Most of America’s Farm Owners Are White. This Program Is Rooting for More Diversity

Christina Chan connects with her family through food.
As a first-generation Chinese-American, Chan searches for ways to embrace her Chinese heritage. She doesn’t know much of the language and she doesn’t hold the same traditional values of her parents. But she does share a mutual love for soup dumplings. 
And a love for traditional Cantonese dishes. And a craving for simple dishes, like Chinese leafy greens steamed with oyster sauce. When she eats, she’s connected to her roots. 
“Not only do we use food to show each other care and affection, but it’s the part of my culture that I can understand the most,” she told NationSwell. 
While her family’s shared culture is a major part of her identity, it’s not the only one. She is also a farmer, which is part of why she’s committed to eating local organic produce. 
But Chan struggled to find organic versions of her favorite Chinese vegetables in New York. When walking through Chinatown or Jackson Heights, she couldn’t find t organic versions of the vegetables she grew up eating. “It felt like I had to choose between that part of myself or my culture,” she said. 

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Chan pinches a bunch of basil she’s just finished harvesting for the season.

Chan’s struggle represents a bigger problem in American farming. The crops our country grows aren’t diverse, and it’s partly due to a lack of diverse farmers.
The 2017 USDA Census on Agriculture surveyed 2.7 million principal producers in the United States. Of the 2.7 million, only 16,798, or .7%, identified as Asian. 38,000, or 1.4%, identified as black or African American. At 2.6 million of the 2.7 total, white farmers made up a majority of the principal operators. 
The statistics in Chan’s home state, New York, show a similar pattern — 97% of farms belong to white men, and their average age is 57 years old. While a majority of owners are white, farmworkers are overwhelmingly Latino.
“A system where over 90% of the people are white men is not a resilient system,” Gabriela Pereyra, the Beginning Farmer Program manager at GrowNYC, told NationSwell. “A system that is resilient, it must have diversity.”
The lack of diversity impacts communities in all kinds of ways. It means individuals living in New York City, one of the world’s most diverse populations, don’t always have access to fresh produce used in traditional recipes. It means young people don’t have mentors in a potential career path. It means that communities are disconnected from farmers, and therefore, disconnected from their food. 
So GrowNYC set out to narrow the diversity and age gap between farmworkers and farm owners. “We needed a new generation to bring food to the city,” Pereyra said. 
The nonprofit knew there was a population of young, diverse farmworkers, but because many were immigrants, they lacked the knowledge to navigate the U.S. farm system and establish their own business, explained Pereyra. 
In 2000, GrowNYC launched the New Farmer Development Project, a program to support Spanish-speaking farmers interested in starting their own agricultural business. A decade later, the program merged into what’s now called FARMroots. FARMroots offers both technical assistance for established farmers and a Beginning Farmer Program, open to any farmer with less than 10 years of experience. 
While any new farmer, regardless of background, can apply to the Beginning Farmer Program, the nonprofit is focused on cultivating a diverse group. This year, 40 people applied who immigrated from seven different countries and speak 12 different languages.  
The program is structured as an eight-week course where the 15 accepted farmers will learn every aspect of farming: Finances, land ownership, crop rotation, tractor driving, greenhouse management and land access are just a few they’ll delve into.
After the course, GrowNYC pairs the novice farmers with an established farmer. They’ll spend 200 hours on the established farm and gain firsthand experience.
“We’re not only talking about farming. We are creating the new generation,” Pereyra said. “A new generation that speaks about diversity, equity, community.” 
Kama Doucoure is one of those farmers. After completing the Beginning Farmer Program in 2017, he launched his own farm this March.
Doucoure, who immigrated to the U.S. 12 years ago from Mali, Africa, had been farming since he was 6 years old, Pereyra said. But when he got to New York, he couldn’t find an entry point into farming. Instead, he worked “every single job you could imagine.”
Meanwhile, his community, which is largely West African Muslim, didn’t have the proper foods to celebrate religious holidays. Doucoure was connected with FARMroots, where he completed the Beginning Farmer Program. After, Pereya worked with him to find the right land and location for his farm — he now works in Saugerties, New York, a two and a half-hour drive from Manhattan.
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Christina Chan stands in a backyard garden in Astoria, Queens, where she grows produce for a local chef.

As FARMroots developed its program, Chan was on a winding path to discovering her career in farming. She had initially planned to attend vet school but pivoted and earned a master’s in conservation science. She quickly learned that fieldwork wasn’t a long-term career route for her, so she went to London to volunteer at an urban farm. “And that’s when I kind of put all of these pieces of the puzzle together,” she said.
Chan loved being outdoors. She loved eating. And farming was at the crossroads.
She came back to the U.S. and started an apprenticeship in Hudson Valley. She then worked as a farmer and educator at Randall’s Island Park Alliance. There she met her boss, an alumnus from the FARMroots program, who suggested she apply. 
“They really helped take what is the fuzzy farm dream and bring it into focus,” Chan said. 
Chan still works on an urban farm in the city, and once or twice a week she takes the subway to Astoria, Queens, where she grows produce for a local chef in a backyard.
In raised beds, she’s grown four types of basil and Korean perilla. Along the entryway to the garden, Chan points out a Thai eggplant and bright red chili peppers. 
“Really this year zero for me is to kind of try varieties and figure out what grows well here, what’s productive, what tastes good and just kind of refine my skills with certain things,” she said. She plans to spend 2020 on a production farm or completing another apprenticeship.
Her long-term goal is to feed the community. She plans to find three to five acres of farmland in Hudson Valley where she can bring produce to the Asian communities across New York City. 
“There’s not really many people selling the types of vegetables that are things I would see in my household growing up,” she said. So she’s taking the first step to change that. 
Chan has the group of farmers she worked with in London to thank, as well as her boss on Randall’s Island. 
But she also has GrowNYC to thank, too. Chan and Pereyra have stayed connected as Chan begins the hunt for farmland.   
“You’re not doing it for you,” Chan said. “You’re doing it for the community.”
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From the Boardroom to the Farm: Meet the Woman Helping African Refugees Make a Living Off the Earth

With its downtown high rises housing global oil companies, and its vast, sprawling suburbs that can only be reached by navigating packed freeways and dizzying highway overpasses, Houston does not seem to be a place where a farmer could find a quiet corner to coax a harvest from the soil. But thanks to the unlikely partnership between a co-founder of a software company with nary a notion about gardening and a small group of African refugees with deep roots in the Congo’s fertile soil, several small urban farms are flourishing — bringing hope and joy to the immigrants and fresh produce to their neighbors.
Plant It Forward was established by Teresa OʼDonnell, co-founder of Bridgeway Software, who says, following the success of her company, she was “looking for a means to give back to the community.” The group’s genesis was sparked by a story in the Houston Chronicle about the problem some Iraqi refugees (many of them doctors and engineers) were having finding jobs. “I thought it would be a good fit,” O’Donnell says. So she contacted Catholic Charities, a major worldwide force in refugee resettlement efforts. They implied that helping these Iraqi professionals settle was not much of a challenge compared to the giant problems facing immigrants with few skills.
Houston is the number one refugee destination in the United States, according to the U.S. State Department. Some 70,000 immigrants from 78 countries have settled in the Texas metropolitan area since 1978 — many drawn to its healthy economy and low housing prices.
To help make her aware of their needs, Catholic Charities suggested she accompany a volunteer that was meeting refugees at Houstonʼs international airport. “It was a seminal moment,” she says. OʼDonnell watched as nine people disembarked, “all wearing the same shoes, carrying the same bags, all wearing a name tag and all unable to speak English…I thought, ʻOh my god! They don’t have a chance.ʼ” From that moment she was committed to find a way to help.
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Many of Houston’s African refugees arrive from the war-torn African Republic of Congo-Brazzaville where the earth yields so-called “blood diamonds” and rare metals used to manufacture smartphones and tablets. That same land is blanketed with some of the world’s most fertile soil — a happy circumstance for its multitude of poor citizens. O’Donnell learned that many of the refugees farmed small plots in their home countries, giving her the notion that perhaps they could make a living or get some economic benefit from urban farming.
After meeting with local pioneers in the urban farming movement, O’Donnell set up Plant It Forward, a training program that helps refugees farm crops suitable to the Houston climate (including taking advantage of the region’s two-harvest-a-year cycle) and develop sales skills.
In May 2012, the program leased three acres on the campus of the University of St. Thomas, and later that year, the first class graduated. Now, the organization has increased in size from one to three urban farms (the other two are located at a local church and at a large community garden site) and in scope — including additional classes in urban gardening and business skills. And for the first time ever, this year’s group includes several women, which is particularly important given that female African refugees have a hard time finding jobs due to their lack of English language skills and little educational history, O’Donnell says.
Initially, Plant It Forward aimed to help supplement the income refugees earned by working menial jobs like janitorial services. But it became apparent that, due to the program’s success, some could develop an urban farming business that would provide their entire income. By farming small plots — around two or three acres — and setting up weekly vegetable and fruit stands, several graduates of the program have been able to live off the land and develop a solid, profitable relationships with customers who look forward to the weekly harvests.
One of Plant it Forward’s stars is Sarment (his last name withheld because many refugees harbor understandable fears given their traumatic history). The 51-year-old is a native of Congo-Brazzaville where he had worked as a taxi driver before fleeing and becoming a refugee in neighboring Gabon for 10 years.
“I left the Congo because of the war,” Sarment says through an interpreter. “I left and went to Gabon,” he says. “They told me that I couldn’t drive a taxi because I was a stranger…I made a garden there. In Gabon, I had three people who worked with me in my garden. I was the boss. My garden there was 150 square meters. I mostly grew tomatoes. I also grew eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, sorelle, roselle [hibiscus]. We would sell the vegetables at the market,” he explains.
His garden was a success, but one day, “the military came and said you can’t stay here — if you stay, I will kill you. If I kept farming, they would put me in jail or kill me. I was the boss, so I was in danger, not my workers. After that, the United Nations said it was not safe for me, so they sent me to America.” On Feb. 22, 2010, Sarment, his wife and family arrived in Houston.
In May 2013, Sarment graduated from Plant It Forward’s agricultural program and now operates his one-acre farm in Westbury, a suburb of southwest Houston. He is what the program dubs an “independent farmer,” earning his full income from the produce that he grows. (According to OʼDonnell, independent farmers can gross $30,ooo to 40,000 a year or more in the program.)
Life is good for Sarment now. He and his wife recently welcomed their sixth child — a baby boy — and also his first grandchild. He is taking English language classes and practices with customers at the weekly farm stand sales. “I can work with my family to build my farm and go home and all is good,” he says. “Language is hard — [but farm] work, for me, no problem. I can say itʼs all okay for me in the garden.”
As for his future? “Iʼd like to stay in America. I’d like for my project with farming to grow. I want to stay here, not return to my country. For me — I need my family and my farm. Today this work is small like this. And tomorrow,” he says opening his arms up wide and grinning, “it will be big!”
OʼDonnell, who works full time as the director of Plant It Forward, has big dreams, too. She is working to lease more land and has met with city leaders not just in Houston, but also other cities to explain the concept.
Houston’s neighborhoods have proved enthusiastic about having access to fresh produce, which Plant it Forward sells at stands located at its three farms and at the city’s Urban Harvest Eastside Farmers’ Market on the weekends. The organization also offers a farm share program that delivers its goods to homes on a subscription basis, and O’Donnell is also working to deliver produce from the farms to local chefs.
More so than anything, O’Donnell is excited about the success of this community-building program, which connects her “pioneer farmers” to empty land “that was just being mowed every week”  — satisfying “the huge demand for local food.”
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Why Public Markets Are So Important

Who doesn’t love a public market?
After all, they provide a great opportunity to buy local food, expanding your culinary tastes in the process. But despite our adoration for these markets, we may not realize the full impact they have on the people working the booth. Elijah Anderson, a Yale sociologist, coined Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market a “cosmopolitan canopy” because it is a place of equal opportunity for all genders and ethnicities. Philadelphia is not alone, though, as public markets across the country give everyone the chance to succeed.
Public markets are on the rise again, as noted by Project for Public Spaces (PPS), who found that the number of farmer’s markets increased from 2,863 in 2000 to 7,175 in 2011. The rise can be attributed partly to the help of organizations that assist in linking farmers with land — many of whom are minorities.
FARMroots is one such group. Since its formation in 2000, it has been connecting Latin American immigrants with land in New York State. Recently, they have expanded into the city, supporting urban farms, a growing industry. This is possible through partnerships with Black Urban Group and second-career farms, which are run mainly by women. In addition to minorities, women are also new titans in the sustainable agricultural business.  So far this year, FARMroots has helped raise and market 20 new farm businesses.
Further, farmers are also doing business with SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program) customers, resulting in increased small business development and food access.
These initiatives aren’t limited to just the Northeast though. PPS has recently been working with a Hmong population in Missouri. Originally from Minnesota, the transition was rough due to a different growing season and less interest in Asian foods. However, with the help of a grant from the Kellogg Foundation through PPS, these Hmong farmers  have been given another chance, with a grant that allowed them to participate in training sessions — resulting in sales increases ranging from 200 to 800 percent.
Although these minority and women farmers may experience some discrimination, overall public markets give them the chance to expand their businesses and improve their lives. Therefore, next time you drop by a farmer’s market, realize that not only are you helping yourself, but you are benefiting the lives of those selling to you, too.
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