Culpeper Star-Exponent: ‘Getting this Farm Bill through’—Black farmers’ roundtable cultivates local input

CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, ALLISON BROPHY CHAMPION

Access to land and capital, foreign purchase of American farmland, sustainable farming and the environment, small farm challenges, agricultural education, struggles to keep the farm, lack of healthcare for farmers and the next generation in the field were topics cultivating discussion at last Wednesday’s roundtable with Black farmers, and others, in Orange County.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, the only Virginian on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, attended the afternoon forum at historic Blue Run Baptist Church, established 1766 with two enslaved individuals among its founding members.

The congresswoman, running for Virginia governor next year, heard concerns, personal stories, requests and recommendations in the more than hour-long conversation as part of continued negotiations in U.S. Congress to finally adopt an updated Farm Bill. The current bill was set to expire last September until a year-long extension was passed.

“While I’m disappointed we weren’t timely, the good aspect is that we’re continuing negotiations,” she told the crowd of a few dozen. “I am committed to making sure Congress continues to do its job and that means getting this Farm Bill through.”

Spanberger is leading a measure to continue a USDA business and financial program for farmers, addressing issues like succession planning while mitigating barriers to success. Many young and Black farmers and ranchers mention access to farmland, whether purchased or rented as a top challenge, she said.

“I hear from so many farmers of so many of the persistent challenges Black and socially disadvantaged farmers have faced and continue to face, including raising capital and accessing federal support,” Spanberger said. “I know many folks in this room have faced those challenges so I don’t need to give you the data — personal experience is enough.”

She mentioned loans for socially disadvantaged farmers, debt relief payments and those who have faced discrimination. Spanberger said she would work “to rectify a system that hasn’t always worked.”

Gordonsville farmer and educator Renard Turner, owner of Vanguard Ranch with his wife, described experiencing discrimination and mistreatment because he is Black at various levels of farming, from the USDA’s loan arm to local business interactions and a snubbing by a national association.

Agrarian Trust dubbed Turner, a founding board member of Central Virginia Agrarian Commons, a “changemaker” last year for his commitment to social justice and support for Black farmers as well as his know-how raising kiko meat goats, herbs, produce and forage on the farm, located in Louisa County.

Born into a military family, Turner has been interested in farming since he was a teen and joined FFA in California in the late 1960s, he said the roundtable. He was the only Black student in the future farmers club at the time.

In Virginia, Turner purchased 94 acres through a USDA loan while continuing to work in the autopsy lab at the University of Virginia. Retired from the hospital since 2006, the 71-year-old said they never missed a loan payment.

“When I retired, I decided to go into farming full time because I wanted to make a difference and grow organic and sustainable food and serve the African Americans who suffer with various diseases caused by eating substandard food,” Turner said.

Vanguard Ranch branched out into a food truck service, offering curry goat kabobs at festivals and special events up the East Coast, and hosting events in Gordonsville around a performance stage Turner built for agri-tourism.

“I took this thing to a whole other level … it still wasn’t enough to pay back the loan,” Turner said. He said they lost 72 acres, including his stage, what the farmer called “my engine” for financial success. “You guys are trying to shut me down when I’m trying to pay you off.”

He said he is still fighting the fight and farming. Turner advocated for Black farmer education, sustainable farming and equal access to sell at produce markets. Like others, he expressed frustration at the lack of USDA-certified animal processors, citing long wait times.

“I will have to sell my goats and my food truck,” Turner said.

Orange County farmer, educator and advocate Michael Carter coordinated the roundtable with Spanberger, who visited his family’s century-old Carter Farms in Unionville in 2021.

Also a founding board member of Central Virginia Agrarian Commons, he grows African vegetables and farmers, Carter said during lunch.

“It’s very crucial that we share all that’s within our hearts, all that’s on our minds regarding agriculture policy,” he told those assembled.

Major issues include the age of the average farmer in the state — 59 — and it’s 62 for Black farmers in Virginia, Carter said. In addition, farmers do not have health care and are ineligible for Social Security, he said. Many farmers have to work second jobs to get health care so they can go and farm.

Carter also advocated for creating a federal office for small farms to focus on their specific needs and issues. Congress also needs to increase funding for agriculture programs at HCBUs, namely, Virginia Union University, which runs a successful Small Farms Research Center, assisting thousands of small farms annually. Yet federal funding for the program has not changed since 2000.

Carter concluded with remarks about the need to support and educate the next generation of farmers with funds dedicated to more culturally inclusive youth programs.

Doug Stark, an organic producer in Herndon, spoke at the roundtable about foreign ownership of U.S. agricultural land.

“Americans need food. We need to keep as much food as we can at the lowest price we can,” he said. Stark proposed a farmland tax on foreign countries in addition to USDA farm loans with lower interest rates as well measures to increase veterinarians in the trade and a farm training partnership.

Nelson County farmer Zachary Morse, a retired UPS driver, spoke up for preservation: “If we don’t preserve this farmland in the United States, we’ll be lost. The problem is, (we’re) fighting one another. Why we fighting one another when are we losing our land, losing our country?”

Morse also advocated for teaching today’s youth how to work. The 64-year-old said he’s worked seven days a week his whole life, including in the tobacco fields of Connecticut as a teen. There have been serious injuries and heavy debt along the way, Morse described.

“It’s hard,” he told the congresswoman. “We need resources up there to come on down here to the bottom, to us people.”

Seidah Armstrong, a former middle school principal, owns Sweet Vines Farm Winery in Orange County, a neighbor to Carter Farms. She advocated for an education alliance that provides school curriculum on sustainable farming.

“I grew up in Chicago, purchased my land outright. No USDA loans,” said Armstrong. Children should learn in school about lucrative career choices in agriculture, Armstrong said at the roundtable.

“Students, as part of their prek-12 experience, can come to the farm, learn how to farm and related STEM careers … It does not happen if the students don’t know the connections.”. For example, Armstrong continued, it would have been beneficial for local FFA students to attend the day’s roundtable.

Michael Collins, with American Climate Partners, asked Spanberger to consider merging federal farmland policy with climate policy. Four elements impact both, he said — carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen.

“Cap the amount of carbon that soils can absorb … once the soils are full of carbon we need a policy to manage that,” Collins said. Tie the level of federal farming subsidies to climate policies for farming, he suggested.

“It would be an enlightened perspective for agriculture policy to all be synergized at the federal level.”

Spanberger addressed the many topics covered at the roundtable, saying foreign purchase of U.S. farmland can pose challenges in terms of national security impact, for example, if China buys property next to a military base.

Other countries’ purchases go through a process that ensures it would not negatively impact the local economy, she said.

“The challenge is you only have so much farmland and, if someone is buying it, that land is perhaps out of production or not accessible to other farmers.”

The congresswoman addressed Turner, apologizing for his experience with the USDA loan and losing the land. She acknowledged questions regarding loan requirements based on percent income generated from the farm.

“When you are getting a farm off the ground or even if you have a bad year, you still have to pay your bills and feed your family,” Spanberger said. “What is meant to be for farmers can actually take the farm away.”

She supported teaching kids about agriculture in schools, but not as part of the Farm Bill and said investment in such education at HBCUs is important. There is money in the Farm Bill for 1890s historic black institutions, including VSU, Spanberger said.

“We’re not backing away from that,” she said, noting lack of funding would be a loss of important resources. “We need to invest in ag education and HBCUs.”

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