Reflections on a gathering for small minority food producers in Arizona

By Sara El-Sayed, Assistant Research Professor, Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems.

On May 6th, 2023, a windy and sunny spring day, I was excited to attend the 2nd Annual Small Minority Farmers and Ranchers Conference. The conference was hosted and led by Rachel and James Stewart, founders and owners of Southwest Black Ranchers of Douglas, Arizona. They are also the founders of People 1st Global Food and Land Reclamation Foundation, whose mission is to build a self-sufficient food economy supporting farming, entrepreneurship, and land ownership for underserved communities. At the event, which the ASU Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems helped sponsor, small and minority farmers were engaged in activities that were designed to help build their capacity, identify challenges they face, and familiarize them with resources available through USDA, such as the Farm Services Agency (FSA) and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). 

Rachael and James Stewart. Image from The Guardian. Photographer: Cassidy Araiza.

Rachel opened the session by describing the history of  BIPOC farmers and businesses and the harm caused by years of racial discrimination in the form of redlining and lack of access to credit. She also shared her experience of being completely locked out of markets. For these reasons, Rachel challenged participants to not only come together and form a strong alliance but educate themselves on what resources are available to them and then make their voices heard.  

Harvey Reed, Chair of USDA’s Advisory Committee on Minority Farmers (ACFM), gave a strong presentation on the continuation of structural and systemic racism. He stressed that people like him are working to make organizational changes. He emphasized that they can only do this work by hearing the struggles of BIPOC farmers and ranchers and consequently identifying the potential paths forward. Rachel also shared that healing BIPOC farmers’ connection to land, complicated by negative connotations with slavery, will yield positive results for food, production, communities, economic development, and future generations. Other inspiring parts of the gathering included hearing from the Southwest Association of Buffalo Soldiers, who recounted the true story of Black Buffalo soldiers, and learning from extension officers who taught the participants about strategies for reclaiming/growing their land and the potential value of growing hemp as a cash crop. Justin Duncan, an extension officer at National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), spoke on a variety of topics, such as learning how to read the land and understand which crops were best suited to be grown on certain land, ways to build healthier soils and the importance of cover crops such as cowpeas. 

We enjoyed an end-of-day celebration led by Polynesian Dancers from the Halau Hula O Ualani based in Tucson, who danced and sang beautifully under the beautiful Arizona sunset and brought a lot of joy to all the participants, many of whom joined in the dancing. We were also offered delicious meals made with different proteins that were all raised sustainably by the Stewarts and presented in delicious dishes, such as goat prepared by Chef Patty from Lasgidi Cafe, lamb prepared by Chef Pam Coleman from Ms. C's Homestyle, and beef prepared by chef Cortney Smith from Cookin with Cort. The event was a technical workshop and a time to celebrate cultures and diversity through food, music, and dance.

Event sponsors include: Pattern Energy, ASU Desert Humanities Initiative, USDA NRCS Natural Resources Conservation Services, USDA Rural Development, Western SARE, ASU School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, ASU Swette Center School of Sustainable Food Systems, SWABS Southwest Association of Buffalo Soldiers, The Tiger Mountain Foundation, Finca Colibri, Slow Food Phoenix, Local First Arizona, Genesis Global Market, the USDA Farm Service