USDA Program Reform Needed for Equitable Farmland Access
As the daughter of Hmong refugees who have farmed in Minnesota since the early 1980s, my lived experience is grounded in the struggle for anti-racism, justice, equity, and inclusion. When I was younger and more naive, I believed that attaining higher education would allow me to participate equally in the American Dream. I thought education would enable my access to programs from USDA, especially those aimed at serving disadvantaged farmers: women and Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC). In 2021, I learned firsthand how USDA programs continue to fail our farmers and communities. Reforms are needed for USDA programs to equitably serve BIPOC farmers.
During the height of the COVID pandemic, in conjunction with the Hmong Association of WA, I began a mutual aid effort to help local Hmong flower farmers. Leveraging a network of more than 40 volunteers and social media, we raised more than half a million dollars to keep our farmers afloat when the farmer’s markets were closed. We gave out thousands of pounds of produce to address food insecurity and food apartheid in BIPOC and other vulnerable communities. We honored thousands of essential and frontline workers, elders, and other mutual aid and non-profit organizations serving our communities with gifts of food and flowers.
This work continued into 2021 with the creation of Friendly Hmong Farms, a social enterprise that works to advance food sovereignty, land reparations, and racial justice. Our community-supported agriculture (CSA) business sources vegetables, herbs, fruit, and flowers exclusively from Black and Brown farmers. We continue to gift food and flowers to the community. We have made both in-kind and monetary contributions to organizations led by and serving Indigeous people as an acknowledgement of their original stewardship of the lands our farmers farm, their resilience, and continued presence. We do all of this, without a farm ourselves, and without paid staff, because USDA programs and staff upheld systemic racism instead of standing in solidarity with us.
In the spring of 2021, I spent countless hours intensively looking for affordable, available farmland in King County–one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. When I found acreage that could work for our family, and discovered USDA FSA Direct Farmloan program, I happily announced to my mother that it would be just a matter of time before we could start farming in Washington State. She would be able to continue her decades of farming and our small CSA business would provide her the outlet she needed to avoid having to go to the market every day as a 67-year old farmer. When I explained to her the details of the program, she said to not bother: “Those programs are not meant for us.” I insisted that it was just a matter of paperwork, and I, as someone who has a Masters degree in public policy and works for the federal government as a performance auditor, could surely navigate whatever hoops or hurdles they had. I was wrong.
We were not successful in getting USDA FSA loans for land, even though the lending program is supposed to support Socially Disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. One USDA requirement stood (and continues to stand) in our way: an applicant must provide a signed purchase and sale agreement from a seller, before USDA will even establish eligibility.
On the surface, this might appear race-neutral and simply the typical way that commercial property loan transactions are handled. That is, there is no intent to harm or disenfranchise BIPOC farmers, so how could it be racist? In fact, this is what a top USDA official told me, as he insisted that the FSA loan officer did her job (very courteously and professionally at that), but the failure was on my part. He announced that while USDA can “make a buffet, they can’t force people to eat.” In other words, it was the failure of BIPOC farmers, not this USDA program, for why billions of dollars appropriated by Congress to assist disadvantaged farmers was not getting out to our communities.
I explained that most BIPOC farmers–and refugee farmers in particular–lack pre-existing relationships with landowners through familial or local community ties. This is due to historic, systemic racism: Our forebears were not allowed to own land when land was taken from Indigenous people, and many of them did not settle or stay in rural areas because they did not feel welcome or safe. Therefore, today BIPOC farmers are at a distinct disadvantage when we are bidding on land and when we are trying to access public programs that are structured the way the USDA’s are structured. USDA is perpetuating the racism that has kept BIPOC farmers from owning land and saying their hands are tied, because they won’t recognize how their interpretation of the regulations and the way they’ve written their program policies institutionalizes that racism.
USDA’s failure to serve BIPOC farmers means that our farmers are more likely to use predatory lending and other forms of higher-cost financing. It puts our business, incomes, and families at more risk. If I had sought and somehow gotten a business loan (unlikely because the CSA had yet to turn a profit), I would have been charged three or four times the interest rate that USDA’s FSA Direct Loan would have afforded me. That difference in expense effectively operates as a tax on me for being BIPOC and not having the intergenerational or community ties that a White farmer would be more likely to have by virtue of historic racism that has privileged them and their family.
This difference in the history and lived experience of BIPOC farmers compared to White farmers is especially poignant and stark to me, because I am married to the eldest grandson of White dairy farmers who were allowed to own and work 100+ acres of land in Minnesota. Their ability to own the land that they diligently farmed and stewarded meant that they were in a position to send their 10 children to college, retire comfortably, and pay for an annual family reunion even though they passed away more than ten years ago. This is the price and sacrifice that BIPOC farming families are being asked to pay when we cannot equitably access USDA programs and are kept from owning farmland.
I continue to operate Friendly Hmong Farms without land and without paid staff, sourcing exclusively from Black and Brown farmers in both Washington and Minnesota. I ask for anyone who reads my story to stand in solidarity with BIPOC farmers and advocate for the reform of USDA programs so that anti-racism, justice, equity, and inclusion can become the legacy we leave all our children.