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What does equity in agriculture matter?


Without everyone seated at the table, feeding, clothing, and fueling a world of 7 billion will be impossible. Creating a sense of belonging falls to farmers and ranchers.

The COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020 revealed many unspoken truths about society in the United States — truths that many marginalized peoples have long known. The pandemic caused us to look inward and re-evaluate our place and sense of belonging. A sense of disconnectedness and social isolation was common for many, which often led to an environment of disempowerment, a feeling new to most.

Among these realizations was a great reconciliation concerning our understanding of work; it seems that we are moving beyond our traditional understanding of “work.”

Even in rural Oklahoma where speaking openly about emotions has not been the generational norm, today’s farmers and ranchers are increasingly willing to explore what their involvement in agriculture means to them. While the generational commitment to maintaining a legacy is a popular motivating force, the personal emotional fulfillment derived from growing and nurturing food and fiber for the world is becoming expressed more openly.

Without a doubt, there is an underlying commitment to individualism and self-reliance in agriculture and the rural way of life. This commitment is both a romanticized accolade to our lifestyle we wear with pride and also the unfortunate downfall of far too many. And yet despite our independence, our reliance on community is fundamental to the survival of agriculture and our role within; without consumers, our products are valueless. Without good neighbors, strong fences, and generous friends to fall back on, agriculture would be nearly impossible.

USDA Office of Tribal Relations Deputy Director Linda Cronin learns about the research work and studies being done at the Institute of American Indian Arts land-grant institution. (Image courtesy of USDA)

I realize and value that my organizational involvement and membership is entirely dependent on the fact that individuals in those agricultural groups invited me and encouraged my participation. There are people in your community who could use such an invitation. Members of historically marginalized communities or as U.S. Department of Agriculture defines, “SDFR” (Socially-disadvantaged Farmers, Ranchers or Agricultural Producers), have not had the same scale of inclusion and sense of community in the world of agriculture.

A socially disadvantaged person belongs to a group whose members have been subject to racial or ethnic prejudice because of their identity; without regard to their individual qualities. Groups included are American Indians or Alaskan Native, Asians, Blacks or African Americans, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics.

According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture (the latest census data available), the total number of farm producers in the U.S. numbered 3,399,834, with an average age of 57.5 years, up from an average age of 56.3 in 2012. And roughly a third of all producers were 65 or older. So what does the next generation of agricultural producers following this aging population look like?

AGDAILY reported in that census, “The USDA began tracking a new subgrouping — Young Producers — defined as those operators under 35. The 321,261 young producers in sum operated 240, 121 total farms composed of 114,588,706 acres. Young producers with a farm exceeding 500 acres numbered 39,792, with the median coming in at 10-49 acres numbering 67,163.” As the median age of farmers and ranchers is increasing, the United States is on the precipice of a historical shift in land ownership and management. Millions of acres will be transferred to new operators and owners in the next several decades.

How we navigate this transition will determine the ability of marginalized groups to successfully enter into agriculture.

Farm Service Agency officials meet with Blackfeet Nation member Jonathan St. Goddard, who started Little Badger Creek Ranch at a young age. (Image courtesy of USDA)

While the USDA has made — and continues to make — an effort to correct the systemic discrimination in their offices and programs, it falls to us, individual farmers, to create an inclusive community for all farmers and ranchers. I ask of you, my fellow producer, to turn inward and assess your effort to create an environment of inclusiveness.

If you have ever been driving down a remote gravel road and passed a place overgrown with eastern red cedars and remarked to yourself, “Wow, I wish that guy would get his cedars under control;” or thought, “My life should would be a lot easier if my neighbor would stop overgrazing and build some cross fences to rotationally graze, then their cows might stay home.” In those moments, pause and reflect on the barriers potentially inhibiting that neighbor from accessing programs through their local conservation district, the Natural Resource Conservation Service office, or the Farm Service Agency service center. It could be lack of program awareness, lack of eligibility due to fractionated ownership issues, or a history of discrimination. What may seem like a rudimentary concept to you is just the beginning for others. Consider extending an invitation into a conversation about their land journey, their stewardship, their needs, and their goals.

We all succeed when we all grow.

There are numerous factors at play that have impeded the growth of and access to land by SDFR producers. Systemic discrimination is an evident stain on American history that plays significantly into this narrative, but we as industry stakeholders have the opportunity today to create more equity in agriculture.

AGDAILY AFT DIversity in Agriculture

Echoing back to my own sense of belonging in the agricultural world as a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and a young beginning female farmer, I feel included because I was invited. Are we all not fundamentally fueled by a desire to belong? Whether it is to belong to our community, our church, or even within our own family, we as humans thrive on connectedness. My fellow farmer, I ask you to explore our common humanity and reposition your thinking about the true meaning of belonging. My call to you is to listen, to extend an invitation, and to amplify the voice of your fellow farmer, wherever they are in their land journey. The call being made upon agriculturalist to provide food and fiber for 7 billion people is a tremendous obligation that cannot be achieved without everyone at the table.

I’m an advocate for equitable land access and land practices because it takes all of us to create a sense of belonging and feed the world.

For more information about the National Young Farmers Coalition: Land Advocacy Fellowship visit this page, and see the work being done on the One Million Acre campaign here.

Jean Lam is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and a fourth generation farmer/rancher originally from Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, and currently residing in Temple, Oklahoma.

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Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of AGDAILY. Comments on this article reflect the sole opinions of their writers.