Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Serving Underserved Farmers

by CRARS staff member Sheryl Karas. M.A.

multiracial women farmers holding baskets of vegetables

Corn, potatoes, squash, and beans—more than half of U.S. farm products produced today(opens in new window)—were first raised by Native Americans, starting about 7000 years before British colonization. They, of course, had access to all the land in the U.S. at that time, but today they farm about 6% of it and represent 2.3% of U.S. farmers. (PDF)  

100 years ago, African Americans owned 14% of American farms. Unfortunately, due to long-time discrimination in the communities where they lived and injustice in how government farm loans and services were distributed, freed slaves and their descendants were forced off much of the land they acquired(opens in new window) during and after the Civil War and fled to the cities. Today only 1.4% of U.S. farms are owned by African- Americans.

Similar stories can be told by almost every minority group in this country. And because of these historical inequities, 96% of farm owners in the United States (PDF) today are white despite white people being only 61.6% of the population.

Yet the desire—and need (PDF)—for disenfranchised people to own land and grow food for their families and communities has been growing. Despite the considerable barriers to entry—in particular, access to land at an affordable price—there has been an uptick in farming by every minority group. In particular, this is true for women. In 1978, almost 95% of all farms in the U.S. were owned by men. Today that has dropped to 64%. The total number of minority farmers—Hispanic, Native American, African American and Asian has increased by almost 10% percent in the last 10 years.

But to say that these new farmers, and young people and veterans of all races who want to join them, face considerable challenges would be an understatement. Anyone without wealth or inherited land is finding it difficult to gain access to property to farm even though the vast majority of U.S. farmers are starting to age out of the business. Unfortunately, when those farmers live close to the urban areas most in need of a fresh local short-chain food supply, they tend to succumb to market temptations and sell to developers who convert the land to more immediately lucrative purposes instead.

It’s a challenging situation and requires thoughtful collaboration. In the most recent U.S. Farm Bill, provisions were made to address inequities in how funds were distributed in the past. The USDA Farm Service Agency (opens in new window)now places a priority on reaching out to socially disadvantaged and underserved populations. Grants distributed to regional organizations require this as well. Multiple small and large groups across the country are also attempting to address this challenge in a variety of creative ways. To list them all would require an entire search engine as most of them are focused on individual cities and towns. However, we have added a short selection of some of the more useful national resources(opens in new window) to our website to get you started. Several of those sites provide links to many more.