’s Latino/a farmers, 35.1 percent of Asian farmers, 21.9 percent of Native American farmers, and 4.9 percent of women farmers.
The legislation has no real regulatory teeth; instead it’s meant to function as a “door-opener and conversation-starter,” said Paul Towers, organizing director and policy advocate of Pesticide Action Network North America and a member of the collective promoting the Act. “It codifies ‘socially disadvantaged farmers’ in California statutes and law. It says that it’s a responsibility of the California Department of Food and Agriculture to ensure that those farmers have a voice and a role in food and farm policy-making,” Towers said.
The bill will be taken up again by the California legislature when senators return from their summer recess today. It has already cleared the state’s Assembly and is headed for the state’s Senate Appropriations Committee; if it clears the committee, a simple majority vote on the Senate floor will send it to the governor’s desk. [Update: the Farmer Equity Act passed the California Senate on September 6, 2017; it is now headed for Governor Brown’s desk for possible signing.]
“With the Farmer Equity Act, I hope there will mechanisms to help socially disadvantaged farmers have more equitable access to land and to technical assistance,” Nguyen said.
Long History of Racial Discrimination in Farming
Racism has been part of American agriculture since before the United States even existed. Until emancipation in 1862, Black slaves worked in cotton fields for no pay. Even after the slaves were freed, many of them entered into serf-like sharecropping arrangements with landowners to feed their families.
The California Alien Land Law of 1913 prevented Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Korean immigrants from owning land or having long-term leases for the first part of the 20th century. And during World War II, Japanese-Americans, many of whom were farmers, were rounded up and forced to live in internment camps.
Agricultural discrimination has not disappeared since World War II. In 1999, a federal judge ruled in Pigford v. Glickman that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had discriminated against Black farmers between 1981 and 1996 by withholding loans and program benefits such as disaster payments. The court case ended with a landmark settlement that has seen $1 billion paid to farmers who were denied services.
Even today, Nguyen encounters racism in her farming endeavors on a regular basis. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto, Nguyen serves as a managing owner of Ca Phao Farm in Ukiah, in northern California, and as a cooperative development associate at the California Center for Cooperative Development, which gives agricultural and other co-ops various forms of assistance.
She has approached landowners about the possibility of buying or leasing property, but none have entertained her offers. Meanwhile, her white, male colleagues “will approach the same landowner and have a conversation and maybe get a response,” she said.
“In terms of technical assistance, looking for land and getting access to equipment, that’s where it’s hard,” said Nguyen. “When I go in for assistance, people just don’t take me seriously. They question my experience, knowledge, and ability.”
More Concrete Steps to Come
Made up of about a dozen advocates and producers, the collective promoting the Equity Act began discussing the legislation last fall. “What became clear from those conversations is that we need to take a holistic perspective” in educating governmental entities about the myriad challenges faced by socially disadvantaged farmers, Towers said.
Gail Myers, an anthropologist and co-founder of Farms To Grow, Inc., also helped plan the bill. Like Towers, Myers said it’s intended to plant a seed in the minds of state agriculture allocators. More concrete steps—such as mandated financial and technical assistance for certain groups of farmers—could come later.
“I want to help these farmers have a voice,” Myers said. “What we’re saying is, ‘Hey, we’re here.’ And in a couple years, we’ll say, ‘Now that you see us, what can we expect as far as support from the state?’”
But true equity won’t be realized until structures that maintain racism are removed. For example, Myers advocated for removing government agriculture agents who discriminate against minority producers by withholding financial assistance.
She believes that agriculture is still influenced by plantations culture. “When African-American farmers get some land, they don’t get the resources,” she said. “Just look at the demographics of who is in those [allocating] positions. What do they look like? You can blame it on policy, but people make the policy.”
Even without regulatory teeth, the bill’s reporting mandate would give state officials a clearer picture of how closely socially disadvantaged farmers are tied to agriculture, said Janaki Jagannath, an Indian-American farmworker advocate who helped plan the bill. “Right now, we don’t have any metrics or definitions for socially disadvantaged farmers, so this is significant legislation.”
Jagannath, who until recently served as executive director for the Community Alliance for Agroecology, said that translation services for Indian-American farmers is one of her top priorities, since language barriers hinder the dissemination of technical advice. Current translation services “leave a lot to be desired,” she said.
If the bill becomes law—as this group of advocates hopes—these farmers could begin to be treated as equals.
“I just hope that we socially disadvantaged farmers have representation in politics,” Nguyen said. “Because food is so essential, that political power will help us defend our ability to live.”
Photo courtesy of Farmer Mai.