Politics and Government

Indigenous farmers, farmers of color want a better deal from new farm bill

A woman harvest plants on the field
Indigenous farmers and farmers of color are calling for change in the new farm bill. They talked about it with U.S. Sen. Tina Smith on Wednesday. Photographed above is Marina Corona, a farmer from Long Prairie, Minn.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News 2022

The door to successful farming in Minnesota is very difficult to pry open for immigrants, Native Americans and Minnesotans of color, a handful of farmers said at a federal farm bill roundtable Wednesday.

They want that door to be easier to open.

“Collateral and the ability to pay a loan is one of the challenges,” said Vitalis Tita, who farms 8 acres of vegetables near Montrose, Minn.

A native of Cameroon, he said that African immigrants in Minnesota struggle to find high quality native African vegetables, so he started raising them himself in 2006 and started commercial production in 2016. 

Tita says land access — either ownership or affordable leases — is a huge obstacle to breaking into the business.

“I’m a first-generation immigrant,” Tita said in an interview. “I don’t hold a whole lot of assets. I don’t have a grandfather or uncle that had a piece of land that got passed on, that I can use that as, ‘OK, I am going to be able to pay that back.’ I don’t have a farm that was grandfathered to me so that I can be able to use this equipment and all these assets.” 

The farmers talked to Minnesota U.S. Sen. Tina Smith at The Good Acre in Falcon Heights, a nonprofit that works toward sustainable food production. 

“I think that the opportunity here is to create a farm bill and create an ag sector that is not a place where you have to get big or get out. It is a place where folks can do well, even if they are small or midsized farmers,” Smith said. 

David Wise, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture worker and founder of Native Wise farm in Sawyer, Minn., said Native Americans face a unique problem: tribal land is often held in trust and doesn’t fit with traditional credit structures that farmers depend on.

Another small producer, Angela Dawson, who has a small farm in Sandstone, Minn., and raises hemp, says federal assistance is too often structured for huge commodity producers, such as corn and soybean farmers, and doesn’t include language that lets small farmers or cooperatives access traditional financing and insurance programs. 

“If you don’t own thousands of acres, you ain’t getting nothing,” Dawson said. “The way the USDA is set up now is it’s set up for people who own a whole bunch of land.” 

They all urged Smith to add language reconfiguring the sprawling federal farm bill, as the current measure expires in September and is poised for a five-year renewal.

Smith and Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar are on the Senate Agriculture Committee; the producers in Falcon Heights on Wednesday all said they hoped senators would reconfigure conventional programs to fit small farmers, rather than set up a complicated system of grants and aids that are hard to find and process. 

But small farmers say targeted help would also be welcome, including assistance with land down payments, tax incentives for leasing land to farming startups and streamlining USDA grant applications. 

“We need a farm bill that is going to take account of the fact that there are lot of small producers in this country that find it very difficult to connect with farm bill programs,” Smith said.

She said making Farm Security Administration offices more welcoming, broadening crop insurance coverage … what is “really about is changing the culture of the USDA, so it isn’t really stuck in meeting the needs of big farmers all the time.”