Perspective: Navigating Equity in Agriculture

Insights from the Agricultural Policy, Economics, and Diverse Farms and Farmers Virtual Conference

In the Perspectives guest blog series, Farm Foundation invites participants from among the varied Farm Foundation programs to share their unique viewpoint on a topic relevant to a Farm Foundation focus area. This post-event summary of the Agricultural Policy, Economics, and Diverse Farms and Farmers Virtual Conference, which was held March 5-6, 2024, was written by Logan Moss. He is a 2024 Farm Foundation Agricultural Scholar and a graduate research assistant at the University of Arkansas. He is pursuing an M.S. in Agricultural Economics with a research focus on agribusiness marketing and policy.

The Agricultural Policy, Economics, and Diverse Farms and Farmers Virtual Conference brought together minds dedicated to unraveling the complexities surrounding diversity and agriculture. In the welcoming address, Farm Foundation Vice President Martha King and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) economist Dr. Steven Morgan underscored the collaborative effort with the USDA and Farm Foundation, setting the stage for a two-day exploration into the opportunities and challenges faced by diverse farmers.

In the first session, keynote speakers highlighted the current state of diversity in the agriculture industry and the role of 1890 land-grant institutions in encouraging diversity in the agriculture space. Dr. Dewayne Goldman, USDA senior advisor for racial equity, emphasized the importance of understanding how diverse farms interact with policy, focusing on the strategic recommendations made to Secretary Vilsack by the USDA Equity Commission. The commission’s recommendations underscored the urgency of making equity a permanent fixture at USDA, measuring, and auditing recommendations and focusing on engagement, land access, conservation, and rural development. Drs. Raymond Shange from Tuskegee University and Antonio McLaren from the 1890 Universities Foundation highlighted some areas and programs in which 1890 universities led crucial agricultural research.

A Lack of Equitable Participation

Later in the day, we heard from economists from the USDA and academia about their research into diverse agriculturalists’ access and participation in federal government programs. These economists have pursued vigorous research on programs ranging from the USDA Farm Service Agency Farm Lending Program (FLP) to the pandemic-triggered Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) administered through the Small Business Administration. While the programs varied across the presentations, the results remained strikingly similar—some demographic groups lack equitable participation in these programs. These findings underscore the need for increased evaluation and monitoring of farm programs and highlight the Equity Commission’s concern with auditing the implementation of their strategic recommendations.

The second day of the 2-day symposium began with an industry panel moderated by USDA Equity Commission member and University of Arkansas Professor Dr. Ron Rainey. The panel consisted of experts from across the agri-food industry in varying stages of their careers. These experts talked about challenges faced by diverse agriculturalists and the steps that each of their various organizations have taken to combat these challenges. Much of the conversation hinged on the USDA Equity Commission’s report and ways that the increased focus on diversity at the USDA can impact positive change in their organizations.

Next, researchers discussed diverse participation in market demand and supply. The primary topics of discussion were diverse participation in farming and food production and the consumer demand for food produced by underserved farmers. In this session, it became clear that while underrepresented in food production, there is significant consumer demand for products produced by Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) farmers. This research points towards an intriguing market dynamic that shows, while historically underserved, there is potential for expansion of BIPOC-owned food production and further research into the area.

Diverse Farm Demographics

While we often think of producer demographics when discussing diversity in agriculture, farm demographics often play a key role in farm market access. There are significant challenges associated with farm demographics like small-holder and urban operations, leading the final session to be focused solely on diverse farms. This session sheds light on the diverse aspects of these niche operations and some programs designed to assist them. As farms become larger, entering production agriculture becomes more difficult making these small-holder farms increasingly important, both from a production and educational standpoint.

Overall, this conference served as a springboard for the people and organizations working to increase the representation of diverse farms, producers, and professionals in the agri-food industry to connect, network, and share ideas. As the average age of the American farmer increases and the ratio of family farms decreases, it has never been more important to encourage the next generation of food producers, entrepreneurs, and marketers to enter the industry. With the increased focus on mitigating risks that diverse food and fiber producers face, the USDA and Farm Foundation understand that highlighting these challenges and solutions is crucial. This first-of-its-kind conference embodies these ideals and serves as a beacon for other researchers and organizations to follow. In short, we must change. We must begin to focus on access as well as production and encourage the next generation of agriculturalists to follow in our footsteps, regardless of their demographics.

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