Valley congressmen should speak up for farmers of color in the 2018 Farm Bill

Farmer Jee Xiong Yang helps out some of her vine-climbing vegetables in attaching to the strings they climb. Beth Spitler says the federal farm bill needs more money earmarked to help farmers of color like Yang.
Farmer Jee Xiong Yang helps out some of her vine-climbing vegetables in attaching to the strings they climb. Beth Spitler says the federal farm bill needs more money earmarked to help farmers of color like Yang. Fresno Bee file

California’s farmers work long days in a risky business, and most aren’t getting rich in the endeavor. But on top of the challenges faced by the industry at large, farmers of color own less land, make less money, and receive less government support than their white counterparts, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. Over 25,000 people of color in the state make up 21 percent of our farmers and ranchers. Supporting this diverse and growing group of farmers should be a top priority for legislators who care about the future of California’s agricultural industry.

One part of the massive Farm Bill now lumbering through Congress, known as the 2501 Program or Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program, has been working to counteract these disparities for decades. Established in the 1990 Farm Bill, the program has invested millions of federal dollars in outreach and technical assistance that help farmers and ranchers historically under served by USDA programs overcome barriers to get the support they deserve.

Attention on the Farm Bill has focused largely on dramatic changes proposed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), with good reason. But California, which is home to 1 in every 10 farmers of color, also has a huge stake in this tiny-but-mighty program, often called “2501” for short. While 2501 only accounts for .008 percent of the 2014 Farm Bill expenditures, in 2017 alone, it funded two vital programs serving farmers of color in the San Joaquin Valley.

California FarmLink, a non-profit working in the Valley to connect independent farmers and ranchers to land and financing, received funding to offer 150 producers business management training and assistance to access USDA services. Over 70 percent of the organization’s clients are Latina or Latino; 40 percent are former farm workers. “The 2501 program allows us to provide linguistically and culturally appropriate services to farmers that aren’t getting capital from conventional banks,” explains Nathan Weller, California Farm Link’s Grants and Programs Manager.

Beth Spitler
Beth Spitler, Berkeley, CA, October 23, 2015

Since 2003, National Hmong American Farmers (NHAF) has served primarily Southeast Asian farmers in Fresno County that have limited access to USDA farm safety net programs. “2501 helps us keep the lights on so we can pass on what we’ve learned over the years to other farmers,” says Chukou Thao, the organization’s founder. NHAF introduces limited-resource farmers of color to USDA services and helps them apply for programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) that funds projects that make their businesses more profitable and environmentally sustainable.

Unfortunately, instead of growing the 2501 program to meet the needs of the nation’s increasing farmer of color population (up 14 percent between 2007 and 2012), the program was forced to do more with less after the 2014 Farm Bill. At the same time that the program’s funding was cut in half, 2501 was expanded to cover veterans. Dr. Robert Zabawaat the George Washington Carver Agricultural Experiment Station at Tuskegee University in Alabama has been directing services intended to stem the tide of black farm loss with 2501 program funds since the beginning. As he describes it, “The pie stays the same size, but the portions get smaller and smaller.” Without consistent funding, he explains, hiring staff that can work with farmers to make a business plan and connect to important USDA programs for the first time is a challenge: “We’re doing our best, but it’s not fair.”

Luckily, the California Legislature has recognized the importance of designing programs specifically to serve producers that have been shut out of U.S. farm programs. The first of its kind, the Farmer Equity Act, signed by Gov. Brown last October, requires the California Department of Food and Agriculture to include socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers in ag policy and program creation – an important step towards policies that actually work for farmers of color, who on average operate smaller, more diverse operations and still face linguistic and cultural barriers and discrimination that make a hard job even tougher.

But California can’t do it alone; the 2501 program provides the financial support that grassroots organizations need to make sure that farmers of color get the loans they need to expand, learn about the newest research, or access crop insurance that will keep them afloat in uncertain times. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, should be championing this important Farm Bill program. Unfortunately, he didn’t sign on to a 2016 letter pressing for an increase to the program’s funding and have remained silent on the subject this year.

Valley congressmen should speak up for the well-funded, transparent 2501 program that farmers of color deserve. Ensuring they no longer lag behind their white counterparts is the right thing to do, and it will contribute to the growth and prosperity that the Valley needs. As Thao affirms, “The program allows us to do so much to help farmers so they have more opportunities and face fewer challenges. It’s giving us a place at the table.”

Correction: Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, did sign on to the 2501 program. This column has been edited accordingly.

Beth Spitler is a Master’s of Public Policy student at UC Berkeley who was born in the San Joaquin Valley and is a policy consultant for the California Farmer Justice Collaborative, which led the effort to pass the Farmer Equity Act of 2017.