Growing diversity: The changing face of Minnesota farming

a group of people happily pose for a photo
From left to right: MPR News host Angela Davis; Marcus Carpenter from Route 1 Farms; KaZoua Berry, director of Big River Farms; and Patrice Bailey, assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture at the fair Tuesday.
Tom Campbell | MPR

Minnesota has a vibrant agricultural heritage. But farming has often been inaccessible for non-traditional growers. The last USDA census found that less than 1 percent of Minnesota farmers were people of color.

That doesn’t line up with Minnesota’s population. According to the 2020 general census, a little more than 22 percent of Minnesotans are people of color.

How do we fix the gap? How can Minnesota achieve more agricultural equity?

Those were the questions MPR News host Angela Davis took to the biggest celebration of agriculture in our state — the Minnesota State Fair. During a special North Star Journey Live conversation on Tuesday, she talked with a panel of experts about what’s working to get emerging farmers in the field, and what barriers are still in their way.

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Guests:

  • KaZoua Berry, director of Big River Farms

  • Marcus Carpenter, Route 1 Farms

  • Patrice Bailey, assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and oversees the Emerging Farmers Working Group and the Emerging Farmer Office

    a group of people talk to microphones
    The NSJ Live event Growing Diversity: The Changing Face of Minnesota Farming was held at the Minnesota State Fair on Tuesday.
    Tom Campbell | MPR News

Here are five takeaways.  

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

1) In 2017 the USDA census found there were only 39 Black farmersin the whole state of Minnesota. That’s a dismal number. What’s going on?

“It’s a staggering number,” agreed Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) Assistant Commissioner Patrice Bailey.

He attributed it to a variety of factors. Many Black farmers don’t own their own land; they rent. The United States Department of Agriculture census only counts farmers who own their land. He also attributed the low number to mistrust with the federal government, after decades of discrimination by the USDA.

But he believes the latest USDA census, taken this year, “will show a drastic improvement.” The numbers won’t be out until early 2024, but Bailey says Minnesota’s emphasis on growing a path for emerging farmers, via the Emerging Farmers Working Group and the newly created Emerging Farmers Office, is making a tangible difference.

two people speak on a microphone
KaZoua Berry, director of Big River Farms and Patrice Bailey, assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture speak at the North Star Journey Live event at the Minnesota State Fair on Tuesday.
Tom Campbell | MPR News

2) What makes someone an emerging farmer?  

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture defines emerging farmers as Indigenous, immigrant, veteran, LGBTQ+, or beginning farmers, as well as women and people of color — really, anyone that has historically been excluded from legacy government assistance.

3) What are the main barriers emerging farmers face?  

According to KaZoua Berry, the director of Big River Farms, the biggest barrier is the lack of access to land and money.

New farmers aren’t inheriting land and they don’t have the money to buy it. They often rent, but Berry said even that is problematic. Perennial crops like asparagus take three years to establish before they can be harvested. Farmers are wary of planting that kind of crop on rented land.

New farmers also find that the soil needs to be amended to grow good food, and they are reluctant to enrich ground they don’t own.  

two Black people smile
MPR News host Angela Davis and Marcus Carpenter from Route 1 Farms, at the NSJ Live event at the Minnesota State Fair on Tuesday.
Tom Campbell | MPR News

Marcus Carpenter, the director of Route 1, agreed. He pointed to the fact that the number of Black farms dropped dramatically during the last 100 years. Many immigrant farmers also need help with bureaucracy.

“The folks who need the resources don’t necessarily have the skill set to get those resources,” he said.  

4) How could a new farmer get started?  

5) How can the average Minnesotan help emerging farmers?  


North Star Journey Live (formerly known as In Focus) is a live event series and reoccurring topic on MPR News with Angela Davis centered around what Minnesota’s diverse communities need to thrive.

Subscribe to the MPR News with Angela Davis podcast on: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or RSS.