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.”
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.
“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.”