Why BIPOC Farmers Need More Protection From Climate Change BIPOC Farmers Need More Protection From Climate Change

Why BIPOC Farmers Need More Protection From Climate Change

Farmer Veronica Mazariegos-Anastassiou of Brisa Ranch in Pescadero, California, has felt the impacts of wildfires, droughts, and floods over the last few years. But the small-scale organic farm has received no federal support to help it recover.

Vero Mazariegos-Anastassiou standing on her small farm in central California. (Photo courtesy of Vero Mazariegos-Anastassiou)

Veronica Mazariegos-Anastassiou on her farm in Central California. (Photo courtesy of Veronica Mazariegos-Anastassiou)

This is the latest installment of our new series, Faces of the Farm Bill, where we humanize the real-world impacts of ag policy.

Veronica Mazariegos-Anastassiou co-owns, operates, and farms Brisa Ranch in Pescadero, California with her husband, Cole Mazariegos-Anastassiou, and friend Cristóbal Cruz. Veronica got her start working with rice farmers in Togo as a Peace Corps volunteer and has been farming full-time in California for seven years. Established in 2018, Brisa is a small-scale organic fruit, vegetable, and flower farm that sells directly to consumers, local restaurants, and grocers. Over the past few years, Brisa has been impacted by wildfires, drought, and floods and Mazariegos-Anastassiou and her partners have received no federal support to recover from these climate events.

Climate change is emerging as a central theme of the 2023 Farm Bill negotiations. Some farming groups are asking Congress to prioritize young farmers and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) farmers in those climate provisions, given the historic discrimination they’ve faced, coupled with the fact that BIPOC communities bear disproportionate impacts of climate change.

According to the National Young Farmers Coalition, which surveyed over 10,000 people under 40 years old, lack of access to land and capital are the core issues young farmers face across the U.S., and the challenge they would most like to see addressed in the next farm bill.

We spoke to Mazariegos-Anastassiou recently about the challenges she faces and how the 2023 Farm Bill could better support farmers like her in recovering from the effects of climate change.

Is climate change impacting your farm?

Vero Mazariegos-Anastassiou standing holding dahlias on her small farm in central California. (Photo courtesy of Vero Mazariegos-Anastassiou)

(Photo courtesy of Veronica Mazariegos-Anastassiou)

The short answer is yes, in the sense that there have been fluctuations in what we should expect. There was the drought, and then there was a deluge of water. In 2020, we were directly affected by the CZU Lightning Complex fires. We understand there are many causes of wildfires, like the warming weather and the drought. But it’s also a land management problem; [people] haven’t been maintaining certain land, and therefore you have these very devastating effects of fire. We felt that directly impacting our operation. I think when you go into farming, you know that things are sometimes out of your control, but you do expect patterns. Now, those patterns are changing at a faster pace than past generations experienced.

During the CZU Lightning Complex fires, did you have support—financial or otherwise—from the federal government to get through?

Absolutely not. But we were supported by our community—family, friends, our customers . . . that’s where we felt supported.

One of the biggest conversations around this latest set of floods is how inaccessible federal support is. The Farm Service Agency, which is the main point of contact for a farmer at the local level, is so bureaucratic. Its products and supports are not geared toward the kind of agriculture that we and other BIPOC farmers are doing. We’re farming in a very different way than what these programs are designed for, so you automatically feel like you don’t even qualify.

“One of the biggest conversations around this latest set of floods is how inaccessible federal support is.”

There’s also a staffing shortage problem; there are just not enough people to address all the issues. And when you’re talking about smaller, diversified producers, we are all the way at the bottom of the list of whoever gets assistance.

It does seem like there are some improvements. The Inflation Reduction Act started to acknowledge the role that farmers like us play in climate change mitigation and the need to support us in adapting to these inevitable climate change impacts. But we have a long way to go.

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Why do you feel like you don’t qualify for federal assistance programs?

When you look at some of the assistance programs, like the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) or the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP), you apply based on the acreage you’re growing of a particular crop. The payout is a very small fraction. In that calculation, if you’re growing very small quantities, there is no point. Filling out the application is actually more work than what I will get out of it. Because the programs are not designed for diverse systems, it feels like they don’t really apply to you. That has been my experience.

With the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), there is a lot of funding for management of a property, but they tend to favor you heavily when you’re the landowner. It’s much harder to access the support when you’re a tenant. And when you’re thinking about BIPOC-owned farms, the reality is that you have a lot less land ownership in that group. We’re subleasing one of our properties, so we’re not able to access the support that’s available, because it really is for folks that have complete agency over their property.

What climate provisions would you like to see in the farm bill?

There are three things I think about. How do we help farmers of all sorts deal with the effects of climate change? And that comes in [the form of] insurance, lower interest loans, and even grants to deal with something that’s unforeseen.

The second thing is the role that farmers and ranchers play in mitigating the effects of climate change. When we’re talking about cover cropping, composting, managing riparian areas, maximizing biodiversity . . . can we have more support to do that work? Because right now we’re doing it because we know it’s important, but it’s not a revenue stream. Federal programs need to provide concrete support for those farmers who are implementing those practices.

The third and probably most important is that you need to have programs that help farmers stay in business and do their work. If we can’t stay in business, forget climate change; we’re not going to be able to do this work, period. And being able to stay on a piece of property long term is very important. What programs can make that easier? Supporting first-time land buyers with down payments or incentivizing landowners that are leasing land to farmers to have really good terms and co-invest in a property. Right now, for example, we are in a year-to-year lease situation, and that’s very difficult when you’re planning a business with long-term ramifications. So that’s another way the farm bill can support beginning farmers and BIPOC farmers.

Why is it important to prioritize BIPOC farmers in the farm bill?

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BIPOC communities in our country are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, food insecurity, and a lot of the issues that are tied to agriculture. Yet, we’ve also been essential and crucial in agriculture because we have often been the farmworkers, the ones actually doing the work, but we have not had the agency to lead those projects.

“BIPOC communities in our country are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, food insecurity, and a lot of the issues tied to agriculture… We are a key group to listen to and support, since we have historically not been afforded that opportunity to lead.”

I am a first-generation American. I’m also a first-generation farmer. A lot of the motivation I had to farm is because I saw how challenging it is to provide healthy food for a family of limited means. And this is not just about food; it’s about our environment. My communities are being more affected by environmental degradation. We’ve largely been left out of the picture when we’re talking about agriculture in the United States.

We have heard ad nauseum about the average farmer’s age, race, and background. Now I think there is an interest in [seeing] these other communities play a role and influence the direction the agriculture industry takes. We’re moving away from a monoculture. There is a wave of young farmers and ranchers that are seeing this as the way forward for agriculture. I think that’s an important perspective to support. We know that certain communities have been historically discriminated against by institutions like the [USDA’s] Farm Service Agency, so I think we are a key group to listen to and support, since we have historically not been afforded that opportunity to lead.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Dana Cronin is an independent audio and print journalist based in Oakland, California. She has covered agriculture and environmental issues for Illinois Public Media and Harvest Public Media, a Midwest reporting collaborative focused on food and agriculture. Her work has been regularly featured on national broadcasts, including NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, PBS Newshour and Science Friday. Read more >

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