LA CROSSE, Wis. — The vast majority of American farmland is owned by families who never had to fight structural and institutional racism to keep it.
According to the latest Census of Agriculture, 1.4% of the U.S.'s 3.4 million farmers identify as Black, either alone or in combination with another race. In Minnesota, Black farmers account for 0.03% of the total producers, compared to 0.07% across the border in Wisconsin. Now, two projects piloted by Black women aim to get more Black producers on farmland and stay there for generations ahead.
Adrian Lipscombe is the chef and owner of Uptowne Cafe & Bakery in La Crosse, Wis., which serves foods made with ingredients from local farmers.
Lipscombe was raised in San Antonio, Texas. Agriculture is something that’s in her blood, with her great-grandfather handing down farmland he’d purchased long ago to the generations that followed him. She mastered planting and harvesting crops on her family’s land, and had her own urban farm where she raised bees, chickens, rabbits and Mozambique tilapia grown in an aquaponics system in San Antonio.
Lipscombe and her husband landed in La Crosse around four years ago. Also a city planner, Lipscombe was looking into a potential revitalization of the city’s northside main street. Her cafe is now the centerpiece of that revitalization to rebrand the city’s Old Towne North area as Uptowne.
The population in La Crosse is over 90% white, according to the most recent U.S. census data, with only a 1.6% of the population being Black or African American. As “one of the very few Black restaurant owners in the Coulee Regional area in Wisconsin,” Lipscombe said through storytelling and civic engagement she’s focused on the community’s revitalization.
'Make the wheel go faster'
After George Floyd was killed at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department, Lipscombe started to get unsolicited donations from the community and elsewhere online. She said it felt immoral for her to just keep the money for herself and her business.
“People were sending checks to the cafe with my name on it, and trying to Venmo me money, with no purpose given or story behind it,” said Lipscombe.
So she ended up creating the 40 Acres and A Mule Project, which will collect money to purchase at least 40 acres of farmland within the Driftless region of western Wisconsin. The project, which launched on June 7, has over 1,500 donations and raised nearly $118,000 of its $250,000 goal.
The campaign proceeds will go to buying land to be used as a farm-to-table resource for the local food industry, providing an outlet for Black food producers and securing the legacy of Black farmers.
“My vision is to have a sanctuary to hold the history, food and stories of Black culture in food and farming,” said Lipscombe in her description of the project. “This land will be used to teach others how to farm, archive Black food ways and the importance of Black farms. The 40 acres of land will tell the story of how Blacks grew food through our ancestral ways into today.”
By Juneteenth of this year — or June 19, the commemoration of the emancipation of the last slaves in the U.S. — the project hit its halfway point for funding and Lipscombe held an Instagram live session during which she was overcome with gratitude. But as donations continue to roll in daily, Lipscombe said she’s too focused on her daily workload at the cafe and with organizations concentrated on preserving Black foodways and farmers that are now partners on the project.
“I don’t watch it anymore, honestly, I don’t pay attention, because I know the money is going to get there,” she said of the fundraising. “It’s all about working with organizations now and trying to network ourselves, and really try to understand where’s our place in this.”
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re trying to help out and make the wheel go faster,” Lipscombe said.
Growing Black farmers
Thom Petersen, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said his ultimate goal in his position is to have more farmers in Minnesota. That includes Black farmers and people of color.
"If people want to farm, we want to find a way for them to farm," he said.
Petersen said there are between 40 to 60 Black people in the state who are currently operating farms.
"No more than 60," said Petersen, referring to data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. He said it's important to note that most of the statistics services are always a couple years behind.
He said there's a chance the state could “double that” by the next census, and he’s excited by the Black farmer advocates and projects aimed at boosting Black-owned farmland in the state.
"It's exciting to have all these people, and a lot of energy around building the Black farming community," said Petersen. "And they'll all tell you it's frustrating, and all the challenges they face."
One of the things giving Petersen hope is the Grow a Young Black Farmer in Minnesota campaign, organized by Minnesota-native Elizabeth Bryant, who identifies as a “queer, Black, emerging land steward”.
“It’s fascinating," said Petersen of Bryant’s project which has raised over $67,000 so far. "It's really exciting to see pieces like that.”
The Grow a Young Black Farmer project has a funding goal of $365,000, which would be used to purchase 25 acres of land to be converted into "an agricultural and artistic resource for Black Minnesotans and their families."
“When fully operative, this land will function as a farm, a gathering place, a learning facility, and a generative nexus for wellness and creativity,” said Bryant in the project description.
The land to be purchased through the project has been farmed for the last two decades by Bryant’s aunt, Lynne Reeck and her sister, who operate Singing Hills Goat Dairy. The campaign intentions state that funding will be used to carry on that business from a retiring generation to people of color who’ve “experienced a rupture between their homelands and cultures in the name American imperialism.”
The money from the project also will be used to hold training opportunities for Black emerging farmers, and additional revenue streams are being considered for operation in the future.
“This land has successfully supported tart cherries, hazelnuts, bees, elderberries, pastured pork, and apple trees — some of the many food crops that could be produced here,” reads the project description.
Petersen said that land is by far the biggest barrier for Black farmers to break into the industry.
”Most of the land is not owned by people of color," he said. "And the easiest way to get into farming is to be in a family that has land and have it passed to you."
He said finding new farmland for anyone is tough and competitive, and even in the current downturn, farmland prices are still very high. He said farmland availability is most competitive in the area between Twin Cities and Duluth.
As a former president of the Farmers Legal Action group, Petersen said for many years the group sought out land for Hmong farmers to operate, and they found success in the search around 2007-08.
"Then when corn went to $7 and $8 a bushel for those couple of years, farmers took back a lot of the land," he said. "It made it more difficult. But now I think you're seeing some of it loosen up a little bit."
But Petersen said the pandemic has ”brought renewed interest" in smaller-scale agriculture across the board.
"All over the state I think we're going to see people of color getting into small-scale agriculture, and that’s a good way to get in there," said Petersen.
Resources from the state
Petersen said that Minnesota and its ag department "lead the nation" in having resources for dealing with land availability and financial assistance.
"Things that we have available like our Rural Finance Authority loans, beginning farmer tax credit, FarmLink program," he said. "We have just a lot of opportunities in Minnesota that other states don't have, but we can still keep doing more.”
But Petersen said improving the communications for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's current programs is a top priority, and he encourages any prospective farmer struggling to get land to reach out. Petersen credits Patrice Bailey, the assistant commissioner who is Black, for opening up more opportunities for the department to reach communities of color. He said Bailey's connections as well as his ideas of how the department connects with those communities has put them in a much better place to do that.
He also said the department is looking to add a "land navigator," which is a model used by Renewing the Countryside.
"We're looking at adding that as a state," he said. "You have farm advocates when you have a financial problem, or when you need someone you can go to — this would be a navigator for land."
Petersen said the navigator would help prospective farmers navigate the Farm Service Agency program or Rural Finance Authority process, and they’ll be “looking at that in the next legislative session.”
Overall, Petersen is hopeful about the future for Black farmers in Minnesota.
"I'm just really optimistic,” he said. “And not just for Black farmers, but for our Hmong, Somali, Native American and other people of color, they are all going to increase as we move forward."
A look at Black farmers
According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, Black producers are older and more likely to have served in the military than white producers.
Farms owned by Black producers are significantly smaller in size and value, with sales less than 1% of the U.S. total.
An estimated 80% of farmland owned by Black producers has disappeared since 1969, with approximately half of that land lost through partition sales.