Updated: Oct 27, 2021
The following post was shared by Caroline Pranckevicius last year and showcases an awesome New York organization fighting for food justice.
Across the country and New York State, Black food entrepreneurs have been impacted by historically pervasive systematic oppression in the United States’ agricultural system. Discriminatory practices have kept Black food actors from readily having access to non-extractive capital and technical assistance that would allow their businesses to thrive. Change starts with supporting an equitable system of labor and recognizing the gaps that exist for Black food actors.
This is where the Black Farmer Fund — founded by two farmer-activists — seeks to build and fund communities of Black food agents to create a more collaborative and long-term solution to agricultural inequality. BFF is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and an emerging community investment fund that will invest patient (flexible repayment terms) and integrated capital (mix of low-interest loans and grants) into Black food-systems entrepreneurs in New York State. BFF is governed by a pilot community of 12 Black farmers and food-systems entrepreneurs from across the state to make decisions around which applicants receive funding.
Their process is guided by consensus-seeking and their values of economic justice, community wealth building, along with managing environmental and ecological impact. The fund is currently in their pilot phase and this spring and summer, they will make direct investments in Black food actors while emphasizing financial education, investment literacy, and active community involvement in creating these financing options. ENGL 3741: Design Thinking, Media and Community also provides an opportunity for students to support their mission through media projects.
To learn more about The Black Farmer Fund and supporting Black communities, Anabel’s interviewed Melanie Allen, Black Farmer Fund’s program director.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and grammar.
Anabel’s: What is your position in the Black Farmer Fund’s team? Do you have a background in non-profits or agricultural work and, if so, what makes this different from previous work you’ve done?
Allen: My academic background is in Agriculture and Natural Resources. I have a Bachelor of Science from the University of Delaware, and then I studied Sustainable International Development at Brandeis University.
Our President, Olivia Watkins, is the co-founder of the Black Farmer Fund. [Watkins] has a background in Environmental Management and is close to completing her MBA. She is a shiitake mushroom farmer working off of land that has been in her family for multiple generations. In addition, our board, staff, and pilot community members are all folks that have worked in the agriculture and farming-organizing space for decades and have a personal relationship to these issues.
Previous to joining Black Farmer Fund, I was working on agriculture in a more international context, specifically learning about the challenges faced by smallholder farmers in West Africa. Now, I’m thrilled to be doing work that is more local. I’m from New York, so it's great to be working on topics that are closer to home. I’m also working more in the finance-realm [and] looking at some of the challenges connected to shifting power, decentralizing, [and] accessing capital.
Anabel’s: How does the Black Farmer Fund get the community funding used to provide capital for its pilot community? Does most of your fund emerge from regional land trusts or is it primarily the social impact investors? Can anyone be a social impact investor or is there a minimum contribution required?
Allen: For our pilot fund, the type of capital that the Black Farmer Fund will be deploying into the communities is integrated capital (which is a mix of low-interest loans and grants) and then patient capital, which means that we will have flexible repayment terms that are based around the specific needs of the food entrepreneur. We are really committed to only facilitating financial deals that will set Black farmers and food actors up for success and won’t be extractive.
Unlike traditional financing vehicles, in which profit is the goal, our goals are more around building social capital and community wealth. When we make investments, we’re really looking at what are some of the assets in our community that we want to uplift and how do these different businesses and individuals work together. We are not going to be funding a farmer or food actor in isolation — rather, we’re looking at how we can strengthen connections amongst these various businesses, and understand the relationships between farmers and markets. There are a lot of people playing roles in-between that — so when I say “food actors” or “food entrepreneurs,” I’m referring to Black farmers, Black caterers, Black food distributors, Black restaurants-owners, and really anyone that plays some type of role along the process of your food going from the farm to your plate.
We are a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, so all donations are tax-deductible. There is not a minimum contribution required to support our pilot fund; we have folks that have donated $50 to the Black Farmer Fund, but have indicated specifically that they want that money to go towards the pilot program. So anybody can donate, all you have to do is go to our website and indicate that you would like your contribution to directly be granted to a food actor, rather than our operational costs.
Anabel’s: How do you provide intellectual capital to the farmers? Is it mostly through in-person workshops or distributed material (like guides or videos)?
Allen: We haven’t been able to have in-person workshops yet, because of COVID-19. But, we do have an intention to build financial education in our community. We are putting that into practice, specifically, with our pilot program. Our pilot community is a group of 12 different community stakeholders that represent different roles in the food system, and also come from various parts of New York State. They have collectively designed the investment guidelines, which are the criteria that applicants need to meet to be in alignment with the values of the Black Farmer Fund (Economic Justice, Community Wealth Building, and Managing Environmental and Ecological Impact).
Our pilot community are the ones that are actually making decisions around financing deals. In addition to their lived experience, we also wanted to make sure that they felt equipped to make informed decisions around applicants, so we’ve been bringing in financial experts that we partner with (such as Ujima Boston, Fair Food Fund, and the Restorative Economies Fund) — organizations that work on reparative capital, restorative economics, and non-traditional economic models to explain different topics connected to investment literacy and financial due diligence.
We are also making sure that we lift up the historical figures that have paved the way for the Black Farmer Fund to exist. Cooperative, collective economic models have been part of Black history and Black communities for generations and generations. So, we try to lean into our history and learn about people, like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Callie House — people that were putting into practice consensus-seeking, collective decision-making and cooperative economics.
We are a start-up — 2020 was our first operational year, which, of course, with COVID came with lots of challenges. But we do want to expand our financial education, materials, and workshops to a broader audience. We will also be doing this with folks that are receiving funding through our pilot program. We are going to be ensuring that they have access to business development support to guide them with cost projections, business planning, and other areas of support. We understand that finance is just one of the many gaps that exist to keep Black food actors from being successful.
Anabel’s: What would be the biggest need in your community, and how does the Black Farmer Fund plan to provide long-term support?
Allen: We think the biggest need in our community is access to capital. Access to capital keeps entrepreneurs from being able to buy equipment to scale up their production, it keeps entrepreneurs from being able to purchase land or a working space, it keeps entrepreneurs from being able to hire team members to build their capacity. When someone doesn’t own their land, they are really at the mercy of whoever they are leasing it from, and it's hard to really plan ahead when it's not set in stone if you are going to have access to the land that you are planning on growing on. Access to non-extractive resources is essential especially when putting this into historical context.
There has been a rapid decline in the amount of black farmers in the U.S. and, specifically, in New York; Out of approximately 57,000 farmers in the New York State agricultural industry, only 139 are Black farmers [according to the USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture]. So the numbers are startling. The amount of rural land nationally that is in the hands of white folks is at 98%. These numbers are not because black folks don’t feel connected to farming or agriculture; rather, it is because there has been intentional intimidation, racial terror tactics and violence, and discriminatory lending practices that have chased Black communities off their land.
Anabel’s: How has the pandemic changed how you connect? Have you had any issues with wireless infrastructure, especially in rural areas?
Allen: For our pilot community, even though we had people from all over New York State, we had high hopes of wanting to be able to gather people in-person. We also wanted to be able to do site-visits for applicants that were seeking funding. Like the rest of the world, we’ve had to adapt, and we’ve been doing interviews with applicants seeking funding through Zoom, and our pilot community meets twice-a-month on Zoom. We haven’t been able to gather in-person yet, but we are hoping over the summer we’ll be able to do some COVID-safe site-visits to foster more relationship-building with those receiving funding from BFF.
The COVID pandemic has also changed the needs of our applicants. We had a few applicants that had to take a full-time job somewhere else instead of pursuing their business. We also had applicants that had to rework their projects because their initial plan of wanting to expand their restaurant became a catering home-to-door service; or folks needing to recover from last years’ closure and having a higher need for grant capital than debt capital.
Anabel’s: How can our audience, Cornell students, help your organization reach its goals?
Allen: I think everyone has a play in our food system. We eat multiple times a day, so I think just having more of a relationship with your food, asking questions about where your food is coming from, who is producing it, and who is profiting from it, is a good practice to have. It’s important to be more intentional to source from Black farmers whenever possible, and if not, to support Black-owned restaurants, Black-owned businesses, and organizations (like the Black Farmer Fund and so many others) that are working to uplift a racially-just food system and directly supporting the needs of Black farmers, land stewards and food entrepreneurs.
For More Information:
If you would like to hear more about the Black Farmer Fund, or meet the members of their pilot team please visit their website: https://www.blackfarmerfund.org/. You can support them through donations in the “Take Action” section of their website.
Cornell students can also enroll in ENGL 3741: Design Thinking, Media, and Community to support the Black Farmer Fund through media-design projects.