Today, only 1.4 percent of American farmers identify as Black or mixed race, down from about 14 percent 100 years ago. Systemic discriminatory policies and practices, for example concerning land and financial access, have led to the decline. How can we turn it around, ensuring that Black farmers will be part of a sustainable food system?

Co-founded by Olivia Watkins and Karen Washington, Black Farmer Fund is one organization making progress on this issue. The New York-based non-profit raised its first $1 million fund last year and has disbursed about $600,000 to businesses to nurture Black community wealth and health in the American Northeast.

I checked in with Watkins to understand the lessons she learned along the way and to get her recommendations on how food and agriculture businesses could best support the Black food and farming community.

When Watkins and Washington started working on Black Farmer Fund in 2017, their objective was to establish a new financial institution that Black farmers and food entrepreneurs could trust to counterweigh the long history of discrimination they had experienced over generations.

"A lot of shady things have been happening in financial institutions, and that has informed our work," Watkins said. According to her, examples of this "shadiness" include Black farmers getting quoted higher interest rates than their white peers and young Black farmers not being eligible for loans due to higher levels of student debt. Financial access for black farmers has been lacking both in private institutions as well as public funding, such as USDA grants and loans that have intentionally discriminated against Black people and resulted in a large wealth gap.

Watkins and her team are working closely with their regional community in the Northeast to rebuild some of that trust and provide funding options that meet the needs of small businesses. The organization invests in long-term relationships with food and farming entrepreneurs and offers a wide range of grants and loans with flexible terms and patient capital with higher risk tolerance and longer repayment time horizons.

Black Farmer Fund’s work with Soumppou Kaffo is one success story. The cooperative farm includes 55 members who are West African and Muslim immigrants and serves the greater New York City area with halal meat and culturally relevant vegetables such as African eggplant and okra. The cooperative has been resource-constrained because its Muslim roots don’t allow farmers to accept a regular loan. To meet its special need, Watkins is engaging with a specialized law firm in Dubai to structure a sharia-compliant loan respectful of the culture and religion.

Read the full article about uplifting Black food entrepreneurs by Theresa Lieb at GreenBiz.