Meet the Black Women Driving New Ag Policy | Civil Eats

Meet the Black Women Driving New Ag Policy

A new generation of elected officials is working to benefit disadvantaged farmers and African Americans in their states by serving on agriculture committees, introducing legislation to promote equity in agriculture, and fighting food insecurity.

Black women farmer-politicians. From left: Kim Jackson of Georgia, Sonya Harper of Illinois, and Juanita Brent of Ohio.

From left: Kim Jackson of Georgia, Sonya Harper of Illinois, and Juanita Brent of Ohio.

When Kim Jackson became a Georgia state senator in January, she didn’t hesitate to stand out. The day after taking office, she joined the state’s Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee, becoming one of only two Black women on the committee. And the appointment was a natural fit for Jackson: The 36-year-old hails from a multigenerational farming family in South Carolina and now owns a five-acre farm in Stone Mountain, Georgia, 20 miles east of Atlanta.

“My parents have a tree farm; my grandparents had a farm that we all had to work on. At the time, that did not feel like a good thing in South Carolina, where it’s very, very hot,” she said with a laugh. “My aunt has an organic farm, and so it’s just been a part of our family that we stick closely to the land.”

As an elected official, one who made history as Georgia’s first LGBTQ+ state senator, Jackson aims to leverage her knowledge of agriculture to advocate for food justice and marginalized farmers. During her short tenure in office, Jackson has already secured state funds to support a Black-led community food hub in Albany, Georgia, and she has more plans in store.

Jackson is far from alone in her advocacy: Legislators around the country are fighting to ensure that farmers of color receive the loan forgiveness and debt relief outlined for them in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The rollout of this relief has been delayed by white farmers alleging in court that the legislation’s provisions for farmers of color constitute reverse discrimination. But Black women lawmakers are working to benefit disadvantaged farmers and African Americans in their states by serving on agriculture committees, introducing legislation to promote equity in agriculture, and fighting food insecurity.

A number of these lawmakers, including Jackson, Ohio State Representative Juanita Brent, and Illinois State Representative Sonya Harper also have direct experience growing food. Their first-hand experience with farming has strengthened their ties to the farmers in their communities and uniquely positioned them to lead food and farming activism in the political arena.

While Brent, an urban farmer, is one of two Black women now serving on the Ohio House Agriculture Committee, Harper is the first woman of color to chair the Illinois House Agriculture and Conservation Committee. With a background in urban agriculture, Harper is currently sponsoring two pieces of legislation—the Black Farmer Restoration Act and the Black Farmers in Illinois Resolution—that would direct the Illinois Department of Agriculture to investigate the loss of Black-owned farmland in the state and the impact it has had on Black farmers.

The work of legislators like Harper, Brent, and Jackson is an outgrowth of the long tradition of farmers who have “pursued legislative remedies to dismantle anti-Black racism within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), FSA [Farm Service Agency] local offices, and county committee system,” said Tracy Lloyd McCurty, executive director of the Black Belt Justice Center and co-organizer of the Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign.

Their activism culminated in the landmark Pigford v. Glickman class action racial discrimination lawsuit against the USDA, which the government settled in 1999. The suit spotlighted the agency’s ongoing discrimination against Black farmers, paving the way for the debt relief and financial help that the American Rescue Plan designated to farmers of color.

“This historical moment demands the continued leadership of Black farmers—legacy, returning, and landless,” McCurty said. “I am inspired by the Black women farmers who are now carrying the torch to restore Black agrarianism in their legislative efforts nationally and locally.”

Routing Funding to Georgia’s Black Farmers

The Black women legislators advocating for Black farmers share key commonalities. They are mostly Millennials, and none have been in office for longer than six years. In fact, most of them have been elected within the past two years. Their involvement in agricultural advocacy marks a renewed interest in an agrarian way of life that has drawn interest at the policy level as well as in the food sovereignty and land rematriation movements people of color are leading.

“It goes back to a statement that my mom made to me when I was a child: ‘Hopefully, you have a job that will pay you, but at the end of the day, you’ll never be hungry because you know how to grow your own food,’” said Jackson. “Being able to feed yourself—that is liberation, and I think that’s what young Black farmers are seeking. When you are no longer dependent on outside resources to provide sustenance for your family, you are free.”

Georgia State Senator Kim Jackson, riding in a truck with one of her goats. (Photo courtesy of SIX)

Georgia State Senator Kim Jackson. (Photo courtesy of SIX)

She applauds the work of Black women in other states emerging as agricultural leaders. For example, North Carolina State Senator Natalie Murdock in 2020 became the first Black woman under the age of 40 elected to the state legislature, and she’s now working on a reparations bill for Black farmers. Elected in 2019, Delaware State Representative Sherry Dorsey Walker serves on the state’s House Agriculture Committee and has organized discussions with Black farmers, agency officials, and others in food and agriculture to make the industry more equitable.

There’s also Rachel Talbot Ross, who is Assistant Majority Leader of the Maine House of Representatives and a small-scale farmer. She’s interested in making sure all communities in her state, from Somali refugees to Native American tribes, can access healthy and culturally relevant foods.

As for Jackson, who grows a number of fruits and vegetables on her hobby farm and orchard, sitting on her state’s agricultural committee is a way to work for the preservation of Black farmland.

“It’s really important to remind Georgians, and people more broadly, that Black farmers are present,” she said. “Yes, we exist. And I’m really committed to trying to make sure we have justice for Black farmers. One of the fastest ways for Black families to lose their farm is because of not having a will. Georgia has a good heirs’ property law, but I want to make sure that it’s working properly.”

The USDA recently announced a new initiative to make $67 million in loans available to address problems related to heirs’ property.

Immediately after taking office, however, Jackson advocated for the state to appropriate $100,000 in funds to the Southwest Georgia Project (SGP), which serves farmers and works to prevent Black land loss. The change was signed into law in May, and the senator is still elated.

Jackson learned from Shirley Sherrod, the former Georgia state director of Rural Development for the USDA and the head of the SGP, that the allocation marked the first time the 60-year-old service organization received state funding. The fact that it took so long, Jackson said, points to a larger historical pattern of Black farmers being denied resources at the local, state, and national levels. The funds she secured for SGP will serve as seed money to help it create a food-processing hub that will provide Black farmers in southwest Georgia with refrigerated produce-storage space and refrigerated trucks to deliver food to consumers in 14 Georgia counties.

When constituents ask her why she cares about what’s happening in southwest Georgia, Jackson tells them that the farming there feeds the residents of her district, which includes metropolitan Atlanta, providing a direct connection between urban and rural Georgians. Having come from a family that has owned farms of all sizes, she’s also grown familiar with the state’s many agricultural rules, regulations, and practices.

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“When I talk about having to mend my fences because my goats keep trying to get at one another, there’s camaraderie that gets built in, and there’s real trust between me and the cattle farmer who sits next to me on the committee,” Jackson said. “And what we know about passing legislation is, if you don’t have relationships with the majority party, nothing’s gonna move. So, that connection point [with rural Republicans] has been really, really important.”

Her farming background is also why she plans to introduce legislation that would promote soil health—a topic that’s gaining urgency around the country.

Raising Soil Health Awareness in Ohio

Serving Ohio’s 12th District, southeast of Cleveland, Representative Juanita Brent did not grow up in a farming family. But her involvement in 4-H, starting at the age of 5, gave her roots in agriculture. Throughout her childhood, she continued to take part in the program, especially enjoying the county fair, which she likens to the “Olympics of farming.” The 4-H program, “developed this network of people that I’ve known since I was a small child and I’m still very much connected with,” said Brent, now 37.

Although her interest in ag sometimes raises eyebrows among people who regard it as an undertaking for “rural, old white men,” Brent said, as a Black woman, she’s interested in the ways that agriculture can lead to food equity.

Ohio State Representative Juanita Brent with dairy cattle. (Photo courtesy of SIX)

Ohio State Representative Juanita Brent. (Photo courtesy of SIX)

When she bought a plot of land in Cleveland six years ago, she initially grew cucumbers, tomatoes, and other produce to relieve stress and practice better eating habits, but she took a more serious interest in growing food when her neighbors said they wanted to garden to combat food insecurity.

“A lot of people want to figure out how they can better use land besides just having [a lawn], and there are a lot of people who live in food deserts and have to literally go outside of their communities if they want some produce,” she explained.

But before urging Ohioans to turn their yard into a garden, Brent tells them about the importance of soil health. Cleveland soils have high lead levels, and Brent plans to introduce statewide soil health legislation in September. “If your soil is not healthy, that will contaminate anything you grow, so it’s vital that people are very much aware of the toxins in the ground.”

She said her initiative would help small-scale farmers who want to go commercial take their first step toward doing so with soil testing. If passed, her legislation would establish a statewide task force on the topic.

The soil health bill will be Brent’s first piece of legislation focused on ag. But as a member of the Ohio House Agriculture Committee, she strives to represent the interests of urban farmers, many of whom are people of color. While politicians have long focused on the needs of rural farms, she said, the challenges of urban farmers are often overlooked. She points to the Ohio House’s recent passage of the first-time farmer tax credit as an example.

“Even though we do have this tax credit, it is not equitable, particularly when it comes to urban farmers, because it is geared toward farms that are on more than five acres of land,” Brent said. “So bringing up the concept of equity is vital; we want everyone to have access to farming.”

Brent has seen African Americans turn to farming as they grow increasingly more health conscious. They no longer want to depend on grocery stores alone to meet their nutritional needs, she said. “People realize you are what you eat.”

Fighting for Illinois’s Rural and Urban Farms

In the predominantly Black and impoverished Chicago neighborhood of West Englewood, the dearth of grocery stores all too often leads residents to go without the fruits and vegetables they need to have a balanced diet, said Illinois State Representative Sonya Harper. A West Englewood resident herself, Harper pointed out that it’s not uncommon for community members to do their food shopping at gas station convenience stores. And she’s seen many people, including her own father, die prematurely from complications related to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes—conditions she believes better nutrition could have prevented.

Before taking office in 2015, Harper had already grown interested in food and farming justice. Over the past decade, she has co-founded a community garden in West Englewood, served as an outreach manager for a local urban farm, and led a food-justice organization called Grow Greater Englewood.

When she became a lawmaker six years ago, Harper prioritized food insecurity and equity in agriculture. But she encountered resistance from fellow ag committee members who ridiculed urban farming or objected to exploring policies to better serve Black farmers, she said. Harper recalled being told, “We can’t support any policies that may favor one group of farmers over the others.” And when she discussed urban farming, “I would get laughed at, even by people who were farmers themselves,” she said. They told her, “Oh, you’re just gardening in your backyard.”

Illinois State Representative Sonya Harper holding a flat of pick-your-own strawberries.

Illinois State Representative Sonya Harper. (Photo courtesy of SIX)

Today, attitudes have changed dramatically. A number of state officials have accompanied her on urban garden tours, and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed legislation this year directing the state’s Department of Agriculture to study racial disparities in farm ownership. Fewer than 200 of Illinois’s 70,000 farms are Black-owned.

Harper said that Black farmers in Illinois haven’t received the same access to information about grants and government programs as their white counterparts have. And that lack of knowledge and resources has not only resulted in a loss of farmland, she said, but it has also hurt urban Black neighborhoods.

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Communities like West Englewood, according to Harper, once relied on Black farmers in rural areas such as Pembroke Township for much of their food. Founded in the 1860s by formerly enslaved African Americans, the township was once the largest Black farming community in the North. Now, a planned natural gas pipeline through the township has sparked controversy, pitting those who believe it will attract jobs and economic resources against others who say it could jeopardize the region’s agricultural future.

Harper hopes to preserve Black farming communities and give them the support they need to thrive once more. She plans to go on a listening tour to hear the concerns of Black farmers, and she wants the state to allocate funding to them. Whether that happens, she said, will largely depend on the results of a disparity study the state will complete by the end of the year.

“We’re trying to restore the historic Black farming communities to create this urban-rural link and support the new up-and-coming urban farmers,” she said.

David Howard, the state policy campaigns director for the National Young Farmers Coalition, said the legislation Harper has successfully sponsored, such as the Farmer Equity Act, pushed the state government to become more progressive.

“The bill took the federal socially disadvantaged definition and applied it at the state level, just to have a baseline within agricultural policy,” he said. “If we’re going to have a set-aside [for disadvantaged farmers], we need the legislative language to build on to really drive resources toward farmers of color. We need to really shift power and leadership resources to the people who are most marginalized.”

Howard added that it’s exciting to see Harper and other women legislators of color become food and agriculture advocates because their lived experiences reflect those of the communities they serve.

Networking for Impact

Like Jackson and Brent, Harper often brainstorms her ideas with other legislators who share her interest in food and farming. She’s part of a cohort of roughly 75 politicians from more than 30 states who share policy proposals through participation in the State Innovation Exchange (SIX), a national policy and research center.

According to Kendra Kimbirauskas, SIX’s Director of Agriculture and Food Systems, the African-American women serving on state ag committees can play a vital role in shaping policy.

“The folks who are leading these conversations at the state level are largely Black women,” she said. “And they’re doing it in an issue space that is dominated by male voices and white voices. You can imagine how difficult that is, particularly in a place like Georgia, to really be a champion for [progressive] policies.”

Kimbirauskas said the fact that these legislators know what it means to dig their hands in the dirt and feed their communities gives them a rare perspective. “They’re not just talking about hypotheticals,” she said. “I think that lends a lot of credibility and authenticity to their policymaking.”

For Jackson, serving on an ag committee helps her to empower the communities that have lacked political influence historically. And, through farming, she is honoring the African Americans of the past.

“For many of us who are descended of enslaved Africans, there is a deep connection to our ancestors and the work that they were forced to do—and also the work they did really, really well,” said Jackson. “That connection matters to me.”

Nadra Nittle is a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats. Based in Los Angeles, she was previously a reporter for The Goods by Vox and was also on staff at the former Vox Media website Racked. She has worked for newspapers affiliated with the Digital First Media and Gannett/USA Today networks and freelanced for a variety of media outlets, including The Atlantic, ThinkProgress, KCET, and About.com. Nadra has covered several issues as a reporter, such as health, education, race, pop culture, and religion. She is the author of Toni Morrison's Spiritual Vision: Faith, Folktales, and Feminism in Her Life and Literature. Read more >

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  1. L.G.C.
    Some folks who are very independent minded may shy away from tests of any kind thru the local government-backed ag extension or other agency. Best, from their perspective, to leave it in the hands of a private testing lab.

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