The 2018 Farm Bill introduced an advocacy and policy research initiative designed to uplift a group of historically underserved farmers and ranchers. The Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Center was authorized for two reasons:
- First, to make sure there is a coordinated voice for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers as they advocate at the agricultural committees of the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate and the USDA, and
- Second, to ensure that there’s data-driven information ready for ag policymakers as they work on farm bill legislation.
Eloris Speight, executive director of the Policy Center, has a long, accomplished career in policy and human resources strategy executive leadership. She has collaborated with congressional representatives and advocated for policies that will have enriching effects on socially disadvantaged growers around the country. She also brings first-hand farming experience to her position after working on her grandparents’ farm as a child.
“I grew up spending my summers on my grandparents’ 200-acre farm in North Carolina. That’s where I had my start in ag,” she says. “My first job was working on the farm. The first vehicle I learned to drive was a tractor. I’d buy my school clothes with the money I earned there.”
Impacting Policy With Engagement
Speight and her team established the Policy Center with four areas of focus:
- Stakeholder engagement
- Active research
- Policy development
- Strategic outreach
“Stakeholder engagement involves wide-reaching touchpoints across the land grant communities, particularly the 1890 land grants,” Speight says. These institutions were established to strengthen research, extension and teaching in the food and agricultural sciences at 19 historically black universities. While the Policy Center is located at one of these institutions, Mississippi’s Alcorn State University, Speight notes that she and her colleagues work across other communities as a national organization.
Much of their work centers around six research priorities: policy analysis, the impact on disadvantaged growers, USDA programs participation analysis, youth programs, urban agriculture and access to resources. “We have a focus on access to resources — especially addressing the decline in Black farmers, the only ethnic group at the time that was declining in numbers,” Speight says. “Youth programs are a priority, considering the average farmer is 59 years old, as we focus on cultivating the next generation.”
While the Policy Center does not provide direct technical assistance to farmers, it does facilitate knowledge through workshops and training opportunities. “We educate around the farm bill to teach socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers what’s in it that will benefit them,” Speight says. “Then, we conduct focus groups and surveys to drive strategy. That is followed by policy development when we take the data we collect and work it through the Congressional Black Caucus to get that policy implemented in the farm bill.”
Addressing Inequalities in Ag
Reflecting on what’s made the Policy Center successful and distinct from other efforts to address inequality in agriculture, Speight attributes much of it to the broadness of their impact. “We are one of the only organizations that I’m aware of where we have both public and private representation,” she says. “We have an advisory board consisting of 24 members that’s chaired by the president of Alcorn State University, with representatives from seven additional land-grant universities.” Some of the other groups represented include the Texas AgriForestry Small Farmers and Ranchers, the National Black Growers Council, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the Mississippi Minority Farmers Alliance.”
Representation also comes from large and small farms, agribusinesses and national leaders like former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy and former USDA Director of Civil Rights Lloyd Wright. “We’ve also held focus groups with more than 5,000 active farmers and ranchers in the last couple of years,” Speight says. “If you look at all of our contributors, we’re a group that’s very far-reaching and broad.”
Gaining Partnerships for Progress
The Policy Center seeks support from large corporations to fund its research and initiatives. “Walmart recently funded a grant for the Policy Center to look at how Black farmers finance their operations,” Speight says. “When the American Rescue Plan came out, we found that only 8% of all Black farmers were recipients of direct USDA loans. If only 8% are getting federal funding, where are the other 92% getting funds? We were able to share this data with USDA and Congress.”
Other ways big companies can provide support is by providing technical assistance and sharing best practices so farmers are equipped with the latest tools and knowledge. “We also hope large companies will fund opportunities for students,” Speight says. “We want to contribute to the next generation of ag professionals, whether that is by offering internships or through the funding of internship programs.”
“Finally, we’d like these businesses as well as the whole ag community to participate in policy discussions,” Speight concludes. “As we collect information and come back with recommendations, there is a role that everyone can play in advocating for those policies.”