While over recent days there has been a heartening outpouring of online and in-person support for the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve also noticed a disturbing silence from other white farmers and food organisations. The silence from the sustainable or regenerative agriculture community is particularly worrisome. The regenerative farming movement has never attempted to be an apolitical space. We are a community that claims to be committed to ethical and progressive practices in many areas, so it seems particularly egregious that many are not extending that concern and activism to issues of race and social justice.
To be fair, social media is not the only way to participate in a movement; it’s certainly not the best way. I’m sure many of the people who’ve remained silent are supporting the movement in other ways; donating to bail funds and social-justice organizations, buying from Black-owned businesses, educating themselves and their friends and family. However, I am also sure that many white people involved in food and farming think that racism is a distant issue, hardly related to their lives and farms. This is wrong. The fact that we have the ability to ignore the issue if we want to is proof itself of our privilege and the lack of diversity in our field(s).
Many white people in the agricultural community are aware of the inaccessibility of healthy food, and the lack of access to land and rural spaces. However, they might view this as a purely economic issue, rather than one that has anything to do with race. While there are many reasons why the farming community doesn’t reflect the diversity of the country we live in, none of them are that white people are the only ones interested in the production of food.
Diversity in farming can’t just mean women farmers, or young farmers. It should and has to include Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people, the LGBTQIA community, people of other religious backgrounds, and everyone that has been historically excluded from these spaces. It is revealing that the most diverse sectors in the agricultural industry are the most precarious, dangerous, and the lowest paid. 69% of people working in the UK meat processing industry are from other EU countries, particularly EU2 countries like Bulgaria and Romania. The horticultural sector, which is particularly labour-intensive, relies on high numbers of seasonal migrant labour, 98% from the EU.
Tellingly, some sustainable farming brands that have posted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have received online backlash from followers who are opposed to recognizing racism in society at large, let alone within the agricultural community. While this may be a surprise to some liberal white followers, racism within the “progressive” farming movement should come as no surprise. It ranges from the more innocuous, seemingly apolitical¹ farm accounts featuring only white faces, to one whose intern application page says they are looking for “faithful” “clean cut” applicants with no tattoos or piercings (imagine how they would respond to queer applicants or people of colour) It can be seen in the appropriation of traditional practices from other cultures, renamed and taught by white practitioners. It can be seen in the demographic make-up of every farm-to-table event, farmers market, and conference.
Farms facing backlash for voicing even minor support for non-white communities should engage in some serious introspection; what is it about your brand that makes intolerant people feel welcome in your space? I’m sure many of the farms who haven’t spoken out at all are refraining from doing so because they are afraid of provoking this backlash from paying customers. Others are likely keeping silent because the issue isn’t “on brand” for them. But as Dr Martin Luther King Jr stated “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. At a certain point, those who are choosing to remain silent are making their allegiance clear.
If you’re a white farmer and haven’t considered the issue before you may think “But I live in [remote white rural community], how can I possibly contribute?”
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Who is your agriculture serving? As farmers, especially regenerative farmers, it’s easy to get swept up in the movement and only focus on land management, but who does your food go to once it leaves your gate? Is it just for people who look like you, or perhaps to a wealthy elite? In what ways are you helping to ensure that nutritious, sustainably-produced food is more accessible? Is your farmers market solely staffed by or catering to white or wealthy patrons? It might be illuminating to engage with your neighbouring farmers and with your customers on this issue.
Consider how you can support existing organisations by providing resources, connections, through training and skill-sharing, or amplifying other voices.
How is your farm invested in your local community? Are you making space and supporting those that might be excluded? There can be a tendency for first-generation or regenerative farmers to isolate themselves from their new communities, and to provide food for distant and more lucrative markets rather than the people they live nearest to. It’s important to consider how we can be actively positive forces in our communities rather than disconnected from them. Try contacting existing local community groups in your area to see how you can support them.
If you haven’t engaged with the issue before you probably don’t know where to begin learning; I’ve attached some links to anti-racism resources to get you going but simply searching the relevant terms online will provide a plethora of resources. It’s vitally important to educate ourselves about racism in society at large, as well as within the farming community. It is similarly important to educate ourselves on the many and innovative ways Black communities and people of colour have historically organised to ensure their communities have access to nutritious food when our governments have refused to. “Farming While Black” by Leah Penniman at Soulfire Farm is an excellent text to introduce yourself to the topic, although more geared towards American audiences. Following BAME or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) farmers on social media and directly supporting their businesses is good, but be careful not to demand their time, labour, and emotional energy answering your questions; it is your responsibility to educate yourself, not theirs.
Food sovereignty, and food justice are crucial to building a truly progressive farming system that serves all. Organizations like La Via Campesina, the Landworkers Alliance, and LION are good places to begin your education into these topics.
In the regenerative agriculture movement we claim to envision a world where everyone has access to nutritious, high-welfare, sustainably-produced food. But we will never have achieved a truly regenerative agriculture if it only serves the most privileged in society. Social justice has and will always be an inextricable part of the movement. It’s time white farmers recognized it.
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¹There is no such thing as being “apolitical”, particularly when issues of race, wealth, nutrition, and land access are involved.