ITHACA, N.Y. — What are the challenges facing farmers who are racial minorities nationwide and in Tompkins County?
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That was the topic of discussion at Ithaca’s annual Food Justice Fair on South Plain street earlier this month. Local and national activists encouraged attendees to seek out and support minority farmers so they can have a greater presence in Ithaca’s food markets.
Natasha Bowens, keynote speaker at Ithaca’s annual Food Justice Fair, said the uneven power dynamic among farmers makes it difficult for farmers of color to get a fair share of the market to sell their products.
Bowens, who wrote the book, “The Color of Farming: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming,” also said this discriminatory treatment undermines the concept that people have the right to healthy and culturally relevant foods.
According to the 2012 Department of Agriculture Census, the most recent data available, there were 3.18 million farmers in the US. Of that figure, 1.7 percent were Hispanic, 1.1 percent American Indian, 1 percent black and 0.3 percent Asian. Figures for Tompkins County in the same year showed that 877 of 894 farmers, or approximately 98 percent, were white.
The fair took place on South Plain Street, where people and groups advocating for healthy, sustainable food production engaged with community members.
One farmer of color in attendance was Rafael Aponte, who said he has been grappling with the kind of disadvantages that Bowens described.
Aponte moved from the Bronx to Freeville and has been farming there for about three years. When asked if he experiences discrimination in his business he said, “Absolutely. When it comes to access to the same market, resources or training that other people not from my background receive, there is definitely a disparity.”
He noted that farmers of color often struggle to gain access to vendors who could sell their products. As a result, he said he has to identify individual customers, build relationships and sell directly to them, which he said is “much harder, much more labor intensive, but necessary.”
Ithaca Farmers’ Market Manager Aaron Munzer said he is aware of the lack of diversity in Ithaca’s food scene generally. He added that the market is inclusive to farmers of colors and people from many backgrounds.
“We are always listening to people of color who are part of our market. We have everyone from Cambodian, black, Hispanic to Thai people,” Munzer said. “We have a very low application fee and daily selling fee so in many ways our market is an opportunity for farmers of all income and skill level to gain experience in marketing their produce.”
Munzer added the only major requirements to participation are that the farmers sell products that they have “planted, tended, harvested and packed,” and that it is produced on a farm within a 30 mile radius of the market as to ensure local farms are benefiting.
Bowens said that if farmers of colors are being discouraged to market their products in certain areas, then it affects communities’ ability to practice food justice, the notion that food produced in the local bio-region should be available to everybody in the community.
As a result, Bowens encouraged members of the Ithaca community to seek out farmers of color in the community and support their work. She said that before reforms can happen to improve the conditions of minority farmers, their stories need to be told.
“It’s time we broaden our scope. It’s time we carry these narratives forward in the work that we’re doing for justice. I encourage you to dig into the stories in your own community, to go out and have these conversations not just to engage but empower,” she said.
GreenStar Community Projects board member Gary Fine said he hopes Bowens’ speech begins a conversation in the community on how to lessen the racial tensions in the farming industry.
“We had a discussion about where should GreenStar go from here because we now know what the problems are, so how do we solve it? And that’s where the conversations should really move into — asking, ‘Where are the issues?’ and you’ll be surprised what you’ll learn,” Fine said.
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