What does soil health have to do with racial justice? Why does the Land Stewardship Project write articles and posts about racial justice for mostly homogenous, white audiences in rural, farming communities? From time to time, LSP soil health organizers are asked these questions by farmers at our field days and workshops.
Some answers to those questions came from a group of farmers at a gathering at the Stockton Community Center in southeastern Minnesota on a frigid, icy, winter Saturday in February. On that day, 18 southeastern Minnesota farmers plus some non-farming rural residents — all LSP members — came together to attend an economic justice and racial justice day-long workshop. The event offered opportunities to hear stories, share stories, ask questions, and learn about historic and present realities regarding how racial justice and agricultural economic justice are and have been deeply tied together and how the impacts are felt.
In response to the question, “Why are you here today?” this group of farmers revealed a shared desire to gather with other farmers, on-purpose, to think and discuss where hope lies for bringing about an agricultural economy, production system, society, and communities that thrive in health, prosperity and well-being.
Over the past couple of years leading up to this winter workshop, many one-to-one conversations between LSP staff and LSP farmers have taken place. These conversations played a vital role in helping us learn from LSP’s farming and rural community members exactly what their concerns and desires are for how our organization works on and communicates about building upon the values of stewardship, justice, health, democracy and community. LSP staff can only have confidence that our work is on track when we know that it’s rooted in the mission and vision that our members have told us aligns with their values.
Following are some of the things that workshop attendees said they hoped to get out of a day together sharing and learning about the past and present situation when it comes to economic and racial justice in our American food and farming systems. They said they wanted to:
- Hear authentic personal stories from other farmers from the community that help widen understanding of how economic justice and racial justice plays out in the community.
- Gain confidence and use our skills to feel empowered to speak up and take action for economic and racial justice.
- Hear discussions with representatives of minority groups and gain insight into other opinions, values, perspectives, and additional historical knowledge.
- Find allies in a shared cause.
- Learn in community and gain ideas for ways to think and explain things.
- Do a deep dive into the topics of economic and racial justice…and maybe be pushed a little into discomfort….(but) have these conversations in a safe space.
- Share activity and discussions with a group on how to better create dialog, community and educational learning with farmers of color. It’s hard as a white person to insert yourself and initiate contact when it comes to racial justice issues.
Throughout the Saturday workshop, attendees broke into pairs and small groups to share stories and consider tough questions. They participated in exercises that illuminated the realities of our economic system’s effects on people representing various socioeconomic standings. They heard from farmers in their community.
Winona County farmer and grazier Dan Wilson told of his efforts to “build power with other farmers who are also stuck in this economic machine.” His experience includes standing up and speaking out while working with others to reject racism and discrimination against vulnerable migrants and immigrants, most recently by fighting and winning against a community-severing proposal to construct an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention facility in southeastern Minnesota.
Vegetable producer Sandy Dietz told a profound story about the brutal effects of agricultural lending practices and market forces on small and mid-sized independent family farmers. Her story highlighted the power of community which helped her family keep their farm operational after a couple of bad years of extreme weather and market conditions threatened to wipe out decades of focused, hard, smart, successful work building living soil and providing healthy food.
A key component of the workshop centered on walking the length of an 80-foot “Equity in the Food System Timeline,” which was created by a team led by farmer Zoe Hollomon of Midwest Farmers of Color Collective and Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA). The food and farming policy timeline provides a stunning snapshot of a long history of oppressive control over large groups of people (primarily people of color) by small groups of people (primarily white) over the centuries through control of land, life, and food. As Zoe said, “We believe that shared education about the history of racist policies and actions is essential so that we don’t repeat them.”
“Racial equity and justice work requires work at the personal level, at the organizational level, and at the systemic level. It’s about how…we show up every day, how we resist the norm, how we open decision-making tables, how we are allies, use our privilege,” said Susan Phillips, co-creator and co-facilitator of the timeline. “The work starts with us.”
Workshop attendees said that exposure to the Equity in the Food System Timeline, along with the discussions it prompted, helped them gain a heartfelt sense of historic, systemic abuse of power, how pervasive it is, that the system is still in play today, and that there is hope to create a new, just food and farming system.
A full day of connecting, learning, talking, laughing, relating, eating great local food and grappling with tough challenges concluded with a visual reminder in the form of quilted art presented by Karen Stettler, LSP land access organizer. Karen’s story of the tree she quilted sent everyone out with bright and hopeful reminders. We left thinking about the power of people working together for healthy land, clean water, and a sustainable environment. We were also reminded of our power to establish healing, just markets and economies, and to create beauty and livelihoods that help people and the planet thrive.
One Step at a Time…
We noted that some people have commented that LSP should “stay in its lane,” and that talking about racial and economic justice doesn’t have anything to do with farming. In fact, LSP’s “lane” has always been built on working for social, racial, and economic justice in our agricultural system, as our latest long range plan makes clear. The Land Stewardship Project launched in 1982 in response to the economic farm crisis and massive soil erosion. These two destructive forces resulted from policies advanced by people like the late Earl Butz, who was the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture between 1971 and 1976 and who favored promoting “get big or get out” large-scale corporate farming, no matter what it did to our land, communities, and food system.
We need to build the kind of soil health that supports healthier food, vibrant communities, and prosperous farms. And it’s become clear in recent years that living soil is critical to create sustainability in our environment and to counteract climate change.
Countering the “get big or get out” movement, 40 years ago LSP identified foundational values for creating a thriving food and farming system: stewardship, justice, health, democracy, and community. Wherever our lives are centered — town or country — we are all affected by systems we inherited and are now involved in creating, dismantling, or perpetuating either on-purpose or without thinking about it.
The same forces that created an unsustainable food and farming system that devastates the land and our communities undermines the ability of all people to thrive. A truly sustainable and regenerative agriculture system is rooted in healthy soil as well as justice and fairness for everyone, no matter their color or background. That’s why LSP will keep moving down this lane as much as possible — one leaf at a time.