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Reflections on what it means to be a farmer

From our June Young Farmers Chapter Dispatch

As we move deeper into summer and the busiest farming season for many parts of the country, I’ve been reflecting on the diversity of farming styles and circumstances that lead folks to identify as farmers. Every spring, reading through applications to our Young Farmer Grant Program, there are a few applications that stretch the definition of “farming for a living.”

These folks are usually working on food sovereignty projects like community gardens, or backyard raised bed projects for their communities, and often aren’t taking home wages or profits for their farm work. These projects are more often than not also being led by farmers of color. While these projects haven’t been eligible for the grant program because of the ways we’ve defined “farming for a living” (you can read the definition for the program here), seeing how this definition limits our program’s ability to reach a group of predominantly Black, Indigenous, and other farmers of color has me thinking about the trickle down effects of the larger structures of our current food and agriculture systems, and how that impacts who gets to call themselves a farmer in different spaces.

We have an economy that has been intentionally structured by overwhelmingly white politicians to deny access to healthy and affordable food to those who cannot afford to pay. It is also a country that structured other sectors of our economy to keep communities of color disproportionately in that category. Centuries of government endorsed and designed theft of land and labor from Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) created an agricultural sector where approximately 95% of farmers are white and Black farmers own only about 1% of U.S. farmland.

There are so many folks of different identities and practices who call themselves farmers, and who are stretching and expanding that definition to mean so much more than “business owner” or “farm operator.”

I’m headed into this summer thinking about those farmers who are working on projects designed to counter the dominant food system’s marginalization and neglect of low-income communities. Community gardens, backyard box programs, and volunteer-based land stewardship for food security are all ways of farming for a living, often a collective living as the orientation rather than an individual one. These farmers are contributing examples to our agriculture sector that highlight the ways that farming for financial security alone can’t and won’t be an adequate system for feeding our communities. These models make space for a revisioning of our food system, driven by a desire for self-direction and community support. They are models that embody all that’s possible in a next generation of agriculture and a just future, and they are models that I am excited to weave into my work as key to the equitable farming future we are working toward.
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