California Farmers of Color Need More Support During the Pandemic. Can Private Efforts Help?

Governments, NGOs, and philanthropists are working to help small-scale farmers sell their goods—and feed the hungry.

Harvesting peanuts for Sister Farms. (Photo credit: Slow Food East Bay)

When Cecilia Cengiz drove from Oakland down to Salinas, California, she began to doubt whether the 50 boxes of kale and zucchini, along with the 10 others she was set to pick up from a farm in Pescadero, would fit in her rental van. It was only her first time driving down to the central coast to buy produce from farmers of color who lost their accounts to wholesale distributors at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, but it was clear that she would have to figure out a way to keep up with the supply.

“Basically, what we have created is a small food hub,” said Cengiz, the daughter of Mexican immigrant farmworkers who started the aggregating and distributing brand Yeyi Organics in April. “I like helping the farmers, and they work well with me. As soon as I take the produce, I pay them in cash. And they really like that.” The up-front payments and personal relationship with Cengiz is a welcome change to many farmers of color who are accustomed to sending their produce to nearby aggregators and getting paid weeks later.

The pandemic has highlighted the fragility of a national food system based on the consolidation of industries and just-in-time distribution, reviving interest in the resilience and diversity of local food systems.

Yet, even as some farmers have experienced a boom in business, doubling their community supported agriculture (CSA) programs and expanding local reach, many of California’s farmers of color, who account for roughly 19 percent of the state’s farmers, have struggled to recover from closed wholesale accounts and reduced farmers’ market audiences.

Rather than help their operations, the pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerabilities these farmers already faced due to generations of discriminatory lending and market practices and land evictions. Out of the nearly 24,000 farmers considered socially disadvantaged based on California’s 2020 Farmer Equity Report, roughly 62 percent are Latinx, 28 percent are Asian, and the remaining 6 percent are Native American or Black.

“Established, more well-off farms have the capacity to pivot,” said Josefina Chavez, the farm-to-market specialist at the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), an organization that has been helping farmers along the central coast join existing aggregate markets that connect produce with buyers. “If you are an immigrant farmer, you are out of luck,” she said.

Delivering produce from farmers of color for people who need fresh produce. (Photo credit: Urban Tilth)

Photo credit: Urban Tilth

Even with the help of CAFF, business is slow for many producers, and buyers are infrequent, Chavez said. “These farmers are putting in all of their savings investing in their farm to grow sustainable produce, and they don’t even have money to eat.”

What’s resulted from the challenges Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC) farmers have had pivoting to new markets is a distributional quagmire preventing supply from reaching demand, creating one of the biggest ironies of the pandemic: Record numbers of Californians are going hungry even while small farmers of color can’t find outlets to sell their produce.

The disruptions to the efficiency-focused, industrialized food system—and the instability and injustices exposed by collapsed markets—have revealed an urgent need for distributors and aggregators who can connect supply with demand and work toward rebuilding a more inclusive and resilient food system.

Even before the pandemic, the discrepancies in state support for socially disadvantaged farmers gave rise to the Farmer Equity Act of 2017, which amended California Food and Agriculture Code to recognize socially disadvantaged farmers as a distinct group and to frame policy around their unique needs. These factors have motivated state, philanthropic, and private efforts working to help California’s most disenfranchised farmers reinvent their business models and redirect produce towards food insecure communities.

While the efforts have helped growing numbers of BIPOC farmers across the state access new and fairer markets and develop more of a connection with their customers, many face linguistic, technological, and geographic barriers that prevent them from even accessing these initiatives.

New Food Distribution Network 

Organizations with long-standing relationships to farmer communities were best positioned to provide quick relief.

Preparing food for distribution at Feed Sonoma. (Photo credit: Feed Sonoma)

Preparing food for distribution in Sonoma. (Photo credit: FEED Sonoma)

“They’re really the biggest champions of this past year for not only changing their grant activities or the focus of their mission, but to really trying to serve those farmers in the most immediate way,” said Thea Rittenhouse, the farm equity advisor for the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA).

“Many farmers aren’t marketers, especially if they’re wholesaling,” she added. “They don’t want to deal with people per se, or they’ve had a system that’s been easy for them so far. And then when that disappears, there’s not really a plan of what to do next. That’s an ongoing challenge.”

Within the first week after the pandemic hit California, Slow Food East Bay (SFEB) chapter lead Willow Blish formed the Sister Farms Project to fill the dearth in distributors who buy from small BIPOC farmers and to send that produce to food insecure communities. “We just said, ‘What do you have to sell? We will peddle it, and we’ll see where we get to,’” said Blish.

Preparing food boxes for distribution. (Photo credit: Urban Tilth)

Preparing food boxes for distribution. (Photo credit: Urban Tilth)

Cengiz decided to found her own aggregation and distribution company after beginning work with SFEB in April, running deliveries from a handful of BIPOC farmers in the central coast to CSA programs run by the Oakland-based youth urban farm project Acta Non Verba and the West Oakland eco-industrial park O2 Artisans Aggregate. Realizing the scale of farmers impacted by closed accounts, Cengiz founded Yeyi Organics and started delivering produce to chefs working with SF Meal, a network of chefs cooking Chinese cuisine.

She buys produce from mostly Latina farmers in the central coast who are undocumented and farm between two and 10 acres. A number of them also work on nearby commercial farms to make ends meet.

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Even before the pandemic, many of the farmers sold a large portion of their produce to nearby Koch Foods at extremely low costs, earning 17 cents a pound for snap peas, according to Cengiz—far below the price that other farmers would get for their crop. But without alternative markets and as undocumented women, these farmers have little negotiating power to demand fair compensation. Since early in the pandemic, Sister Farms Project and Yeyi Organics have provided these farmers with a way to earn a decent wage and access new markets.

Connecting BIPOC Farmers to New Markets

It’s not just Latinx farmers who have been so far unable to pivot to access new market streams. The central coast’s Hmong farmers, who have traditionally sold their produce at farmers’ markets and to wholesalers selling to San Francisco restaurants, also haven’t been able to engage with direct-to-consumer sales. Many of the farmers face language and technological barriers that make it difficult to access farmer relief programs or new wholesale retailers.

Some tried to sell produce to local Asian grocery stores in Fresno, but with close to 1,300 Hmong farming families in the area and only eight stores, the competition was too steep, according to Carmen T. Mendoza, deputy director of the Asian Business Institute and Resource Center (ABIRC) in Fresno.

At the start of the pandemic, Mendoza fielded calls from worried farmers turning to the ABIRC for help. She connected some farmers with Cengiz from Sister Farms Project, who picks up a couple of boxes for the CSA programs in Oakland, but those orders only scratch the surface of what’s needed.

Some of the produce grown by ABIRC's farmers. (Photo credit: ABIRC)

Some of the produce grown by ABIRC’s farmers. (Photo credit: ABIRC)

ABIRC’s Executive Director Blong Xiong secured a grant from the city of Fresno for $500,000 for crop buy-backs. Twice a month, Mendoza and her team utilize a community space, usually a church, where they pay farmers for their produce, which they then package and distribute to food-insecure communities in Fresno. So far, ABIRC has helped 257 farmers.

“We have been such a blessing to these farmers, because so many of them would have just done away with their farms. Many of them were thinking about walking out,” said Mendoza.

But even that effort is far from sufficient, Mendoza said. The grant from Fresno excludes farmers outside the city, even if they still live within the county. Additionally, many also distrust state programs and non-governmental organizations that have excluded or mistreated them for years. “There are organizations that have [presented] themselves as a Hmong farmer-serving organization that have failed them—not once, but twice, and more times,” said Mendoza.

“In any emergency, farmers of color or people of color will be left out,” said Mai Nguyen, a farmer in Sonoma County and chair of the Asian American Farmers Alliance.

This year, Nguyen’s harvest loss amounted to $30,000, due in part to their landlord building a horse training facility on top of their grains and delays in getting the grains cleaned while the facility was closed due to ash from wildfires. When Nguyen checked what USDA Farm Service Agency relief assistance that they qualify for, it was only $650.

“What I want is for our society to ensure that we do not face these crises, that our resilience is not tested,” Nguyen wrote in an email. “If they supported, or even shared risk with us, by giving us a basic income, universal health care, subsidized child care, paid family leave, sick leave—the essentials for essential workers, for life—then we would all be more resilient and secure.”

When the pandemic began, Nguyen started a relief fund for BIPOC farmers in partnership with Mandela Partners, First Nations Development Institute, Kitchen Table Advisors, ALBA, and Minnow. The groups collectively raised $500,000 along with another $100,000 to pay for interpreters and translators whom farmers could call in lieu of filling out a written application, which can be a barrier for some farmers to access relief programs.

Harvesting carrots for Sister Farms. (Photo credit: Slow Food East Bay)

Maria Silva harvesting carrots for Sister Farms. (Photo credit: Cecilia Lara)

On the positive side, “because farmers of color have been [working] at a small scale and are connected to the community, they were very fast to pivot to a community-serving model,” said Nguyen. A number of farmers who received the grant formed a collective, establishing a food delivery program for subscribers akin to a CSA model.

Tania Zuñiga, a business advisor with Kitchen Table Advisors, has observed similar shifts in Salinas, about 140 miles away. With help from local activists, Zuñiga created a website so that three Latinx women farmers could sell their produce directly to neighborhoods in the Bay Area, such as Los Altos. Through word of mouth, more farmers have joined on, and there are now 22 neighborhoods with pick-up locations for the produce.

“For the first time, they felt connected with a real community. For the first time, they felt they were getting paid what’s right for what they’re growing,” said Zuñiga. Geographic isolation has been a huge barrier to accessing direct-to-consumer markets, but with the website, that has now changed for many farmers in Salinas.

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“These times have created an opportunity for people to be more aware of how our food system is broken, and where it is broken, and who are the ones who are actually suffering the most,” Zuñiga added.

Working Toward Radical Change

The near-collapse of the system also presents an opportunity for radical change. Kat Taylor, philanthropist and founder of TomKat Ranch, sees the vulnerability that many BIPOC farmers are experiencing as a result of the pandemic as a core symptom of California’s industrialized food system.

In March, Taylor founded the Growing the Table initiative and pledged to raise $15 million in partnership with CDFA and the California Association of Food Banks (CAFB) to invest in programs that support BIPOC farmers throughout California.

Leonard Diggs, a farmer at Pie Ranch. (Photo credit: Off the Grid)

Leonard Diggs, a farmer at Pie Ranch in San Mateo. (Photo credit: Off the Grid)

Through 12 pilot programs anchored in different regions of California, Growing the Table works with community partners who address racial equity at all stages of the food system, from production to distribution to meal prep. Taylor’s goal with the pilots is to “see where is the connective tissue that we can take advantage of to secure better, durable markets for these producers and shore up their efficiency and bargaining power,” she said.

So far, the foundation has raised $1.8 million for the pilot programs and another $2 million for Farm to Family, a program of the CAFB that pays farmers a wholesale price and the pick-and-pack fee for packaging food that is distributed to food banks.

Growing the Table provides $100,000 to each pilot program, allowing half of that money to be used to provide grantees with capacity upgrades, such as food safety protocols or software. The rest of the money goes toward paying farmers for their produce. In Sonoma, for example, Growing the Table partners with FEED Sonoma, a fresh produce cooperative that offers a veggie box sourced from multiple farms, to pay for the produce and pick-and-pack fees so the boxes can be sent to low-income communities.

“You do not disrupt a $46 billion industry—and that’s just California’s economy—easily,” said Taylor. Beyond the pilots, she has an ambitious agenda to drive equity throughout the entire food system. As the program gains more traction, she hopes to increase opportunities for farmers to access credit and transfer land to BIPOC-led farms. Those efforts would complement existing legislation, like Assembly Bill 986, the Regional Economies and Equity in Agricultural Lands Act, which create a fund to conserve farmland and provide financial resources for socially disadvantaged farmers.

“I think we have to be honest that the industrial food system is not good at feeding hungry people. It’s about efficiencies,” said Taylor. “And we’ve seen how well small farmers serve their markets.”

Top photo credit: ABIRC

Hannah Ricker

Hannah Ricker is an Oakland-based journalist who writes about sustainable agriculture, international development, and gender politics. She currently attends the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Read more >

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