John M. Lam
The pandemic has exposed many unspoken truths about society in the United States, truths that many marginalized peoples have known for a long time. The pandemic has caused us to withdraw into ourselves and reassess our place and our sense of belonging. A feeling of disconnection and social isolation was common for many, which often led to an environment of helplessness, a feeling new to most. Among these achievements was a great reconciliation in our understanding of work; we seem to be moving beyond our traditional understanding of ‘work’.
Even in rural Oklahoma, where talking openly about emotions hasn’t been the generational norm, today farmers and ranchers are increasingly willing to explore what their involvement in agriculture means. means for them. While the generational commitment to maintaining a legacy is a popular motivating force, the personal and emotional fulfillment derived from growing and nurturing food and fiber for the world is expressed more openly.
Undoubtedly, there is an underlying commitment to individualism and self-reliance in agriculture and the rural way of life. This commitment is both a romantic reward to our lifestyle that we carry with pride and also the unfortunate downfall of far too many people. And yet, despite our independence, our dependence on the community is fundamental to the survival of agriculture and our role within it; without consumers, our products are worthless. Without good neighbors, strong fences, and generous friends to rely on, farming would be next to impossible.
I realize and appreciate that my involvement in the organization and my membership is entirely dependent on individuals in these farmer groups inviting me and encouraging my participation. There are people in your community who could use such an invitation. Members of historically marginalized communities, or, as the USDA defines it, “SDFR” (socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers, or agricultural producers), have not had the same scale of inclusion and sense of community in the farming world. A socially disadvantaged person belongs to a group whose members have suffered racial or ethnic prejudice because of their identity — having regard to their individual qualities. Groups include Native Americans or Alaska Natives, Asians, Black Americans, Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics.
Successful Farming states that, “One-third of America’s 3.4 million farmers are over the age of 65, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s latest agricultural census. The census was taken in 2017 and published in 2019. At the time, almost a million additional farmers were within a decade of the retirement age of 65.
As the median age of farmers and ranchers increases, the United States is on the verge of a historic shift in land ownership and management. Millions of acres will be transferred to new operators and owners over the next few decades. How we navigate this transition will determine the ability of marginalized groups to successfully enter agriculture.
While the USDA has made, and continues to make, an effort to correct systemic discrimination in its offices and programs, it is incumbent upon us – the individual farmers – to create an inclusive community for all farmers and ranchers. I ask you, my fellow producer, to look inward and evaluate your efforts to create an inclusive environment. If you’ve ever driven down a remote gravel road and passed a spot overgrown with Eastern Red Cedars and thought, “Wow, I wish this guy had his cedars under control”; or thought, “My life would be a lot easier if my neighbor stopped overgrazing and built cross fences to graze in rotation, so his cows could stay home”, pause and think about the obstacles that might prevent this neighbor from access programs through their conservation district, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office or Farm Service Agency (FSA) service center. This may be a lack of awareness of the program, a lack of eligibility due to fractional ownership issues, or a history of discrimination. What may seem like a rudimentary concept to you is just the beginning for others. Consider extending an invitation to a conversation about their earthly journey, stewardship, needs, and goals. We all succeed when we all grow.
Many factors at play have hindered growth and access to land by SDFR producers. Systemic discrimination is an obvious stain on American history that plays significantly into this narrative, but we, as industry stakeholders, have an opportunity today to create more equity in agriculture. .
Echoing my own sense of belonging to the agricultural world as a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and a young, beginning farmer, I feel included because I was invited. Aren’t we all fundamentally driven by a desire to belong? Whether it’s belonging to our community, our church, or even within our own families, we humans thrive on connectivity. Dear farmer friend, I ask you to explore our common humanity and reposition your thinking on the true meaning of belonging. My call to you is to listen, to extend an invitation and to amplify the voice of your fellow farmers, wherever they are in their earthly journey. The call for farmers to provide food and fiber to 7 billion people is a huge obligation that cannot be fulfilled without everyone at the table.
I am an advocate for equitable access to land and land practices because it takes all of us to create a sense of belonging and feed the world.
Jean M. Lam is a member of the National Young Farmers Coalition. She’s a farmer in Temple, Cotton County.