Today we are featuring a guest blog post by Friendly Vang Johnson. Friendly shares about how fakequity shows up in the farming industry and how it holds back small POC farmers.
You’ll also see a new feature at the bottom of the post. I’m testing out a new line feature that says “Why I wrote/published this.” Hopefully, this gives you more of an understanding and connection to the blog.
By Friendly Vang Johnson
Hi! I’m Friendly. I’d like to share my story on what fakequity looks like in farming, and how Black and Brown farmers and communities experience, endure and struggle against it.
During the height of the COVID pandemic, in conjunction with the Hmong Association of WA, I began a mutual aid effort to help our local Hmong flower farmers. Leveraging a network of more than 40 volunteers and social media, we raised over $500,000 to keep our farmers afloat when the farmer’s markets were closed—their main source of income. 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.
Today, 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 veggies, herbs, fruit, and flowers exclusively from Black and Brown farmers. We continue to reinvest food and flowers to the community (aka gifting). We do all of this, without owning a farm ourselves and without paid staff. We want to own land and have paid staff but systemic barriers and systemic racism prevent us from accessing grants such as the USDA programs that are supposed to help small POC farmers.
In 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 community and discovered USDA’s 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 everyday as a 67-year old farmer. When I detailed to her the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) Direct Farm Loan program, she became blasé and said to not bother, “those programs are not meant for us.” As a first-generation immigrant my mother didn’t believe the program was for her, or for people like our family. I insisted that it was just a matter of paperwork, and I, as someone who has a master’s 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 loans for land, even though the lending program is supposed to support socially-disadvantaged farmers. 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 the USDA will even establish eligibility. This race-neutral policy holds back many immigrant and POC farmers.
I explained to a high-level USDA official that most BIPOC and refugee farmers —do not have access to familial or community relationships with landowners. Historically our forebears were barred from owning land. Red-lining, stealing land from Indigenous people, or harassment in rural areas low wages while working on other people’s land, etc. have kept POCs from farming or owning farmland. Today we are at a disadvantage when bidding on land. Programs like the USDA’s on the surface look like they can help, but as my mom said “those programs aren’t meant for us.”
It makes me mad the 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 or 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, I would have been charged 3 or 4 times the interest rate that USDA’s FSA Direct Loan. That difference in expense 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 to me because I am married to the eldest grandson of White dairy farmers who owned and worked 100+ acres of land in Minnesota. Their ability to own the land they diligently farmed and stewarded, meant that they were in a position to send their 10 children to college and retire comfortably; even today their generational wealth accumulation is felt in the family.
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.
As the daughter of Hmong refugees that has farmed in Minnesota since the 1980s, my experience is grounded in the struggle for antiracism, 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 me access to programs from USDA, especially those aimed at serving disadvantaged farmers: women and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). In 2021, I was reminded of how ingrained racism is and how USDA programs continue to fail our farmers and communities. Reforms are needed for USDA programs to equitably serve BIPOC farmers. BIPOC farmers deserve an equal chance to access USDA programs; it is time for the USDA to reform its loan programs.
Friendly Vang Johnson runs Friendly Hmong Farms, leveraging her 20+ years of experience in social justice work. Her understanding of the intersection between food sovereignty, land reparations, and racial justice was shaped by a childhood growing up in the Frogtown neighborhood, farming in the summers, and at the markets with her mom and grandmothers in Minnesota. She holds a master’s degree in public policy. She sees her participation in Friendly Hmong Farms as the culmination of her activism as an advocate and community organizer. She is a mom of four and an auntie to eight. Learn more at https://www.friendlyhmongfarms.com/.
Why we published this: I invited Friendly to write this post to diversify POC voices and views on Fakequity. Friendly has first-hand and family experience in farming, an area not often featured in Fakequity. Food diversity, sovereignty, and agency are important to POC experiences.
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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.