The Black Farmer Fund Is Investing $20 Million in Community Wealth | Civil Eats

This Fund Is Investing $20 Million to Help Black Farmers Thrive

Farmer-activists Karen Washington and Olivia Watkins created the Black Farmer Fund to boost Black farmers, agricultural businesses, and food entrepreneurs in the Northeast with tools, training, and cash.

The Black farmers at Big Dream Farm stand in the field. (Photo credit: Jared Davis)

Farmers working at Big Dream Farm, a Black Farmer Fund grantee. (Photo credit: Jared Davis)

For the past decade, Afro-Puerto Rican farmer Rafael Aponte and his family have been running Rocky Acres Community Farm in Freeville, New York, just outside Ithaca. The South Bronx native focuses on sustainably producing vegetables, eggs, and meat for low-resourced communities as well as creating a space for transformational healing through agriculture. But when the pandemic hit, his community needed something else from him. That’s when Aponte applied for additional support from Black Farmer Fund.

Founded by farmer-activist Karen Washington and social entrepreneur Olivia Watkins in 2017, this nonprofit organization acts as a racially just investment fund created explicitly to support Black farmers, agricultural businesses, and food entrepreneurs in the Northeast, with the goal of building community wealth and local food sovereignty through collective power. Rocky Acres was among the first cohort of eight agricultural businesses that received support through the organization’s 2021 $1.1-million pilot fund.

The money helped Aponte shift his direct-to-consumer business model to include a home delivery service and a small on-farm store or bodega. “It allows me to aggregate products from other farmers of color who don’t have the time to spend at the market,” he says. “Being from the Bronx, I’ve always come at things from a food justice lens and really look to make sure folks have sufficient access to their foods.”

Inspecting the crop at Rocky Acres. (Photo credit: Onyx Ramirez)

Inspecting the crop at Rocky Acres Farm. (Photo credit: Onyx Ramirez)

Rocky Acres started out as 10 acres but has since expanded to 30, all owned by Aponte and his family. The pilot fund support—including a $50,000 grant and a $25,000 loan—allowed him to put the additional acreage into production sooner, create infrastructure for new crop fields, install greenhouses, and establish the bodega, which opened on Earth Day 2022.

To stay true to its community roots, Black Farmer Fund tapped a committee of 11 Black farmers and food industry entrepreneurs to help determine which of 50 Pilot Fund applicants would receive grants and/or low-interest loans, supported by private donors and foundations such as the Sandy River Charitable Foundation.

All of the investees—including 716 CBD, Rootwork Herbals, Black Yard Farm Collective, and more—are based in New York, where there are marked inequities: The average annual net cash income for Black farmers in the state is $-900 while white farmers made over $42,000, according to Black Farmer Fund research.

This echoes the hugely disproportionate hurdles that Black farmers across America face, the long-lasting result of centuries of systemic racism. Despite acting as the bedrock of the agricultural industry, they have historically experienced violence, such as the 1919 Elaine Massacre, and discrimination when dealing with financial institutions and government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

These disparities have meaningful, measurable consequences, with research showing that Black farmers—who represent just 1.4 percent of farmers, compared to 14 percent a century ago—earn a mere $2,408 per year on average, compared to the $17,190 that white farmers take home.

“From a historic economic perspective, the loss of Black agricultural land represents a significant loss of wealth and capital to the Black community in the United States,” says Dania V. Francis, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who has extensively researched Black land loss.

“The USDA has to get their act together. . . . They need to change their ways to make it easier for communities of color to navigate their system.”

Francis and her colleagues estimate that the Black agricultural land that was lost or stolen in the U.S. from 1920 to 1997 would be worth a cumulative $326 billion today. “While that is only a fraction of the current Black-white wealth gap, it represents lost opportunities for Black farmers to invest in the higher education of their children, to invest in opening other small businesses, and to serve as a family and social safety net against hard times. Ownership of an asset as valuable as arable land comes with many benefits that could enhance the well-being of Black communities,” she explains.

Recent attempts to right these wrongs are often characterized as too little too late, such as the 2021 effort by the Biden Administration to offer Black farmers $4 billion in debt relief. The offer was walked back after white farmers brought multiple lawsuits claiming that the race-specific debt-relief program was discriminatory, then a group of Black farmers filed a class-action lawsuit against the federal government in response.

The following year, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) included $2.2 billion in funding to compensate farmers who have been subject to discrimination within USDA programs and $3.1 billion in loan help for farmers in serious financial distress. But how much of that will reach Black farmers is yet to be seen.

Karen Washington. (Photo credit: Black Farmer Fund)

Karen Washington. (Photo credit: Black Farmer Fund)

“The USDA has to get their act together. They’ve put money out there, but they need to change their ways to make it easier for communities of color to navigate their system,” says Washington, a celebrated community organizer and co-owner of multigenerational QTBIPOC Rise & Root Farm in Chester, New York. “For so long, decisions have been made that impact communities of color and we’re never asked to be at the table.”

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After watching what they describe as pervasive inequities and broken promises, Washington and Watkins have taken matters into their own hands. “We’re trying to break that extractive, capitalistic system that for so long has come from outside trying to control the lives and well-being of our community without our voices,” adds Washington.

The recipients of this year’s James Beard Award for Humanitarian of the Year, the duo recently launched BFF Fund 2.0, a $20-million integrated capital fund to support an estimated 30 Black farmers and agricultural businesses across the Northeast over the next four years. It builds on the momentum of the organization’s Pilot Fund and includes key improvements.

“The Pilot Fund was just that—a pilot,” says Watkins, who serves as the organization’s president. “There’s definitely a lot of gratitude that something like this exists; we’re hearing that people feel safe being able to access funding from people who look like them. And because we have community at our center, we’re really receptive to feedback about how we can evolve.”

Olivia Watkins. (Photo credit: Black Farmer Fund)

Olivia Watkins. (Photo credit: Black Farmer Fund)

Due to popular demand, the coverage area for version 2.0 of the fund has expanded to include the broader Northeast. Over the past year, Black Farmer Fund has developed a more robust internal team to handle logistics and an influx of donors and applicants, again with a community-led investment committee to oversee the selection process. The nonprofit has also debuted a Rapid Response Fund to support Northeast Black farmers and food entrepreneurs in the event of an emergency.

“It’s still very early in the pilot fund, but we’re already seeing it enhance Black equitable businesses,” says Watkins, who notes that 95 percent of investees’ goods and services are sold within a 200-mile radius and that 35 percent of their suppliers are BIPOC. “We found that within the pilot cohort the hired workers on average make more than New York state minimum wage—showing that people are really invested in building wealth for others.”

Beyond capital, Black Farmer Fund also provides technical assistance, business development, relationship building, and other vitally needed support. The nonprofit’s summer community workdays, for instance, bring together farmers and volunteers to work on farm projects, like Aponte’s. “They literally came out and helped paint the bodega bright yellow and stood up on a ladder 20 feet in the air to help me put a greenhouse together,” he says. “I’ve never met any other lender that would do that.”

These bonding experiences reflect Black Farmer Fund’s mission to foster community. “Our workdays allow us to be grounded in our roots and bring people together in a way that’s in alignment with Afrocentric values,” says Washington. “Within that, we are creating a space for Black food businesses to come together and learn from one another, exchange ideas and resources, and celebrate the bounty and harvest. It’s a Pan-African tradition.”

Black Farmers working in the fields at Big Dream Farm. (Photo credit: Jared Davis)

Farmers working at Big Dream Farm. (Photo credit: Jared Davis)

Even with this early success, Washington and Watkins are eager to see a larger shift in power. That includes closing the racial wealth gap in the agricultural industry, which they say has long been perpetuated by skewed lending practices that often render small minority-owned farms high-risk. In 2022, for example, the USDA granted direct loans to only 37 percent of Black applicants versus 71 percent of white applicants.

“For so long, a lot of the people we work with have been considered risky by traditional banking standards,” says Watkins. “But what does it look like for traditional banking standards to shift from what’s the risk of investing to what’s the risk of not investing?”

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Black food and economic development thought leaders across the country are eager to learn from the Black Farmer Fund to set up similar programs. “We’re just one part of the broader food justice movement, and we really want to see other folks doing this in a way that best suits their place,” says Watkins. “We’ve been talking with Black folks in other states and regions who are interested, and we’re very excited to be generous with all the information and materials we’ve developed along the way.”

“What does it look like for traditional banking standards to shift from what’s the risk of investing to what’s the risk of not investing?”

Watkins says local and state lawmakers have also approached her and Washington for more insight into the fund’s successes, but the organization is focused on its grassroots, community-based initiatives rather than trying to influence policy at this point.

“Here we are with no federal dollars, no state dollars, no city dollars—no support from the government. So, we have really built this on the backs of our community,” says Washington. That said, Black Farmer Fund has partnered with OpenTEAM and Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust to assess the interest among minority-owned agricultural businesses in technology that enables them to share information about crop yields, current markets, and the like—all useful for lender and grant application processes.

And while there’s undoubtedly more work to be done to get Black growers the support they need to start new farms and stay on the land, the Black Farmer Fund’s efforts to shift power back to these producers have certainly made a difference for agricultural entrepreneurs like Aponte of Rocky Acres.

“If folks believe in capitalism as a system, then we understand that businesses need to be able to compete—and we also understand the historic disenfranchisement of Black farmers in this country’s history,” Aponte says. “We need more resources at the table to level the playing field. The Black Farmer Fund is sorely needed and right on time. I hope to see them continue to grow and become the model for regenerative capital across the country.”

An Alaska Native Tlingit tribal member, Nelson is an award-winning writer and editor living in Minneapolis. She's the former editor-in-chief of Artful Living, a top U.S. boutique lifestyle magazine. She's interviewed such luminaries as Padma Lakshmi, chef Sean Sherman, and "Reservation Dogs" creator Sterlin Harjo and written for publications including ELLE, Esquire, Vanity Fair, National Geographic, the BBC, the Guardian, Teen Vogue, and more. Read more >

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