Although people of color make up about a third of North Carolina’s rural population, 95 percent of agricultural producers in the state are white, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.
A number of North Carolina organizations and farmers are working to make the agricultural workforce a more inclusive space.
The Motivate and Educate for Achievement Center is a collaboration of historically Black colleges and universities established under the Second Morrill Act of 1890, seeking to “increase the diversity of the agricultural workforce" in the United States, according to its website.
Misty Blue-Terry and Paula E. Faulkner are co-directors of the MEA Center, which operates through N.C. A&T in Greensboro.
Blue-Terry said the center’s mission is so important because of the United States' growing diverse population and the agricultural industry should reflect that.
“We need to be contributors to this research, as well as just understanding what some of those cultural nuances are so that we can just be better prepared in all areas,” she said.
One of Faulkner’s former students, Brielle Wright, now operates the Farmer’s B.A.G (Blessed, Abundant, Gifted) with her sister, Michelle. In 2020, the pair began making jams and jellies, eventually pivoting to focusing on the needs of farmers and engaging youth in agriculture programs.
Wright said she works to teach students of color about the range of careers in agriculture, and her goal is for them to be prepared to have leadership roles in their community.
“There’s such a huge generational gap in the field of agriculture and it has to be closed so we’ve got to prepare this next generation,” she said.
The MEA Center aims to "recruit, retain and graduate" more underrepresented students into the agricultural field by exposing them to various careers in food, agriculture, natural resources and human sciences, Faulkner said.
Despite having been born into a family that was involved in agriculture, Wright said she didn’t become as invested in the field until she realized it was more than just farming.
“When you have that misconception that agriculture is only farming, plows, cows, sows and things of that nature, and not aware of the many careers that are available in the agriculture area, that’s the gap,” Faulkner said.
In order to continue to feed and clothe the world’s growing population, Blue-Terry said more students are needed in agriculture to determine how to stretch dwindling natural resources.
As a result, the MEA Center focuses on the pipeline into agriculture, offering programs for middle and high school students.
Millard Locklear, a fifth-generation farmer and N.C. A&T’s 2022 Small Farmer of the Year, is a member of the Lumbee Tribe, located in Robeson, Scotland, Hoke and Cumberland counties. He's also the manager for the tribe’s newly founded Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
“Our goal is to complete the circle of food systems for the Lumbee Tribe and our community,” Locklear said.
He explained that the department’s goal is to support the whole community, not just the Lumbee Tribe.
Locklear said he wants to reestablish food resources to be more healthy for the people in his community. The tribe's agriculture and natural resources department is advocating for more sovereignty in all aspects of the Lumbee farming community’s food production.
Many of the barriers that keep people of color out of agriculture relate to a lack of education to access federal resources and capital, Wright said. She also noted that the lack of diversity in agriculture can be intimidating in certain agricultural-based spaces.
As a result, Wright is advocating for the 2023 Farm Bill to provide support for educational resources, funding and opportunities for first-time farmers, particularly farmers of color. She plans to go to Washington, D.C., this summer with students to show their support for the bill.
“There is a huge need to help people of color obtain land and to be able to be successful in this field of farming,” she said.
The bill determines federal policy in agriculture for five to 10 years after its enactment, according to Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, and the last farm bill was signed into effect in 2018.
Although she belongs to a new generation of farmers, Wright said she admires the kind of agriculture demonstrated by the more seasoned farmers she interacts with.
“I want agriculture that brings together communities, I want to be intentional about what we grow so that it has a nostalgic feel,” Wright said.
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