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How Black Farmers Are Navigating Climate Change With Limited Federal Support

Some have received equipment and funding from the USDA. Many who have not are frustrated by the process.

Ras Kofi with On Da Farm leads volunteers at Oyun Botanical Gardens in East Point, Georgia. (LC Morrisette)

Six months ago, Anthony “AJ” McKenzie, a 30-year-old cool vegetable crop and livestock farmer in North Carolina, stopped farming on his 40 acres. Last year, a drought killed at least 85% of his crop, which caused him to lose income.

Usually, he’d grow his cabbage and turnip, mustard, and collard greens twice in the fall and twice in the spring. To navigate the shorter, hotter season, he grew fewer cool crops and added a variety of others such as squash, watermelon, tomatoes, and zucchini. He even pushed his livestock into the shade to keep them from dying from extreme heat.

But he couldn’t make ends meet. So he closed shop, and to keep himself afloat, he opened a tractor and bush hogging service that clears land of small trees, weeds, and bushes.

“The watermelons didn’t grow. The cucumbers grew once and went away. We try to do everything organically or close to organic. It was just a little bit too hot,” McKenzie said. 

He enrolled in North Carolina A&T University’s agribusiness program to better learn the business and find resources. One piece of equipment that could have helped was a high tunnel, which would have protected his plants from severe weather, reduced pests, and extended the plants’ growing season. 

For at least three years, he attempted to get assistance from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, the department that administers programs to help improve air quality, soil health, and land for better agricultural production and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

This year, the agency approved his request, but because the funds aren’t available, he won’t receive the high tunnel until 2024, he said. He’s also trying to get rotational grazing for his livestock and a drip irrigation system to water his plants.

In the meantime, McKenzie is not rushing to fully reopen his farm business, D.A.N’s Farm Fresh Produce. Instead, he’s experimenting with his crops to figure out the best conditions in which to grow them with the changing weather.

As Black farmers deal with climate change, one of the biggest hurdles they say they have is access to federal resources, equipment, and technical assistance from the USDA, the agency that is supposed to help them. As a result, some farmers have temporarily closed shop or changed crops, hours, or conditions in which they work.

Anthony “AJ” McKenzie said he’s experimenting with his crops to figure out the best conditions in which to grow them with the changing weather. (Anthony “AJ” McKenzie)

With the growing threat of longer dry seasons and intense heavy rain periods over the next few decades, the USDA must prioritize Black farmers in their programs, said LeeAnn Morrisette, communications and culture director at the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, a coalition of 56 organizations, cooperatives, farmers and land stewards nationwide that advocate for food sovereignty and land justice.

“There’s just a consistent issue with the USDA when it comes to lending or offering grants to marginalized farmers. That’s just the historical and still-lived experience of most of our farmers,” Morrisette said. “It’s beautiful to see folks are creating new means to be able to serve their communities, but it’s also scary that this is the world we live in. [It’s] also unfortunate that the systems in place aren’t built to really protect the farmers and growers and community members who are affected by climate change.” 

Working to be a ‘different USDA’ 

The discrimination against Black farmers at the hands of the USDA dates back decades. In the landmark class-action lawsuit Pigford v. Glickman, Black farmers alleged the USDA discriminated against them from 1983 to 1997 when they applied for federal financial assistance, and failed to respond to complaints of discrimination. The court approved a settlement in 1999. While some Black farmers received payments, thousands did not because of confusing paperwork, filing deadlines, denials of claims, processing issues, and attorney malpractice, NPR reported.

More recently, Black farmers said Congress walked back its investment when it repealed a $4 billion debt relief program for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers — which includes Native American, Hispanic, and Asian communities. Instead, lawmakers created a $3.1 billion race-neutral loan assistance program for distressed borrowers to replace it, which Black farmers said was a “blatant attempt to skirt its contractual commitments” to them and other farmers.

USDA officials from both the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Farm Service Agency, which administer loans and credit programs, farm commodity, disaster and emergency relief, told Capital B they acknowledge and understand the historical discrimination against farmers of color and have been actively working to improve relationships and increase participation in its programs. 

To bridge the gap, the departments are partnering with trusted community-based or nonprofit organizations and cooperatives to share information about programs and resources. This allows underserved farmers and ranchers to learn the application process from people they know, including how the programs work and how to properly fill out the paperwork.

“Sometimes there’s a barrier there from just understanding how a lot of these government programs work, and when you mix in some distrust, it’s a recipe for disaster,” said Terry Cosby, chief of the Natural Resource Conservation Service. “I want to make them feel comfortable. Let them know that we understand and we’re here to help you. We want to be a different agency or a different USDA than what they might have encountered in the past.”

Farm Service Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneaux mentioned several programs that could help farmers affected by climate disasters, including a financial assistance program for individuals who were discriminated against in farm lending programs prior to 2021, and the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, which offers payments for eligible crops to protect against low yields, loss of inventory, or prevented planting due to a natural disaster.

“We’ve got a lot of work going on across the agency to try to help producers be better positioned in the future of agriculture in light of climate change,” Ducheneaux said. “We’ve made a concerted effort to try to ensure that our underserved producers are getting equitable treatment in these programs as the disasters present themselves, but that’s really half of the equation.” 

“Keeping the Culture in Ag” 

Years ago, Cynthia Capers, 64, a retired trauma nurse turned poultry farmer and owner of 16-acre Heniscity Farms in Tennessee, applied for funding for a high tunnel, fencing, technical assistance, and help with her conservation plan. She’s called and emailed local USDA agencies for help, but hasn’t heard back. It’s difficult and time-consuming to understand the documents, fill out paperwork, and try to run a farm as a one-person operation, she said.

With business slow and a lack of funds to pay for help, she’s taken a break from farming, which she started professionally six years ago. Before that, she raised poultry for 20 years as a hobby. She recently got a full-time job as a clinical researcher to pay the bills. At some point, she hopes to settle back into farming. When she does, she plans to raise more heat-tolerant birds and work earlier in the morning or late night to reduce heat exhaustion.

“I work 50 hours a week for that job, and this is what I really didn’t want to do,” she told Capital B. “I should be able to make that small six-figure [salary] farming. Normally, I would have put a small herbal garden in the front and a vegetable garden in the back. … I would have been breeding birds and selling chicks. … I [can’t] do it.” 

Stephanie Miller, 47, owns MysticPine Farm, a 1.25-acre market garden where she raises heritage breed chicken for eggs and grows herbs, flowers, mushrooms, and vegetables. She also struggled to receive help from USDA. She’s been farming since 2016, and spent time taking classes, workshops, and exploring her land to figure out how to farm organically. 

Miller uses manure from the chicken and ducks and worm compost instead of chemicals to mitigate the risk of climate change. She also has solar panels, which run on batteries. In her market garden, she plants tomatoes, onions, and basil together to increase the flavor of the tomatoes while also repelling pests and deer. She composts her packaging for her herbal medicines and products.

Stephanie Miller grows herbs, flowers, mushrooms, and vegetables in her 1.25-acre market garden. (Courtesy of Stephanie Miller)

Despite this, she needed help. Eventually, she had a regional assistant from a small farmer outreach program accompany her to the local Farm Service Agency office to help her secure technical assistance and two high tunnels.

“As Black farmers, we have to do a lot of extra legwork to be resilient — taking the time to get a formal or informal education about growing techniques, and how to do better and how to actually cherish the land,” she said. “A lot of the white farmers, they have had land since the Homestead Act in the 1860s. We haven’t had that on-the-job training … the equipment … a mentor. Those are the tools that we need to provide equity for Black farmers.”

Some farmers don’t participate in federal programs for lack of these tools, so in 2018 Deydra Steans, 42, a fifth-generation rancher in Texas, created Black Gold Resourcing, a company that provides outreach, advocacy, and technical assistance to marginalized farmers in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. She’s had at least 60 farmers in Texas appoint her as their power of attorney, so she can submit documents on their behalf. 

But working with the USDA has proven difficult. Steans said local technicians had some of her powers of attorney removed without her or the producers’ consent. She’s tried to partner on outreach events, and they told her no. As a rancher, she said, she’s been discriminated against and been denied access to loans from the Farm Service Agency. Despite the challenges, Steans said she’s been able to successfully connect farmers to resources

“They (USDA technicians) know I’m about business, and I speak the same language they speak. And I know the programs that they know. I have enough of what I need right now to do the work of really helping people to gain access,” Steans said. “My motto that I have on my shirts is ‘Keeping the Culture in Ag’ and that’s what I intend to do. My passion is to see Black, brown, and Native Americans thrive in an industry that has suppressed and oppressed us and left us out for so long. I want to flip the script.”

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