REAL Talks - Episode 7: Scaling Up - It's Trust and Relationships: Overcoming Historical Barriers in Mid-Tier Agriculture

Author: and Maria Graziani

The first episode in the relaunch of this podcast series features a conversation about historical barriers to equity and access to resources for producers of color.  

June 14, 2024

Reaching for Equity in All Lives podcast cover art includes a graphic of a green tomato with a photo of a young girl cooking superimposed inside.

Welcome back to REAL Talks, Reaching for Equity in All Lives. In this episode, Kolia Souza, Food Systems Equity & Advocacy Specialist of CRFS, and Maria Graziani, Food Systems Specialist and Food Impact Fellow with the Federation of American Scientists, host a conversation about historical barriers to equity and access to resources for producers of color.  

In this episode, they were joined by:  

  • Marcus Coleman, Ph.D. Professor of Practice, Economics + Strategy, Leadership, & Analytics at Tulane University 
  • Rachel Lindvall, Retired Extension Specialist at South Dakota State University 
  • Keesa V. Johnson, M Des, Food Systems Strategy Design Specialist at MSU Center for Regional Food Systems 

The relaunch of this podcast series will focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, across the food and agriculture system. Through this and future episodes, different aspects of this topic will be discussed with members of CRFS and the Racial Equity in the Food System (REFS) National Workgroup. REFS brings together Cooperative Extension professionals and community stakeholders to connect, learn, and collaborate to facilitate change within our institutions and society to build racial equity within the food system. 

These episodes will explore the following questions: 

  • Is there adequate funding for programs that are centering Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous voices?   
  • Is the technical assistance that is being funded adequate for supporting these producers when they are scaling up their businesses? 

Listen to their discussion on the podcast!  

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Episode 7 Transcript

Kolia Souza (00:13): Welcome back to REAL Talks, Reaching for Equity in All Lives. I'm Kolia Souza, Food System Equity and Advocacy Specialist with Michigan State University's Center for Regional Food Systems, also known as CRFS. I'm joined today by a new co-host, Maria Graziani.

Maria Graziani (00:28): Hello everyone. I'm a Food Systems Specialist and currently in the role of Food Impact Fellow with the Federation of American Scientists. As a fellow with FAS, I work within the USDA to develop research focused on equity and accessibility in mid-tier agricultural markets. Glad to be here.

Kolia Souza (00:49): Thanks Maria. So several years ago, CRFS produced a podcast series centered on discussions about DEI, or diversity, equity, and inclusion and what that looks like in the Nutrition Incentive community. So we are picking that back up and expanding the topic to reach across the breadth of the food and agriculture system.

Maria Graziani (01:11): As a part of my fellowship I'm looking at the accessibility of funding for Black, Hispanic, and tribal producers when working to scale their farm operations. And also looking at core competencies for technical assistance for BIPOC producers, along with a few other topics like the effectiveness of wholesale incentive programs and food-hub leadership skills.

Kolia Souza (01:37): So a little relational context for the audience. Maria and I were once colleagues at CRFS, and this is one of many equity issues that we seek to address at the Center. We have a number of state and national initiatives looking at food system infrastructure, planning and policy, farm-to-institution in school, farm and food business development, and what we call Michigan Good Food based on the Michigan Good Food Charter, our state's guide for creating a thriving Michigan food economy distinguished by equity, health, and sustainability.

Maria Graziani (02:10): It's been a few months back I approached Kolia about podcast episodes which she's familiar with that could bring to light the topics of equity and access for BIPOC producers when they are looking to scale their operations to wholesale, farm-to-school, or farm-to-institution. The questions were straightforward. Is there adequate funding for programs that are centering Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous voices, and is the technical assistance that is being funded adequate for supporting these producers when they are scaling?

Kolia Souza (02:46): We are going to explore different aspects of this topic for the next few episodes with members of CRFS and the Racial Equity in the Food System National Workgroup, which brings together Cooperative Extension professionals and community stakeholders to connect, learn, and collaborate to facilitate change within our institutions and society to build racial equity within the food system. There's some broad themes associated with that question that set us up for future conversation with folks working at the intersection of equity and justice, and ag and food systems.

Maria Graziani (03:20): Right, Kolia. These are topics not only important to BIPOC stakeholders and the experts in the room here, but also to the American public, emerging leaders in food systems, and other institutional leads. So let's get into the conversation and learn more. Great. We're here today speaking with several researchers in the field working with the REFS, so Racial Equity in the Food System working group. They're here based on their experience and contribution to REFS talking with us about equity and diversity in food systems work. So I want to introduce our guest speakers today.

Kolia Souza (04:09): I'm Kolia Souza, and I'm a Food System Equity and Advocacy Specialist with Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems. I also lead the Racial Equity in the Food System Workgroup, or REFS, as Maria said.

Marcus Coleman (04:25): Marcus Coleman, I'm a professor at Tulane University focusing on food system leadership. Done some work related to agricultural marketing in the past, but also food systems equity. And I am a member of the Racial Equity in the Food System Workgroup.

Rachel Lindvall (04:41): Hi, I'm Rachel Lindvall. I'm also a member of the Racial Equity in the Food System Workgroup. I currently am doing some private consulting and work within the food systems sphere. I am retired from South Dakota State University where I worked in both Extension with Federally-Recognized Tribal Extension Program as well as some others, and also taught in the Wizipan Leadership and Sustainability Program for South Dakota State University and Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation.

Keesa Johnson (05:20): Hi, my name is Keesa Johnson. I'm a food system designer. I own a social impact design firm called the Equity and Access Group. Currently, I work at the Center for Regional Food Systems as the Food Policy Fellow. I help support and build networks. I work with Kolia Souza, Liz Gensler, and Jordan Lindsay on the Michigan Local Food Council Network and also help support the Network for Inclusive Business Engagement.

Maria Graziani (05:55): Great. I want to bring to the forefront what is going on at the federal level in terms of equity and equity in funding. Historically, anti-discrimination policy and programs working to shift American agriculture to be more equitable is not new to the USDA. As a part of my research, I found that the USDA has made 748 historical recommendations, starting from 1967, on discrimination in farming. And we see as early as 1997 the USDA created a response to these calls and created the Civil Rights Action Team.

And that action team created 92 recommendations to amend past discriminatory practices. But we didn't see until 2010, with President Barack Obama's Administration, a settlement with historical lawsuits like Pigford and Glickman and the Keepseagle tribal settlement, were both settled in 2010. And the USDA has spent much of its recent history solving settlement payment disputes and trying to create better processes for hearing and responding to claims of discrimination. There hasn't been a ton of movement at the USDA in terms of the creation of historical and new programming.

Keesa Johnson (07:32): So it's one farmer, his name is like A. Mohammad. He's an immigrant farmer. He's no longer interested in loans or credit at all. He's not interested in support programs, "We going to do it on our own." And I'm like, "Whoa." When you talk about the support programs that have been put in place, but it's just like this harm that has been done and there's still kind of harm in the system and not addressing the harm doesn't solve the problem.

Another farmer, but this was a woman from, she's a former director of the USDA Office of Civil Rights. She's over in Virginia though. But she was just like, "White farmers get direct payments. Black farmers get process and technical assistance. Nonprofit flyovers dropping leaflets from 10,000 feet above. Now is the time for Black farmers to get the benefits white farmers have received since the inception of it." So it's like a lot of this like power imbalance that we tend to not talk about when we talk about equity.

Rachel Lindvall (08:41): What I'd like to add as we discuss Keepseagle is the essential barrier that the native farmers and ranchers face, which I'm sure is true for other groups as well. But I had the opportunity to be in one of the hearings as native farmers and ranchers talked about those barriers.

It's still one of the most poignant experiences listening to them. Because I think what happens is, you're looking at people being asked to prove up from their records from the 1980s, and you're looking at folks who perhaps when this was happening had no idea of the level of recordkeeping that would be required.

Generations had gone by, and so you had folks who obviously suffered some of those problems in securing loans but were again faced with this giant frustration of knowing this had happened but not being able to prove it up to the level that was required. So it's kind of too little too late.

Maria Graziani (10:08): And I want to point out that at the same time the Pigford and Glickman case was happening in 2010 the settlement for Keepseagle tribal lawsuit was happening as well. This $680 million lawsuit was closed in 2010 during the Obama-Vilsack Administration, and like Pigford and Glickman the USDA has spent years since working on settlement payments for that lawsuit.

Many of the settlements could not be completed for many reasons including the paperwork that needs to be completed to receive settlement payments. So in response the Native American Agricultural Fund was created. This took remaining balances of the Keepseagle settlement and provides eligible organizations business assistance, ag education, tech support, for Native farmers and ranchers.

Marcus Coleman (11:14): The other piece of it too directly relates to the experience of the organization that's receiving that funding, and what their interests are, and if they have the capacity or the ability to talk about scaling up, like providing the education and training to producers to even begin to think about scaling up. I mean, another piece of it too that I'll point out before I move into the next piece of that is, is trust in relationships particularly as it relates to Black farmers and developing new Black farmers and assisting Black farmers in scaling up.

Do the organizations that are receiving this money actually have the authentic and genuine relationships with a good core group of Black farmers where they trust these organizations in a way that if the organization is giving examples or advice in how to scale up, do the producers believe that the organizations have their back, have their best interests at heart in order to scale up? So I see that as being a piece of it. Again, both of those funding sources do a very good job. But one of the gaps there is sort of maybe a focus on scaling up.

Rachel Lindvall (12:25): I had the opportunity myself to run a Beginning Farmer Rancher Development Program, that BFRDP program that we've talked about. A story that I like to share about that is, we were trying to recruit potential producers into our system and we were talking about farmers and ranchers.

And I had a friend of mine say to me, she said, "You know, the kids that I work with," she runs a youth program, she said, "The young adults that I'm working with don't see themselves as farmers and ranchers. They might see themselves as food producers. But farmers and ranchers to them are not what Native people are."

So we started talking about, are you interested in food production? And suddenly there was kind of a whole different perspective on that. So I think it does come back to speaking to people in a way that captures their interest. Also, again, Marcus I think referenced creating relationships because there is a lot of distrust of federal programs and other programs as well.

Maria Graziani (13:45): But I want to go back to, this sort of comes from where Marcus, and Rachel, and Keesa all spoke about, that the federal government has not been in the game of directly providing non-debt money to farmers in order for farmers to scale. The USDA has provided debt financing through its FSA, Farmer Service Agency, lending program.

It has provided subsidies through the risk management insurance program. So there's loans, there's insurance subsidies. Those are gap payments when a farmer does not make the projected amount of income that it doesn't make the amount of income that they projected to make based on the crop that they produce and the amount of crop that they produce.

This information I'm giving is not for our experts. I know you all know this stuff. It's trying to inform the public of sort of what the buckets are of funding, right? So then there's risk management, insurance payment subsidies and indemnities to farmers. That could be catastrophic environmental events that happen that reduce the amount that they're able to produce.

It could be economic events that happen that prevent them from making their full projected income. Then finally there's grants. Grants traditionally in almost all of the departments at the USDA go to technical assistance providers and researchers. They go to institutions, organizations, that then provide services to producers.

Kolia Souza (15:33): So yes, one of the major issues within the Black farming community surrounds land ownership and heirs property, which is land passed down through generations without a clear title. So historical context is really important here. This stemmed from the great migration of the early to mid-1900s when Black Southerners moved to Northern, Midwestern, and Western states to escape racial violence, to get economic opportunity, and then escape all those effects of Jim Crow.

There's a brief from the Union of Concerned Scientists that details the impacts, including that the 90% land loss incurred during the 19th century among Black farmers is due in great part to this. The USDA says that heirs' property is the leading cause of Black involuntary land loss. Furthermore, it's estimated that $326 billion in loss has occurred for Black farmers. Now, in 2018 only a handful of states enacted the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act. I think 11 at the time.

So when you have co-heirs for property, or they're called tenants in common, the courts allow something called partition by sale. That's a legal process that forces sale of the land when tenants in common can't agree. And then those who want to keep the property have to have the winning bid at the public sale auction that ensues. So the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act offers an alternative whereby tenants in common, they can cash out an owner without having to put the entire property up for sale.

But in the 2018 Farm Bill, this act allows heirs property owners to qualify for Farm Services Agency number, to be eligible for USDA programs like lending and disaster relief, and priority consideration for legal services to restructure ownership. In 2018 I think Iowa was the only Midwest state to pass this law, and then Illinois passed it in 2019. Then as of 2022, 21 states enacted the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act. I'll note that the measure was introduced and died in two Midwestern states, one of which I live in.

This is an issue that I can also put in a plug for the Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Research Center at Alcorn State University. Marcus and I actually went to the Professional Ag Workers Conference last year, and I sat in on a session that Dr. Kara Woods led on this. Okay. But related to that, Black farmers filed a class action discrimination lawsuit in 1999 against the USDA for discrimination. That was the Pigford v. Glickman case. That case stated that the US government didn't respond to or investigate discrimination complaints from about 1987 to 1993.

But there was a follow-up to this original case as a result of some concern that a lot of applicants in this class action lawsuit didn't obtain a determination based on supposed merit of their claims. The 2008 Farm Bill provision created a channel for a new right to sue. So essentially two things happened with this case. There was a $1.25 billion settlement that was reached during the Obama-Vilsack Administration, but $100 million was allocated through the 2008 Farm Bill. Meaning Congress had to approve that additional 1.15 billion. There were some failed attempts but it ultimately passed.

Marcus Coleman (19:18): The other piece of this, and it's been pointed out a few times here related to farm infrastructure, access to markets, but also certifications and that piece as being a barrier. From an infrastructure perspective, we can put funding in place in many of these competitive grant programs to assist the training process of people in scaling up.

But if the farmer doesn't have access to the capital to invest in the infrastructure to do these things, it's a lost cause. It's also pointed out that if you talk about cost sharing programs that exist within USDA, you have loan programs that exist in USDA, for Black farmers many don't necessarily have the resources to do that, to even do a cost share program.

When you talk about loan, there's a long history of predatory loan practices that have just decimated the Black community over history of time. So when you start talking to communities of people that have a long history of being on the negative side of predatory loan practices that comes a lot into, "Do I trust even with the government? Do I trust these loan programs to have my best interest at heart?"

Keesa Johnson (20:31): So I probably worked with over 100 farmers just in the Michigan food system. When it comes to CRFS, my role more is institutional. So there's a lot of institutional partners that service farmers that we work with in the space. That's where when it comes to process and policy, the wicked problems that we see and inequities we see stem a lot from like the process. Like who is writing the process and who is writing the policy? That's why we're in the wicked predicament we are.

So it's, I don't know, it's bitter-sweet and kind of sad. But then it's kind of good in some ways where USDA is taking responsibility in pushing money to the people that actually need it. But again, it's going to take a long ways for that to happen due to the processes that are written by people who don't look like those who are affected in the policies as well. So until we start looking at the processes of how this money is getting to people, not just the money, but the processes, we got a long way to go.

Kolia Souza (22:01): I'm having a lot of thoughts around this discussion. I mean, certainly communities, farmers, ranchers are getting funding from the federal government, then state funding through departments of agriculture, rural development research, et cetera. And there are state and national-level foundations that have initiatives that support some form of supply chain development.

I'm thinking about Kellogg Foundation, Kresge, Rockefeller, for example. Even our program at CRFS, the Michigan Good Food Fund, which actually Maria could speak really well to, but that is a public-private partnership that offers funding to food business entrepreneurs and is trying to address some of those barriers like financing.

But what I keep thinking about in all of this is, it seems like we're trying to subsidize an ill-fated system altogether. So where is the shift from this? Going back to language, when Rachel was talking about farmer versus food producer, and we've talked about food sovereignty, even when we think about those who are working in food and ag as entrepreneurs, what does that language, food sovereignty for example, allow us to do in terms of funding?

And here's another prime example. When racism was declared as a public health crisis, one of the strategic reasons for doing that policy-wise was to open up new avenues for funding. So then what would it look like to use different language when we think about the idea of food sovereignty or food business entrepreneurship to move away from subsidy and create a better overall system? If the pandemic didn't do the job of emphasizing the need for more resilient supply chains, then I don't know what does.

I will say though that with USDA funding to establish the regional food business centers and the Resilient Food Systems Infrastructure initiative, I know those are trying to address capital expenditures that Maria talked about earlier. Those usually aren't allowable grant expenses.

And there are these two big issues that are facing farming communities. Succession planning for this growing contingent of retiring farmers, and barriers to entry for new and beginning farmers which includes those capital expenditures. So starting to take all these pieces together, it feels like there's room to start restructuring our existing food and ag system.

Keesa Johnson (24:42): I just feel like it's a lot of people who are working within the USDA structure that really believe in supporting Black and brown people to like, "There's spaces for you. You're here for a reason. You're here to push the structures a lot further than what is accounted for. A lot of this cannot be performative anymore. It's unraveling before our eyes."

Like even when you look at civil rights, there's nothing that I'm seeing about correcting the past to gain trust as a provider in the communities we serve. There's nothing new about me saying that, "Yeah, there should be a new way on how you do outreach and expand the breadth of our service." It shouldn't even be about outreach. It should be about engagement and how we engage on the ground.

Maria Graziani (25:46): That was such a great conversation on the needs around equity, particularly around federal engagement in the process. Kolia, do you have any further thoughts on what we all discussed?

Kolia Souza (25:57): Yeah, several, actually. So bear with me as I try to piece all of this together. My work is primarily occurring at the intersection of policy and systems, that whole advocacy organizing component. That means issue framing and dialogue really piques my interest.

When we look at this public response emerging from the USDA in an effort to rectify historical discrimination, if you will, whether that be the result of case law, or policies enacted, or the establishment of equity action plans and committees, there's still a lot left to public interpretation.

It's dependent on who you are in the system and what's at stake, which almost inevitably lends itself to conflicts of interest and competing priorities. There's this big gray area between what and how we say something, and then what we actually do. It's the, "Well, what does that mean?" Or even more specifically, "What does that mean for me?"

Maria Graziani (26:59): I agree there is a lot for public interpretation, and I think the USDA itself is trying to get its legs on the action of equity. From a Fellow perspective, the USDA is a vehicle for funding programs that are already on the ground or developing on the ground. So the USDA needs to continually work to understand what communities of farmers, educators, advocates, and researchers need to advance their work, and then of course direct those resources there.

The one area I think our guest speakers have established, that this has not been done or done well, is in funding farmers, Black farmers, and Black farmer advocacy organizations. To this end, in my research I looked at the growth in Black and BIPOC farmer funds.

These are funds developed specifically to increase land access for Black and BIPOC farmers and increase their financial opportunities. They are regionally operated and community-based and popping up all over the country. So I would be interested in that reframing, as you said, and further conversation around how federal dollars could better leverage these types of organizations.

Kolia Souza (28:19): Well noted Maria, and we are going to take our next two episodes to set the table to go deeper into that discussion exactly. We hope that you have enjoyed this episode. You can find all REAL Talks episodes on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts [now YouTube Podcasts], and Spotify. Please share this podcast and check out our other episodes. REAL Talks is a podcast created by the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems.

Reaching for Equity in All Lives (REAL) Talks  

REAL Talks is a podcast created by the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems.  The series is hosted by Kolia Souza and Maria Graziani, and produced by Melissa Hill. The podcast is supported by funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. This episode is made possible in part through the Food Systems Impact Fellowship from the Federation of American Scientists. You can find out more about FAS at 

You can find all REAL Talks episodes on Apple Podcasts, YouTube Podcasts, and Spotify. Please share this podcast and check out our other episodes.