Farmers on the Front lines of Climate Change
Larisa Jacobson of Soul Fire Farm & the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust
on the role of BIPOC farmers as mediators between soil and sky
Larisa Jacobson brings over 20 years of experience in farming, community health, agroecology, and learning programs to her current roles as a co-director and partnerships director at Soul Fire Farm and as a founding board member of the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOC).
Soul Fire Farm (SFF) is an Afro-Indigenous-centered community farm committed to uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system. SFF raises and distributes life-giving food as a means to end food apartheid. With deep reverence for the land and wisdom of our ancestors, SFF works to reclaim our collective right to belong to the earth and to have agency in the food system. SFF brings diverse communities together on healing land to share skills on sustainable agriculture, natural building, spiritual activism, health, and environmental justice.
Soul Fire Farm is training the next generation of activist-farmers. Their food sovereignty programs reach over 10,000 people each year, including farmer training for Black and Brown growers, reparations and land return initiatives for Northeast farmers, food justice workshops for urban youth, harvest distribution for people living under food apartheid, and systems and policy education for public decision-makers.
SFF's Farming Immersion Program participants. These BIPOC farmers will have, Larisa notes, "a central and powerful role to play in addressing the current climate crisis."
The Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, fiscally sponsored by Soul Fire Farm Institute, Inc., serves the Northeast region of the U.S. (New England and Upstate New York). NEFOC is working towards a collective vision of advancing land and food sovereignty in the Northeast region through permanent and secure land tenure for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) farmers and land stewards who will use the land in a sacred manner that honors our ancestors’ dreams for sustainable farming, human habitat, ceremony, native ecosystem restoration, and cultural preservation. NEFOC is establishing a nonprofit land trust that will acquire land or easements for the purpose of conservation and permanent affordability/access for BIPOC farmers.
Larisa shares, “Through my work with Soul Fire Farm and NEFOC, I seek to reclaim Black and Brown people’s connection with land. Through our ancestral practices that call life and carbon back into the soil, and through our sacred roles as mediators between soil and sky, BIPOC farmers have a central and powerful role to play in addressing the current climate crisis."
Policymakers and the general public must therefore recognize the inextricable connection between access to land for Black and Brown farmers, and the healing and resilient farming practices that are necessary to adapt to and mitigate climate change, Larisa maintains.
A convening of Northeast BIPOC farmers at Smith College in May 2018.
In testimony submitted to a legislative roundtable on soil health held in Albany last spring, Larisa outlined this connection, and proposed specific solutions for policymakers to consider. Here are some highlights from that testimony, illuminating some of the unique challenges facing BIPOC farmers and the connection between soil health and secure land tenure for BIPOC farmers. The statement was informed by and drew on the collective work, statements, and policy recommendations of Black Farmers United NYS, the Black Farmer Fund, NEFOC, and Soul Fire Farm.
“Soil health is directly correlated with the land’s capacity to provide an abundance of nutrient-rich food, sequester carbon, conserve water, offer habitat for a diversity of living beings, resist pests and diseases, limit erosion, and provide food for New York’s urban and rural communities, as well as to buffer farms against a changing climate and extreme weather effects and sustain them over time as sources of agricultural products, jobs, and economic vitality.
At the same time, BIPOC farmers face increasing challenges to implementing soil health frameworks and measures, as rising land costs, encroaching developments on agriculturally viable land, continued discrimination and structural barriers, and increasingly severe weather and pest patterns threaten farm viability.
White landowners control between 95-98 percent of the farmland in the United States and nearly 100 percent of farmland in the Northeast, as well as receiving over 97 percent of agriculture-related financial assistance. Among 57,865 total agricultural producers in New York State, only 139 are Black producers. Despite comprising 17.6 percent of the total population of the state, Black farmers make up only 0.24 percent of New York’s farmers.
SFF BIPOC Farming Immersion Program participants standing in front of a high tunnel.
Black farmers currently operate around one percent of the nation’s farms, having lost over twelve million acres to USDA discrimination, racist violence, and inequities in the legal system. Eighty-five percent of the people working the land in the US are Latinx migrant workers, yet only 2.5 percent of farms are owned and operated by Latinxs.
People of color are disproportionately likely to live under food apartheid and suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and other diet-related illness. Labor laws continue to permit the exploitation of farm and food workers. Access to non-predatory capital continues to be a primary barrier, leaving little support for Black and Brown farmers who often work on a smaller scale and may seek to implement the frequently more labor- intensive regenerative farming practices that have been documented to contribute to soil health.
Fortunately, the policy infrastructure that can support economic viability for BIPOC farmers has the potential to offer the added benefit of leading to meaningful protections and investments in soil health. Many of the farmers who have experienced land loss, structural marginalization, and systematic discrimination over time have long been on the front lines of soil and climate stewardship, practicing soil-beneficial, climate resilient, and climate-change-mediating agriculture that increases topsoil depth, protects biodiversity, and promotes carbon sequestration. Often developing business models that channel resources back into families and communities, these farm systems and models stand in contrast to some conventional agricultural models that may contribute to climate change, soil degradation, income inequality, and inequitable food distribution.
SFF Farming Immersion Program participants harvest cabbages.
There is an urgent need for state funding and policy supports for farming systems that make it possible for farmers to access land; to secure land tenure that enables and incentivizes long-term investments in soil health; to continue to work and steward the soil; to pay workers a living wage; to gain the knowledge, experience, and technical assistance needed to integrate climate-smart soil health measures into their operations; and to access financial resources to offset the initial and ongoing costs of investing in sustainable agricultural systems.”
Overall, Larisa urges policy makers to recognize and act: “Protections and supports for BIPOC farmers that address the U.S. history of land and labor theft, along with inequities in access to land, credit, training, technical assistance, and insurance, among other resources, will represent a corollary investment in the state’s soil, ecological, and public health.”
Resources from Soul Fire Farm's Website
A list of the projects and resource needs of farmers of color.
Links to organizations to support and strategies for those who want to play a part in ending racism in the food system.