Young Farmers Are Growing Food for Climate Action and Racial Justice

Published by
Lisa Held

A version of this article originally appeared in the October issue of the Deep Dish, our monthly newsletter for members. Become a member today to receive the next issue.

As a teenager, Iriel Edwards couldn’t wait to get out of rural Louisiana. But while studying entomology at Cornell University in New York, her path began to change, curving unexpectedly back toward home.

Edwards woke up most days terrified of what her future would look like as the climate crisis intensified. She also learned about the devastating rates of Black land loss and food insecurity in the rural South. She worked in a greenhouse on a project that investigated rice varieties brought from West Africa by enslaved people. Then one day in the library, she discovered Leah Penniman’s book, Farming While Black. “I had never even visualized that possibility for me before then,” she said.

Now, she adds, “farming feels like a practical, tangible thing that somebody can do to make change here and now.” Edwards, 24, works for Jubilee Justice, where she manages a 5-acre farm in Alexandria, Louisiana, on land that was once a plantation. There, her team of Black farmers just wrapped up its third trial season of growing rice using a climate-friendly system called the System of Rice Intensification, or SRI. The organization’s mill will come online before the end of the year, enabling them to begin selling the grain. At the same time, she has started to grow vegetables on her own plot of land with a partner who grows mushrooms.

“Farming feels like a practical, tangible thing that somebody can do to make change here and now.”

According to the results of the National Young Farmers Coalition’s 2022 survey, many of Edwards’ peers share her motivations. Of the 4,300-plus farmers under age 40 who responded, 83 percent said that environmental conservation was one of their primary motivations for farming; meanwhile, 29 percent of all farmers, 54 percent of BIPOC farmers, and 74 percent of Black farmers surveyed ranked anti-racism work among their primary motivations.

The survey also shows that little has improved for young farmers in the last five years, as a significant percentage of respondents reported facing the same challenges to success they identified back in 2017. They’re still struggling to access capital and to manage high healthcare, housing, and production costs. Student debt is still an issue but doesn’t rank as highly as before, likely because most people have paused their payments during the pandemic.

And if President Biden’s plan for partial debt relief is implemented soon, many farmers are likely to benefit, said Carolina Mueller, the rancher and coalition manager who worked closely on the survey.

However, the challenge once again topping the list is finding and affording land—and over the past five years, it has likely gotten worse, Mueller said. Early in the pandemic, wealthy buyers flooded rural areas, driving land values up. At the same time, foreign investors, billionaires, and corporations have also been buying up farmland at high rates. “It’s overwhelming how much of a challenge accessing land is for young farmers,” she said.

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“Young farmers are politically and socially driven . . . they want to solve the world’s issues and they have the energy to do it. [The government should] support people who are ready to do that work.”

Edwards says land is fortunately still affordable in Central Louisiana. Even so, she is now one of 100 land advocacy fellows spread out all over the country advocating for local and national policies that will guarantee equitable access to land for the next generation of farmers. And she has witnessed the impact of Black land loss in her work with Jubilee Justice: In working with Black farmers, she has been made aware that, “there are not very many of us.”

Like close to three-quarters of the farmers surveyed, Edwards has also witnessed the impacts of climate change as she plants and harvests. As older farmers age out and farming gets more difficult due to weather extremes, she said, supporting young farmers will become even more critical.

“Young farmers are politically and socially driven, they’re environmentally conscious, they want to engage with their community, they want to solve the world’s issues—and they have the energy to do it,” Edwards said. “Instead of allowing for barriers to persist . . . [the government should] support people who are ready to do that work.”

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Lisa Held

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism.

Published by
Lisa Held

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