Students of Color See a Future in Agriculture, but Farming Is a Tougher Sell | Civil Eats

Students of Color See a Future in Agriculture, but Farming Is a Tougher Sell

A nonprofit guiding young people of color to agriculture finds science, research, and outreach, rather than food production, are top career choices.

young farmer of color inspecting the tomatoes he's growing

Early on a Saturday in rural Maryland, about 200 high school and college students, largely from urban Baltimore and Washington, D.C., gathered to learn about careers in agriculture. Many have little or no connection to farming themselves.

“My closest relation to agriculture is that my great-grandfather raised hogs,” says Tyler Reid, an agriculture major at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES), a historically Black land grant university located in the heart of rural Maryland’s agricultural region. Now, she’s planning a career in agriculture—and she says getting exposure to the industry, and to industry leaders of color, was critical to her decision. It was events like this one, where a group made up mostly of city kids hear from professionals representing the private and public sectors, that helped her find her path.

Karl Binns, the president of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences (MANRRS), says that face-to-face time is key for the nonprofit organization, which promotes academic and professional advancement of people of color. “We see a massive transformation when we can get those students in front of people of color who are in the industry.” As a result, more students realize opportunities to both get help paying for college and starting a career.

Despite their interest in agriculture, the student leaders of UMES’s MANRRS chapter who hosted the workshop overwhelmingly say careers in farming aren’t part of their plan. Instead, they want to work in science, research, and outreach.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a farmer,” Reid says. “That’s just not what we want.” Though these students are interested in growing their own food, working in traditional ag production doesn’t appeal to them. (MANRRS may be well-suited to non-production ag jobs; the group’s board of advisors includes a number of representatives from large agribusiness and food-science companies, including BASF, Cargill, Corteva, and others.)

Binns says that, lack of appeal isn’t an issue for MANRRS—and that actually, it’s to be expected. “They don’t know what they don’t know.”

Karl Binns speaking at a MANRRS meeting.

Karl Binns speaking at a MANRRS meeting. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Mock)

While MANRRS is working to diversify the agriculture workforce, whether in food production or elsewhere, while some farmers of color and farm networks are helping more people of color earn a living from the land. But throughout the agriculture system, efforts to increase diversity face a number of systemic, geographic, and demographic challenges.

Barriers to Entry

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, not only are farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers more than 96 percent white, but the lack of diversity within farming doesn’t seem to be improving. The 2017 Census of Ag reported that the group of farmers under 35 years old is actually slightly less diverse than older generations. And the trend isn’t limited to production agriculture; environmental scientists are also more than 90 percent white, and all farming, fishing, and forestry related jobs are more than 89 percent white.

Production agriculture in particular has seen a dramatic drop off in diversity over the last 100 years, due in part to system discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) against minority farmers. But despite the agency’s troubled history, many of the MANRRS student leaders say they hope to build their careers at USDA, largely in health and community outreach or science and research. Several are already funded by the agency, as part of a program that promises federal employment after graduation.

“If we don’t get into these positions, if we don’t push other people to do it, then maybe the field will continue to be 95 percent white,” Reid says. “If you want something to change and you’re in a position to go after it, do it.”

Land grant universities have also played a historical role in pernicious, structural racism, although efforts are underway to address that. Binns says he’s optimistic MANRRS members can be change agents within USDA, and more broadly in academia, private industry, and eventually, production agriculture, too He isn’t concerned about low levels of interest in farming among students; he believes opportunities to farm will grow as agricultural careers in general become more common in communities of color. He says that’s why the organization is focused not only on career advancement, but on leadership training as well.

“When they get into some of these rooms where they might be the only people of color,” Binns says, “they’ll have the confidence to speak up.”

An Impactful Field

There’s been an uptick in ag education adoption in both Baltimore and Washington, D.C. in the last decade, mostly by way of environmental academies like Friendship Public Charter School, which offers high school classes in both urban agriculture and aquaponics. But Binns says there’s a missing piece to many of those programs. They tend to focus on agriculture as a social justice issue, as a way to approach problems like pollution, poverty, or obesity, rather than a possible career.

“They’re looking at either ag or environmental science from the standpoint of fixing what’s been done to the city, and not, ‘How do I make a living in this?’ I think that’s a huge messaging problem,” Binns says.

It’s a problem that’s apparent at the workshop. Though most of the high schoolers have taken classes in agriculture and environmental sciences, few say they have an interest in working in the field. One D.C. high school student, Trinity Raycrow, says that though she thinks agriculture is interesting, and something she just didn’t know about, but health and psychology appeal to her more. Another student, Kayla Lawton, says she’s leaning toward the culinary world and is interested in becoming a professional chef.

“I would consider a job in agriculture, or minoring in it in college, to open up my options,” Lawton says. But Binns says these are still exactly the students MANRRS is looking for.

“We’re not trying to reach kids who are already planning on going into agriculture,” he says. Instead, he believes it’s more important to connect to the millions of kids who are not exposed to the field and who don’t know about the opportunities to use science, technology, and business skills to define an impactful career in farming-related fields.

MANRRS student participants. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Mock)

MANRRS student participants. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Mock)

Many of the current UMES MANRRS student leaders say they were thinking along similar lines when they were in high school. But the exposure in MANRRS changed their minds.

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“Learning about the money, the opportunities, the places you can go with it,” that’s what enticed Quinones Jhingory to study biology and pursue a USDA undergraduate research fellowship to study pest management while being part of the UMES MANRRS chapter leadership. “And the fun.”

A Workforce for the 2020s

Bridging the distance between farm and table has become an obsession for the ag industry over the past few decades. Tim Hammerich, founder and CEO of the agricultural recruitment firm AgGrad, says there’s a good reason that effort has seen limited success.

“In agriculture, we always love to talk about connecting with consumers,” he says. “But until our workforce reflects our consumers, I just don’t see how that’s going to happen.”

Hammerich works with college students and recent graduates to find early career roles. For decades, those roles were largely filled by “farm kids,” rural workers from traditional ag backgrounds who were looking to earn money while remaining close to home. “If we’re just hiring the farm kid, we’re further distancing ourselves from the consumer.”

Hiring in agriculture has started to shift, Hammermich says. He’s seeing more students with backgrounds in technology, sustainability, and environmental sciences gravitate toward agriculture. And agricultural companies are taking notice.

“I think all of them would tell you diversity matters,” he says. Even so, in his experience, hiring managers are only willing to prioritize it to varying degrees, and he sees less of a trend toward diversification among small and mid-sized companies.

By the numbers, the agricultural workforce is become less agriculturally focused. According to USDA-funded research, between 2015 and 2020, only about 60 percent of available jobs in agriculture were filled by graduates that studied food, agriculture, natural resources, or environmental sciences. The number of STEM jobs in particular in food and agricultural fields is expected to continue to rise into the next decade, with the industry also looking to hire more workers with business, education, and communications backgrounds. In short, opportunities in the industry for those without specific ag expertise are on the rise, which Hammermich says only increases opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds.

The Rural Challenge

The rurality of many jobs in agriculture is a serious barrier to enticing young people to the industry.

“It’s just hard to get people excited to move into rural areas,” Hammerich says. Finding a qualified candidate that’s also willing to relocate is only becoming more difficult, and the long-term trend of consolidation in farming has made finding workers already living in those communities nearly impossible. That’s led companies to try and tempt talent into rural communities, despite what is often a significant cultural barrier.

“Many of them have never lived in a rural area, so they have it in their head that they’re falling off the face of the earth,” he says. Fear of the unknown is one element, Hammerich says, but so are social isolation and ideological differences.

For many UMES students, navigating the urban-rural divide was a challenge they faced to attend college. The campus is located in rural Princess Anne, Maryland, a three-hour drive from the communities many of these students call home.

“Coming to UMES was a culture shock,” says Jason Sierra, another MANRRS executive board member, one who came to campus without a car. “Living here for a week and realizing after class that there’s nothing to do on the weekends, it hurts a little bit.”

Binns says this is an issue that MANRRS is working to bring to the forefront among ag industry employers. “It’s one thing to throw money at an undergrad and say, ‘Hey, come work for us,’ but then you dump them in the middle of nowhere with no support system, and wonder why they leave in a year or two,” he says.

Building a network among people of color in agriculture improves the experience students have while they’re in the program and throughout their careers, Binns says, and helps them find the resources they need to get a foothold in the industry.

The Road Back to the Farm

Farmers of color are also interested in strengthening the talent pipeline coming into agriculture and onto the farm, despite many barriers. Chris Newman, the farmer at Sylvanaqua Farms in Virginia, says two contradictory ideas about interest from people of color in farming exacerbate those systemic barriers.

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“There’s a myth that people of color don’t want to farm,” he says. “But also, there is within the Black community, a friction that says progress isn’t supposed to go towards the farm.” Newman says though the sentiment exists, particularly among older generations, that farming is not the future of their community, it’s not stopping young people from becoming interested and finding a way onto the farm. Soul Fire Farms in upstate New York has been creating a model to bring young people of color back to the land. But Newman says it’s certainly not an easy path for someone without a background in farming or rural community ties in many other places.

“It’s really intimidating for people of color to go into some of these rural areas that are not only white-dominated but conservative-dominated… it’s not a safe and comfortable place to learn.” He says one of the biggest ways he contributes to helping more minorities return to farming is to be an example of someone who can not only a make a life while farming, but make a living off the land. But he’s also looking to do more.

“If someone were to come to me right now who was African American, Latinx, or Indigenous, and asked me what they could do to get on the land, I’d basically say grab a bedroom downstairs and stay as long as you want. Because I don’t know where else they could go.”

Newman’s experience was a rare one; he started his career in technology, where he was able to build up considerable savings and have access to high-value markets. He says with so few farmers of color left on the land after generations of systemic exclusion, there aren’t enough spaces like Sylvanaqua Farms or Soul Fire Farms, where they can feel safe and learn in an environment where their cultural values and their history is respected. But he hopes he can be part of changing that reality.

He also says breaking the stereotypes of farming is another key to making the career more accessible. He identifies as neither a hippie farmer or a conventional farmer—he listens to hip hop and eats at McDonald’s, and has never been to a drum circle or square dance. He emphasizes that being a farmer doesn’t have to be an identity.

Newman laughs when asked what he thinks about the lack of interest in farming among MANRRS students. He’s familiar with the resistance to farming, citing a group of students he mentored through the Accokeek Foundation’s Conservation Corps, which offers a farming internship to young people of color outside of D.C.

“The first thing I asked them was, who here wants to be a farmer? And everyone kind of looked at each other like, ‘Nah, we’re just here because this was an opportunity to get paid, and it was outside instead of inside.’” He says a few months later, at the end of the program, those same kids were openly talking about when they would start their own farm.

“It was a foregone conclusion,” Newman recalls.

While MANRRS leaders focus on diversifying ag industry careers, alumni are looking to diversify farming—by way of urban agriculture.

University of Maryland Extension agent Vernelle Mitchell-Hawkins says places like Baltimore are already starting to be more aware of the mix of urban, suburban, and rural space the community occupies. She sees growing interest in urban and suburban farming.

“I think more people are paying more attention to what they eat and in that respect I think we’re going to find more growers. They may not be large scale, but I think we’re going to find more homesteaders.” She says among newer, younger growers, environmental impact and sustainability is a more significant part of the conversation.

Mitchell-Hawkins says getting young people of color interested in production agriculture, in urban and rural settings, continues to be important to USDA’s extension service, which has initiatives in place to educate young growers. She says ag education as a track in career tech institutes in both Baltimore city and county public schools is increasing awareness about the possibilities in agriculture.

Sarah Mock is a DC-based freelance reporter. Read more >

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  1. What would attract the young to farming might be for them to discover the impressive complexity of well -developed forest gardens (permaculture, regenerative agriculture operations), which are labor-intensive because of the great diversity of plants and animals and the keen sense their practitioners develop of the interactions and potential harmony among the elements. This involves knowledge at least as impressive as what is involved in law or medicine, and has as great a value toward saving the world. The conception of farming in this way can be made inspiring, can breed justified self-esteem.

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