Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Anti-Racism and Regenerative Agriculture

by Sheryl Karas M.A., CRARS staff

Leonard Diggs speaking to a group in a tent at Pie Ranch

At a recent Regenerative Agriculture Network event, CRARS asked Leonard Diggs, director of operations and farming education at Pie Ranch in Pescadero, CA, to help the group think about reversing racism in the agriculture system. It’s a challenging topic because nobody alive in the U.S. today is to blame for removing Native Americans from the land they lived on or for black slavery. And yet the legacy of that history lives on with devastating impacts. What became clear in this discussion is that reversing racism doesn’t happen simply by people refusing to be racist. Diggs believes that deliberate efforts to help people regain a connection to the land and to the very concept of having a viable future in farming would make the biggest difference. Plus a case could be made that the resiliency of our communities in the face of climate change might depend on it.

That sounds far-fetched until you compare how indigenous people around the world fed their communities versus how most of us feed ourselves today. Most Native Americans, for example, raised crops and domesticated animals but they had no concept of land ownership. Instead they practiced various forms of community-oriented food management. When Diggs began working with members of the native tribe in his area, for example, he was surprised that they were opposed to a farm growing their favorite foods in a way that was separate from the community they were used to growing in. In our modern American system, the food in our grocery stores is shipped from across the country and around the world. But that means that the bulk of the agricultural land surrounding our towns is often reserved for commodity monocrops that, while profitable, do not provide most of the nutrition the community needs to eat. Leonard talked about farmers being taught that strawberries, for instance, are the best thing to grow where he lives on the central coast. “But how many strawberries do you eat in a month in terms of managing your nutrition?” He went on to say that if you farm with a responsibility to the community where that farm resides, for the sake of community well-being and resiliency you would want to be able to provide a full range of crops that the community wants to eat at a price that the community can afford to purchase. Unfortunately, in terms of certain food items he can’t compete as a regenerative farmer with large corporate farms in other parts of the country and in Mexico and still make a profit unless he charges more than local community members can afford to pay.

Generally, we don’t think about this—the current food system was designed with the idea of cheaply priced food in mind and he could ship his pricier products to a more prosperous community with a label touting their organic and regenerative nature. But that would be sad for a community-minded farmer and far from resiliency for the community itself. And while it is not purposely racist, it perpetuates the idea of the “good food” being too expensive for the brown-skinned people who make up the bulk of farmworkers and live in the communities the food is being shipped away from. During the early months of the COVID pandemic we saw that the practice leaves many places extremely vulnerable during supply chain breakdowns. In Chico, for instance—a city that is surrounded by agricultural land—the shelves were bare of certain foods such as eggs, some vegetables and meat for weeks at a time. And access to affordable healthy food is an extremely important issue for black and brown families in some parts of the country all the time. Many poorer people live in food deserts where fast food is abundant but full-fledged grocery stores are not. Diggs said, “We've got a lot of communities where the quality of the food is debatable. From a health standpoint, a lot of it is not fresh food. It's not locally produced food by any means. And a lot of it is processed. If we want another generation to appreciate what it takes to have a viable, sustainable regenerative agricultural system, we've got to let them be able to afford to eat it. And we've got to have desire for that food be something that they're demanding. That's got to be the first step or else it becomes irrelevant.”

Diggs believes this requires being willing to regenerate the food system as a whole. Diggs sees this as a federal policy issue and an opportunity for local cities and counties to support the viability of their local farms. “Ultimately, I see it as being a match for ecosystem services done by the farmers, and ecosystem products provided by the farmers to their communities. And that, in return for providing those products and services, farmers would get a match—both a market match, a community match coming either through their local communities or state communities, and a federal match, federal funds. That would amount to what I'm calling at least the 30% match. So that 70% of the revenue on these next gen regenerated farms, and organic and sustainable farms would come from their local communities. And the 70% that they would make would be from their ecosystem products and the 30% would be for the services they're providing.” 

He acknowledges, of course, that this is a controversial topic. “Well, when I tell folks who I've known for years, they're like Leonard, you're crazy. Where's this 30% going to come from? Who's going to pay it? . . . It's going to take a bold initiative to make this happen. There's no doubt. But if we don't take those bold initiatives, and we don't start to see those collaborations as being essential, we aren't going to get ourselves out of that trench that we've been digging.” 

The Importance of Education

 Because so many people have lost a personal relationship with the food system, most young people who do not grow up in farm families have a hard time imagining a career in agriculture. This is particularly true for people of color who often associate a farmworker past history with slavery and Jim Crow discrimination. Diggs believes education at an early age is essential. “I'm talking about from at the very latest middle school, and the opportunity for our young people to be able to get an experience with nature, which hopefully then leads to an experience with agriculture.” He says there needs to be “an opportunity to get that experience and find out if this is something you would like to be involved with as young person, before your self-image is developed, before you get to the point where you see farming and ranching and environmental occupations as being something for the other.” Today only 2.6 million people in the United States or 1.3 percent of the population earn a living from farming. Diggs would love to see that number be 10-15%.

At Pie Ranch Leonard works at providing farmer training on a regenerative farm program he describes as being “specifically catered towards helping the next gen farmers find success and move ahead.” The focus is on empowering people of color, indigenous people, and women who have been systematically excluded from owner and management roles in the food system.

The discussion Leonard Diggs had on the topic of anti-racism ranged far beyond the scope of this article. Watch a recording of the full event now.

 Would you like to learn more?

Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm, who will be a keynote speaker at Chico State’s This Way to Sustainability Conference in March, also sees education as essential for battling racial injustice in the food system. When she and her husband were first raising their children in Albany, NY, they struggled to find healthy fresh vegetables and fruit nearby and wound up creating a community garden to help feed themselves and their neighbors. This eventually led to the creation of Soul Fire Farm where she leads “Afro-indigenous” educational programs to provide skills for people to reclaim a healthy relationship to the food system that is focused on healing the land and their communities. She believes that food sovereignty for people of color and indigenous people is essential— “to free ourselves we must feed ourselves.”