As a Black farmer in Milwaukee, and a Land Advocacy Fellow with the National Young Farmers Coalition, I recognize that the 2023 Farm Bill will likely dictate U.S. land policy more than any other policy decision over the next decade. It will set the stage for how communities use the land they are rooted in and will decide who has access and how they work that land. I know firsthand that land is deeply intertwined with all aspects of farmers’ success, and it does not just impact farmers. Land access is critical to the health and well-being of our environment, economy, and marginalized communities. Research from the USDA shows that across the country, the current predominant generation of farmers is aging out of the profession. The average farmer in the U.S. is nearly 60 years old while prime farmland is being lost to development at a rate of more than 2,000 acres per day.

During my tenure as a farmer, I have tried and failed to utilize the USDA’s disadvantaged farmer program, which set aside dollars specifically for BIPOC − Black, Indigenous, and other people of color − to purchase land. I’ve lost crops due to drought, all while facing racial discrimination from other farmers and getting the side-eye from passers-by that live in the affluent white community I farm in. I have dealt with the inflated prices of the materials I need to bring my product to market, and I still have kept the farm running through the pandemic while wondering if I can continue to choose farming or if I have to give it up and instead work a more typical 9-5 job.

Finding secure access to land is an even greater barrier for farmers of color than our white counterparts. I would not be farming if I hadn’t found the farm incubator program I work through. But southeast Wisconsin only has one that is active and fully functioning as an incubator with the resources to help new farmers start out on the right foot.

To understand the current challenges facing young farmers, it is important to understand the historical context. For generations, public policy has facilitated the dispossession of millions of acres from people of color. Through policies such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Homestead Acts of the mid-1800s, the revocation of Field Order No. 15, and the Alien Land Laws of the early 1900s, among others, Congress has been responsible for the dispossession of hundreds of millions of acres from Indigenous people and other people of color, while facilitating land ownership and access for white Americans.

As a result, white individuals now account for 95 percent of all farmers, own 98 percent of farmland, and receive the vast majority of agriculture-related financial assistance. Public policy has also enabled farmland loss, depletion, and non-farmer ownership. Since the policies of the New Deal-era, lawmakers have shifted support away from farmers and towards corporate interests. That’s why I am in support of land stewardships asking Congress to:

  • Ensure the accessibility and accountability of USDA programs, centering young farmers of color and increasing access for the next generation of farmers as a whole.
  •  Invest in community-led projects that create secure, affordable land access opportunities.
  • Improve access to credit to help farmers compete in the real estate market.
  • Invest in incentivizing farm transition and preventing land loss in communities of color.
  •  Bring coordination to federal land access initiatives across agencies and departments.

 It’s easy to get caught up in policy jargon, believe me I understand. But to put it in a way that is easier to digest and put you in the shoes of someone who was/is a recipient of all of this dispossession and discrimination, let me tell you a snippet of a story about my grandparents’ farm and how we lost it many many years ago. My family stopped farming two generations ago when the government tricked my grandparents into selling their land for a few dollars.

They had grandpa sign his deed away, knowing that he did not know how to read. They had crops, animals, and plenty of space for my mom and her 7 siblings and the land would have been passed down along the generational line. I would have been in line to inherit this land and all of the infrastructure that was built over the last 60 plus years. The land more than likely would have been paid off, and I would have been able to use government money to “purchase” this land from my family-which was already going to be mine without having to pay market rate for the land. This would have enabled my mom to retire.

Later on I could also inherit what would have been left of that government subsidized buyout after she passed. This is one common way that generational wealth is built, and BIPOC folks were refused it due to governmental malfeasance.  Don’t be fooled into thinking this kind of thing is ancient history. This story is not that far in the past. My mom is alive and young enough to still physically run around with her grandkids. My grandma is also still alive and dancing too!

And this generation of BIPOC farmers are not only dealing with the pitfalls of the  racial disparity in lending and participation in programming that is specifically for us. We are often faced with balancing our call to farm with helping our parents or the older generation begin healing the trauma that makes them want to dissuade us from getting into farming to start with. We are often told that we shouldn’t grow because that is what enslaved people did or the fear of the government taking the land all over again as it did in the not so distant past is a non-starter for farming. We fight an internalized battle of knowing that growing food and medicines can be progress, while being reminded that this country still has not even begun to reconcile for the sin of forcing my people to grow for hundreds of years without pay or choice while facing barbarism some would love to delete from the history books.

I joined the National Young Farmers Coalition’s Land Advocacy Fellowship along with 99 other farmers and ranchers from across the country because I wanted to ensure that someone from around here spoke for us and represented not only BIPOC farmers and aspiring farmers, but of Wisconsin as a whole. The Coalition’s One Million Acres for the Future Campaign is calling on Congress to make an historic investment of $2.5 billion in equitable access to land the 2023 Farm Bill. This investment could make one million acres of land accessible to a new generation of farmers.

We believe that policies implemented through the 2023 Farm Bill can help to ensure that valuable agricultural land is not lost and that access to it is equitable for my generation and those to come.

You can help now by connecting to any number of organizations that focus on BIPOC growers such as: Alices garden, teens grow greens, Walnut Way, Full Circle Healing Farm, Loveland acres farm and many others. You can also contact Wisconsin Senators Tammy Baldwin or Ron Johnson or any of our representatives in the House of Representatives and tell them to support the 2023 Farm Bill asks of the Young Farmers Coalition. So volunteer to get your hands dirty, you can help advocate for BIPOC farmers in your social circles and spread the word, you can donate directly to places that do this work, or you can lean in the direction of pushing for reparations. However you choose to help, we could use it.

Martice Scales owns and operates Full Circle Healing, a family-run farm, healing center and apothecary with his wife, Amy Kroll-Scales, and two children.

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