Against the odds: How farmers of color continue their legacies

(BPT) - The historical circumstances of minority landownership and agricultural enterprise create challenges for some farmers in the United States. Despite these hurdles, growers like Ryan Lankford and Christi Bland are determined to grow their family farms.

Overcoming historical challenges

For Ryan Lankford, the challenge is securing capital to farm on an Indian Reservation.

'The hardships of securing capital have always been there,' Lankford says. When his dad started farming, Lankford recalls the banker saying, 'Well, we don't loan money to Indians, especially on their reservation."

That was after the Indian Finance Law passed in 1976. Things haven't changed much in the decades since.

'I didn't think I'd have the same problem,' Lankford says. 'But when I go into a bank and everything looks good and then they ask me, where do I live or where is my land located and I tell them it's on a reservation, things go very different.'

Lankford grew up on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in north-central Montana, home of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre people. Today, he and his family farm 20,000 acres of spring and winter wheat, barley, chickpeas, canola and other crops near the Bears Paw Mountains.

As a result of longstanding government policies, Lankford and his family lease the majority of their land from their tribe. All this property is held in trust by the U.S. government, which means that the government must approve all land-use decisions.

'Lenders are reluctant to loan money for our farming operation,' Lankford says. 'We've also missed out on government assistance due to restrictions imposed by our land-ownership situation. It's a constant battle.'

Despite the challenges, Lankford still loves farming. After a stint in the military and earning a civil engineering degree from Montana State University, he realized that both serving in the military and farming are a call to service.

'I think my family has farmed and been part of agriculture since the beginning of time, before anybody else was here on this continent,' Lankford says. 'Our family's our legacy and our land will always be part of our family.'

A family farming tradition

For Christi Bland, historic limitations on Black land ownership create an issue. Black farmers historically handed down land informally without a will and testament. But without traditional legal documents, it often proved difficult for Black farmers to gain access to capital because they could not prove adequate collateral for a loan. The USDA admits to this long history of discrimination and started taking steps in the late 1990s to address systemic racism and discrimination.

Further handicapping Black farmers is access to good land. Because many began as sharecroppers, much of the land available to them was marginal in the context of crop production. Today, Bland and other Black farmers struggle to get access to high quality agricultural land.

'One of the unique challenges that I think Black farmers face,' she says, 'is the generational wealth gap that we see. They're not making any more land. Therefore, all the land that's available is usually already taken up by larger farmers that have inherited land and generational wealth.'

Turning stories into insights

Opening the lines of communication to address these issues is invaluable. 'Agriculture serves everyone,' says Brandon Bell, diversity and inclusion lead at Syngenta. 'As we engage farmers and agriculture industry partners, it is essential to truly listen to what people are saying.'

Bell hears from farmers in these communities and focuses on sharing knowledge to encourage diverse viewpoints. 'I want to help people be open to a new way of thinking. Diversity feeds the spirit of community. Inclusion feeds the spirit of creativity. Equity feeds the spirit of innovation.'

For Lankford, this spirit reflects the joy of farming with his family. For Bland, it means honoring her rural roots. 'I don't want to be the biggest farmer,' she says. 'I want to be the best farm manager so I can carry on my family's legacy.'

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