Back Forty: Building a Black farming community

A community work day organized by the Black Farmer Fund. Photo by Onyx Ramirez.

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By Samuel Fromartz

The Black Farmer Fund’s mission is to “nurture Black community wealth and health” through investments in Black agriculture in the Northeast. In 2021, its pilot program raised $1 million for eight farmers in New York State. Each farm was eligible for a grant of up to $50,000; they could also apply for a loan for up to another $50,000. Each business determined its needs and how best to use the money.

The fund can be viewed as a response to the historic decline of Black farmers and Black land ownership, as well as to decades of inequity in the USDA lending program. But it is far more than a funding organization, aiming to build an “ecosystem” in which farmers help one another and can tap resources they need, from business accounting to new market opportunities. “We also have community work days where a farmer may have 15 other people come and construct a greenhouse. And then the next week they’ll be doing that at another farm,” says Program Director Melanie Allen.

Although the program is still young, it’s seeking to raise more money in a second round of funding and expand the geographic location of its grants and loans in the Northeast. FERN connected with Allen on Zoom to talk about the fund’s work.

Tell me your origin story. How did Black Farmer Fund get started?

The idea of a Black farmer fund came from our two founding board members, Karen Washington and Olivia Watkins, who are both female farmers. Olivia is a mushroom farmer. She was working on land in North Carolina that had been in her family for over four generations, though she recently moved up to Massachusetts. And Karen Washington is a founder and farmer at Rising Root Farm in Chester, New York.

Melanie Allen, program director at BFF. Photo courtesy of BFF.

They connected in 2018 at BUGs, which is a gathering for Black urban gardeners and farmers from across the country. They talked about the lack of capital that was available for Black farmers, and in the larger food space generally. And they wanted to create a funding vehicle that actually responded to the needs of Black farmers, thinking about all of the discriminatory practices that have been rooted in more traditional funding vehicles and how the USDA has really failed to respond to the needs of Black farmers across the country. So that was the beginning of the Black Farmer Fund. We support farmers, land stewards, food distributors, caterers and folks working in the restaurant industry. We’re looking at all the food actors: consumers, producers, and all the hands in between.

And you are focused in New York?

We started off focusing in New York, the home for a lot of our founding board members, and because we had a lot of social capital and community connections there. And the intention behind it, being a community-led investment fund, was that the lived experience of being a Black farmer was instrumental, especially when thinking about funding decisions. We had farmers, community organizers, people working in food distribution and in the restaurant industry who came together to design our first application process. They collaborated on developing our investment guidelines around economic justice, community wealth building, and environmental and ecological management. Our aim is to fund Black farmers that have some kind of social impact.

We initially thought we could raise $50,000 — to distribute $5,000 to 10 farmers — but we were able to raise $1 million. We received over 50 applications and we narrowed those to eight businesses that were doing work in line with our investment guidelines. It was a mix of farmers and herbalists. USDA data showed 139 Black farmers, technically, out of 57,000 total farmers in New York State. But we also know that data is very restrictive technically, and we think the numbers are higher.

We also know $50,000 is not going to drastically change a business. So for our next round of funding, we want to really focus on deep and sustained funding. If your business really needs $5 million, we need to create a plan in the next five years to get you that $5 million. So, we’re really thinking about a more long-term relationship with our investees, and not just around funding.

What are the other elements of the program?

We work very much in an ecosystem model. There are six organizations we have partnered with that all have similar audiences in the sense that they serve BIPOC farmers, land stewards, food actors throughout the Northeast, and we each have our different niche. BFF comes in with funding. Farm School, in New York City, and Soul Fire Farm focus on farm education and training. The Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust focuses on land acquisition. Black Farmers United New York focuses on advocating for more political resources at the state level for Black farmers. And then the Corbin Hill Food Project focuses on food distribution. We recognize we often serve the same community members, so we’re trying to figure out how best to collaborate and build a better ‘we.’

Given your model, what would be a success?

We’re actually going to go through a theory-of-change exercise for the organization; what are our goals over the next five or 10 years, what change do we want to see in this larger Black food ecosystem? We want to identify what we’ll be able to do on our own and where we’ll need more collaboration to achieve this goal. So I don’t have that answer right now of what success is, but it definitely is more Black farmers owning land, because land acquisition is one of the biggest barriers for Black farmers to actually be able to plan long-term. And right now 98 percent of land in the country is concentrated in white hands. We’re asking, if we want to be able to fund land acquisition, how much money do we have to raise?

For the second fund, which you are opening in December, presumably you want to build out the investor network?

Yes, and one of our goals around investment is that we really want to lean into community-wealth building, which is community supporting community — for us, by us. Less than 1 percent of the pilot fund came from Black folks, the rest came from white donors and investors. And we want to shift that. So we’re having an intentional strategy around Black donors focusing on narrative change around philanthropy, and who philanthropists are. Because we are all investing in the food system on a daily basis, every time we eat, but how that can translate into financial investment for Black farmers?