Small Wisconsin Farmers Conference Equity and Inclusion Keynote - Cooperative Farm Ownership as Resilience for Black American Farmers
Farming Cooperatives are an integral piece to the story of Black land ownership and sovereignty in the United States. Upon abolition, deficient civil rights and various economic and social policies and attitudes were applied to maintaining a system where Black farmers experienced a host of barriers to practicing agriculture through lack of financial resources through loans and credit, disproportionate land loss, debilitating sharecropping economy, underscored by an inherent embeddedness of white supremacy in American society and food system (Hinson and Robinson, 2008). In the face of a discriminatory, violent, and racist economy and drawing from traditional Afro-Indigenous farming practices, Black American farmers innovated many sustainable practices that are now commonplace in the sustainable agriculture movement like community supported agriculture (CSA), community land trusts, and innovative land ownership cooperatives (Hinson and Robinson, 2008).
We seek to understand and share the ways in which cooperative farm ownership bolsters social, environmental, and economic resilience for Black farmers as we discuss equity and inclusion in the field of small Wisconsin farmers. We have identified two Black Farming cooperatives in the United States, Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, New York, and Sylvanaqua Farms in Montross, Virginia, that will inform our qualitative inquiry. Soul Fire Farm is an Afro-Indigenous centered farm cooperative committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system. Sylvanaqua Farms is a vertically-integrated employee-owned cooperative of farms, nurseries, mills, and processors that is rooted in politically redefining regenerative agriculture as conventional and conventional agriculture as historical. Using individual farming cooperatives as case studies makes our scope narrow, but understanding resilience practices from two exemplar farms, informs further research in the field and can result in working theories that can extend beyond the confines of our research and into the state of small farming in Wisconsin.
In what ways does cooperative ownership historically and currently operate as a source of economic, social and environmental resilience for small Black farmers in the United States in the face of social and racial disturbances of post Reconstruction America?
From child development to better understanding market shocks, the term resilience has been conceptualized in many different ways. For the sake of this analysis however, we will follow Glantz and Slaboda’s definition of resilience: “the capacity for successful adaptation in the face of hardship” (2002). Additionally, we will understand resilience as a process, more specifically the mediator between risk factors and outcome variables (McCubbin, 2001). With this, our model is expressed in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Resilience as Process
According to Czekaj et al., resilience is often considered central to the debate on overall sustainability, especially in economic, social and environmental terms (2020). This is to say that resilience needs to be more thoroughly understood across contexts to fully realize sustainability. In regards to this paper, we will be investigating how cooperative ownership provides the necessary space for Black farmers to remain economically, social and environmentally resilient.
Within the framework suggested by Czekaj et al. (2020), we have defined economic, social and ecological resilience as follows:
Figure 2: Black Farm Resilience Contextualized Through Cezkaj et al. Definition
Through what medium Black farming cooperatives provide flexibility in addressing economic disturbances like limited access to financial resources and surrounding markets, or discriminative policy conditions.
To what degree Black farming cooperatives allow adaptation to both internal and external social disturbances in relation to human resources and wider population trends.
How Black farming cooperatives resist effects from environmental disturbances like climate, weather and pests .
To more clearly define cooperative, we offer some key characteristics. First of all, it is a business that is member-owned and controlled. More specifically, this control adheres to democratic principles with each member having an equal vote. In conjunction with this notion, all profits of the cooperative are distributed to the members based on their participation (Penniman et al., 2018).
We are also interested in understanding the unique circumstances under which Black farmers had to practice such resilience. We outline and define these circumstances as social and Racial disturbances (SRD). SRD are social, economic, and political threats to access to financial resources, levels of income, and market and production related policy conditions that have adverse effects on the success of farm operations. These disturbances are detailed below:
Lack of financial resources : As litigated in the Pigford v Glickman supreme court case, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) discriminated against Black farmers on the basis of processing farm credit, loan servicing, and non-credit benefits like the disproportionate use and meddling of supervised bank accounts, individual misconducts of higher up USDA county administrators, and sluggish processing of loan and credit applications for Black farmers. The overarching effects noted in “The Decline of Black Farming in America'' showed the receipt of only 1% of on farm ownership loans, 2.5% of farm operating loans, and 1% of all water conservation loans went to Black farmers. Aside from overt racism, discrimination on the basis of class and race continue to be inherent in American agricultural policy which continually favor farms with mechanization and the utilization of pesticides and herbicides, benefiting agribusiness stakeholders, farms with investment capital, and overlooking poor small farmers who are disproportionately Black (Hinson and Robinson, 2008), (United States Commission on Civil Rights 1982)
Land loss: Between the time of Reconstruction to the present, Black farmers have lost an incomprehensible amount of land due to a variety of systemic factors including lack of access to credit, discriminatory tax laws, absence of wills, lack of financial and/or technical skills in accruing land, eminent domain, and other nefarious strategies. A 2002 report by the United States Department of Agriculture, found that between 1990 and 1999, Black farmers declined by 98% while white farmers only experienced a loss of 63%. Further, by 1997, fewer than 20,000, or 1% of all farmers were Black, and they owned only about two million acres out of the approximately 913 million acres of total American farmland (USDA, 2002), (Wood and Gilbert, 2000) (Hinson and Robinson, 2008). More visual presentation is expressed in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Approximate Ownership of Farmland Relative to 1910, by race. Adapted from "How the USDA distorted data to conceal decades of discrimination against Black farmers," by N. Rosenberg and B. W. Stucki, 2019, June 26, The Counter . April, 13, 2021, https://thecounter.org/usda-black-farmers-discrimination-tom-vilsack-reparations-civil-rights/ . 2020 The Counter.
Confining sharecropping economy : Post abolition, Black farmers remained entrapped in sharecropping, a similarly exploitative economy as slavery, or what scholars Waymon R. Hinson and Edward Robinson define as “virtual peonage.” Sharecropping is an agricultural system in which individuals rent portions of land from a landowner in exchange for a portion of the sharecropper's harvest at the end of each year. In the case of Black American farmers, sharecropping bound Black farmers to white landowners, creating a cycle of dependency resulting in increasing debts, restrictive pathways to legal action, health consequences of poverty such as malnutrition and disease, all underscored by a distinct, intentional, and debilitating denial of the creation of sovereign food systems for Black Americans (Hinson and Robinson, 288).
Inherent embeddedness of white supremacy in American society : The history of chattle slavery in the land, the people, and the systems of agriculture can never be disembedded from the fabric of American agriculture. Black agrarian scholar, Christian Keeve, argues that the “afterlives of plantation systems'' have leached into and dictate out current “systems of labor extraction, capital accumulation, and agricultural production” resulting in white supremacist violence at every stage of labor in the American food system ( Keeve, 2020) . Hinson and Robinson summarize the inextricable white supremacy and legacy of the exploitations of slavery faced by Black farmers by saying simply, “most white Americans believed that African Americans...were meant to be tillers of the land - but never owners of their own land” (Hinson and Robinson, 2008).
Research on social and racial discrimination faced by Black American farmers puts us as white researchers in a unique place. It must be said, that the very social and racial disturbances and system of white supremacy that place barriers on Black American’s quality of life actively benefit us as white and cisgendered researchers. This places us at a higher risk of implicit bias in our research which has led us to intentionally center the experiences of individual Black farmers or Black farming collectives with supporting quantitative data. We will refrain from centering our individual opinions as to avoid deliberate bias, with the understanding that implicit bias cannot be fully extracted from our personal positionality.
Because we are not conducting in-person interviews and instead utilizing existing scholarship, our positionality and identities will have less influence on the collection and presentation of our research but should still be understood and contextualized accordingly. Our research is informed by primary recounts and reports of the happenings of Soul Fire Farm and Sylvanaqua Farms from the founders themselves, Leah Penniman and Chris Newman respectively. Though intimate and first-hand-experience driven, this type of reporting could be influenced by personal bias and subjectivity.
Lastly, our identities as white and cisgendered researchers implicates the presentation of Black cooperative farming to a primarily white audience of small farmers in Wisconsin (Wisconsin only has 54 Black farms out of a total of 64,793 farms) (USDA Census of Agriculture, 2017) . We are not the source of the Afro-Indigenous knowledge we are presenting today, rather hope to act as a conduit as a way to convey the work and impact of Soul Fire Farm and Sylvanaqua Farms.
Review of Literature
In our study, we choose to look at Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, NY and Sylvanaqua Farms in Montross Virginia. These cooperatives are the focus of this study due primarily to the expansive amount of literature discussing their practices. We will use both published books and articles to build this understanding. This allows us to more fully sense and analyze the ways in which their structure acts as a source of economic, social and environmental resilience.
Resilience Case Study 1: Soul Fire Farm
From its inception, Soul Fire Farm was built on a foundation of resilience and ultimately a need for good food and community and a passion for land stewardship and social justice (Penniman, 2018). Leah Penniman, founder of Soul Fire Farm, recounts in their book Farming While Black, lacking access to nourishing food for their newborn and toddler on the South End of Albany. Penniman and her partner built relationships with their neighbors and learned that their struggles to food access were community struggles to food access with the largest barriers being cost and transportation. Built from a liberatory practice, Penniman says, “we believed that to free ourselves collectively, we must feed ourselves” (Penniman, 2018, 47). We see the legacy of social and racial disturbances reflected in South End Albany’s food insecurity. Rooted in Black land loss, inequitable lending and credit, sharecropping, and the inherent white supremacy of the American agricultural system, South Albany, a primarily Black and working class neighborhood, lacked the ability to define and control the production of food, also known as food sovereignty (Penniman, 2018). In response to the social and racial disturbances faced by their community, specifically barriers of transportation and cost, Penniman constructed Soul Fire Farm in the image of Ujamaa (a Swahili word meaning community) cooperative economics with a subscription-based farm-share model (Penniman, 2018).
Figure 4: In the first year of Soul Fire Farm’s Ujamaa Farm Share CSA, the packing operation was small enough to fit in Penniman’s living room. Photo by Jonah Vitale-Wolff.
Looking historically, the foundation of Soul Fire Farm’s farm-share model is inspired by one of the first iterations of community-supported agriculture (CSA). Booker T. Whatley, a Black professor at Tuskegee Institute, innovated a Clientele Membership Club whereby farm members can pick their own produce at approximately 60% of market price with an initial upfront investment of $25 per household. This is the foundational logic of the current day CSA model that enables the farmer to plan production, anticipate demand, and have a guaranteed upfront market while enabling community members to have a say in what is planted (Penniman, 2018). This was a product not only of resilience but also innovation.
Soul Fire Farm reaps economic resilience from cooperative farm ownership. The economic benefits of cooperative farm ownership include the opportunity for joint farm purchasing power resulting in a divided upfront investment, and shared business risks and collective agency (Penniman, 2018). Though the foundation of Soul Fire and cooperative ownership seeks to limit the exploitation and negative effects of capitalism, material security is meaningful for the continuation of cooperatives that use the tools but invert the framework of capitalistic individualism (Penniman, 2018). “ As spiritual activists, we work for economic justice, social welfare, and environmental protection” (Penniman, 2018, 78). Economic resilience is bolstered through maintaining transparent and worker informed on-farm finances, in addition to a cap on wages and benefits that exist between the highest and lowest-paid person in the organization. Further, Soul Fire Farm has repertory structures in place that allow white-led organizations to transfer resources to farm operations, employees, and infrastructure (Penniman, 2018). Overall, cooperative farms flip notions of colonial property ownership standards that value individuals over collective profit and they pool wealth, know-how and resources that leads to long term economic growth without negative social and environmental impacts.
Figure 5: Board members of Soul Fire Farm use a ranking tool to determine program priorities for the next season.
Soul Fire Farm recognizes cooperative farm ownership as a means to meet the need for social resilience in particularly marginalized communities with BIPOC. One of the benefits of cooperative ownership, Penniman lists, is that it leads to a framework of solidarity, fellowship, and deep human connection that is paramount when considering the suppression of Afro-Indigenous culture in the United States (Penniman, 2018). “White supremacy infuses all aspects of society including our history, culture, politics, economics, and entire social fabric, producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color” (Penniman, 2018, 389). Social determinants to resilience and sustainability, the latter as presented by M.T. Niles, recognizes race as a factor of the inequitable distribution of both environmental burdens of climate change and resources and aid institutionally. From farmer training for the next generation of BIPOC activist-farmers, reparations and land return initiatives for northeast farmers, food justice workshops for urban youth, home gardens for people living under food apartheid, doorstep harvest delivery for food insecure households, and systems and policy education for public decision-makers, Soul Fire Farm operates with a foundational understanding that “land and food are essential to liberation for Black people” (Penniman, 2018, 20).
Figure 6: Young people use theater to explore the history of land loss and resistance in the Black community. Photo by Neshima Vitale-Penniman.
The environmental impacts of climate change disproportionally impact socially and racially marginalized populations like developing nations and BIPOC communities (Islam and Winkel, 2017). Soul Fire Farm is intimately and spiritually invested in the restoration and protection of environmental resources. They use Afro-Indigenous agroforestry, silvopasture, wildcrafting, polyculture and spiritual farming practices to regenerate 80 acres of land (Penniman, 2018). These practices increase topsoil depths, sequester soil carbon, and increase biodiversity in addition to combatting the effects of environmental disturbances like climate, weather, and pests (Penniman, 2018).
Resilience Case Study 2: Sylvanaqua Farms
Since its founding nearly eight years ago, Sylvanaqua Farms has been in a constant state of flux, always changing in pursuit of the most efficient sustainable farming practices. At first, these methods centered the ideas of a predominantly white affluent regenerative agriculture movement (Newman, 2013). After significant trials and tribulations, Chris Newman decided to follow his Black and Indigenous heritage and push for more land-based operations. This combination of Afro-Indigenous agricultural systems centered two things: collective ownership and common land stewardship (A Growing Culture, 2020; Newman, 2019; Seijen, 2020). With this being said, the very foundation of Sylvanaqua farms as seen today is built on BIPOC knowledge.
From a historical perspective, one of the major figures influencing their transition was Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Farms Cooperative (FFC). Much like Sylvanaqua Farms, the FFC was predicated on the notion of living off the land, creating community and building an alternative food system that is both cooperative and collective (White, 2017). Moreover, Fannie Lou Hamer imagined this model to be a “wedge in the political machine,” no longer allowing the dominant white class to recklessly coerce Black communities into compliance (White, 2017.). In a similar manner, Newman’s goal is to build a cooperative to withdraw power and resources from big agribusiness corporations and give them back to the people (Schweizer, 2020). It is no surprise that in order to move forward, Newman found the framework laid out in the past.
With this in mind, Sylvanaqua Farms views cooperative ownership as a way to remain economically resilient in the face of limited access to capital and markets. In order to compete in today’s globalized economy, many farms may have to rely on cheap or even unpaid labor to continue meaningful production. With this, Newman also recognizes his inability to pay what the farmers deserve (A Growing Culture, 2020). Because of this, the cooperative model allows each farmer to own a stake in the business, which allows for the development of an asset base outside the convention of typical wage labor (Schweizer, 2020). In addition to labor benefits, Newman notes three outcomes that cooperatives lead to: decrease in production cost, swelling of market share and lowering of barriers to entry (Newman, 2019). This is thanks to the economies of scale, which Newman believes allows the cooperative model to start competing with big agribusiness (Schweizer, 2020). All in all, he says, “It’s that isolation that makes us weak and ineffective against incredibly well-resourced competition” (Newman, 2019). Overall, farming together allows for not only greater economic growth but resilience.
Figure 7: Newman and other farmers process chicken from Sylvanaqua Farms to be processed and sold.
In addition to economic capital, Sylvanaqua Farms views social capital as being fundamental to resilience. Because the cooperative model brings everyone into the system, Newman believes it keeps people together, creating a supportive environment (A Growing Culture, 2020). With having this network, individuals may have the opportunity to explore their passions deeply without fear of failure. In fact, Newman believes that the quality of life would rise for members, especially BIPOC folks who already face barriers to sustainable farming (Newman, 2019, 2020). In a similar vein, many farmers are unjustly scapegoated for their role in the broken food system, especially as consumers “vote with their fork.”
Figure 8: Group of Sylvanaqua farmers pose for a photo after a day of work.
However, Newman understands Sylvanaqua’s cooperative model to shift that blame back to the food system itself and away from both consumers and farmers. In his eyes, the current food system was built on a foundation that is inherently flawed (Newman, 2013). In taking this approach, he hopes to bring people together in pursuit of a better food system, one modeled on the contributions of BIPOC farmers.
Lastly, Sylvanaqua Farms sees the capacity for environmental resilience in the cooperative farming framework. Since Thomas Jefferson’s idea of the nation of yeoman farmers, the American psyche has been nearly obsessed with the small family-owned farm. Much to the dismay, the U.S. agricultural industry is becoming increasingly consolidated and extractice, leaving the earth uncared for. The small family farms that remain are not large enough to counteract this trend on a grand scale. In fact, Newman stresses the cooperative model as being the best tool to counteract these trends. The primary reason is that combining large pieces of land together in a cooperative allows for broad ecosystem understandings, thus the ability to heal the Earth (A Growing Culture, 2020; Schweizer, 2020).
Figure 9: Newman as he tends to Indigenous cropping system composed of corn, beans and squash called “Three Sisters.”
Yet, this does not limit the ability for individuals to pursue niche ecological roles but rather creates an environment where that is possible. Since ecological diversity is managed at the cooperative level, individuals can have more freedom to operate at their own scale and focus less on extractive agriculture (Newman, 2019). This allows for long-term sustainability on the land, in addition to resilience in the face of changing environmental conditions.
Although we recognize the strengths of focusing solely on these cooperatives, there are some inherent limitations to this approach. First of all, because of this narrow focus, the findings may not potentially be applicable to all Black farming cooperatives. This is to say that experiences may not be universal but rather a complex and unique combination of factors, and even more so when looking at individual responses. Considering this, the purpose of this paper is once again to compile existing knowledge on the importance of Black farming cooperatives as a means of resilience.
In future research, we would suggest surveying Black farming cooperatives across the United States with questions centering our findings to see whether or not they are broadly applicable. Ideally, these would be done through both interviews and a more simplistic survey method. This would allow researchers to tease out the more nuanced role that cooperatives play in varying contexts, while also compiling quantitative data for succinct comparative analyses.
As a result of looking at Sylvanaqua Farms and Soul Fire Farms, it was noticeable that both see their cooperative model as leading to economic, social and environmental resilience in the face of social and racial disturbances. Although some of their rationale differed, the central premise was the same: without cooperatives, agriculture will continue to be unsustainable. This will ultimately lead to continued planetary decline and a population lacking social and nutritional sustenance. In consideration of our research question, we found Black farming cooperatives to generally provide economic stability in the form of resource sharing, social support networks for farmers, and more environmentally-centered agricultural practices.
We created a table to more succinctly showcase how strategies present in these cooperatives allow them to be economically, socially & environmentally resilient. (Figure 10). As one can see, the studied cooperatives appeared to have met the criteria for each category. We found each strategy to influence at least one area of resilience, but the average was often more than that. The most influential strategy was “framework of solidarity and fellowship,” which hit on all areas of resilience. Generally speaking, our research suggests that might be the most effective medium to shape future Black farming cooperatives.
Figure 10: Relation between employed strategies and resilience observed in Black Farming Cooperatives
Through looking at historical precedent, it was apparent that Black activists like Fannie Lou Hamer & Booker T. Whatley were instrumental in both informing and shaping Sylvanaqua and Soul Fire Farms. From a more general perspective, it became clear that Afro-Indigenous farming methods were centered in their cooperatives models as Eurocentric ones focused on extractivist agriculture and stolen labor. It has become clear that the past informs the present, but these systems are reimagined as society evolves.
In giving a keynote at a small Wisconsin farmers’ conference, we hope these findings inform and inspire BIPOC farmers to consider cooperative ownership as a source of resilience in the face racial and social disturbances. However, we believe these findings may influence cooperative development in all small-scale farming settings. This is particularly important given the long history of agriculture in Wisconsin and its importance to the State’s economy & culture.
Furthermore, this research could ultimately promote the awareness and popularity of cooperative ownership models on a national level. As demonstrated, cooperative farm ownership benefits social, environmental, and social sustainability and provides a framework of resilience for historically marginalized communities. Furthering the tradition of Black farming cooperatives would help chronic health problems of food apartheid, food sovereignty in BIPOC neighborhoods, environmental justice, and the redistribution of wealth and resources.
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