Patrice Bailey, assistant commissioner with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said although the demographics of Minnesota are changing to be more diverse, there's not enough cultures being represented in the state's ag industry.
Bailey oversees the state's Emerging Farmers Working Group, which was created in the 2020 legislative session to advise Minnesota's Commissioner of Agriculture and legislature "regarding the development and implementation of programs and initiatives that support emerging farmers in this state."
Members of the working group represent farmers or aspiring farmers who are "women, veterans, persons with disabilities, American Indian or Alaskan Natives, members of a community of color."
Bailey said balancing the equity of farming in Minnesota starts with simple representation.
"It's not if, but when — when is this going to start being shown," he said. "Right now it's not fair because there's no representation."
Five meetings into the Emerging Farmers Working Group, Bailey said there are no new issues being brought up.
"The issues are always land — access, financing and availability," said Bailey. "And being able to have people be seen, because oftentimes people are just overlooked."
In April 2019, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed the Tribal Nations Executive Order. The order, which affirmed government-to-government relations between Minnesota and Minnesota Tribal Nations, states that Minnesota and its Tribal Nations "significantly benefit from working together, learning from one another, and partnering when possible."
Minnesota is home to 11 tribal nations and 108,000 Native citizens.
Lisa Schutz, director of the Southeast Minnesota Food Rescue and Redistribution Program, said she's trying to link with as many Indigenous producers as she can with partnership opportunities at growers markets and food banks.
Schutz is Indigenous herself — from the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina.
"I'm a fourth-generation medicine woman, and member of the paint clan," said Schutz. "We're called that because we paint our medicine on."
She said local Indigenous growers are underrepresented at the major food banks as well as farmers markets.
"We know there's a lot of food insecurity in these (Indigenous) communities," she said. "So let's say they go into a food bank — they don't recognize what's on that shelf, nor do they know what to do with it."
She said the first time she explored what was in food boxes that were distributed in southeast Minnesota, she felt ashamed.
"You got macaroni and cheese out there, you got Rice Krispie treats, but you don't have a tomato that anybody grew around here," she said of food shelf products. "Let us help you, is what the message is — but then there's actually barriers created."
At the first Rochester Farmers Market of September, Schutz said her focus was on having more "culturally relevant" products at her vendor stand.
Lately she's been inspired by selling at Rochester's new Night Markets, which were created by Tiffany Alexandria as a way to highlight BIPOC vendors and replicate the cultural staple she experienced in Taiwan.
The new markets are expanding the cultural representation of foods in Rochester, but Schutz said more needs to be done to include more cultures in the traditional growers markets of Rochester.
"I think it's important to understand that when you're an emerging farmer of color, you have got a big job to figure out how to break into growers' markets," said Schutz.
She said she sits in on the Emerging Farmers Working Group meetings and thinks the work they're doing is great. She's ready for the energy to to be spread more locally, though.
"Now a lot of these emerging farmers will go right into their communities, and they'll just sell it fresh wherever they can," she said.
The goal for every local farmers market should be having better representation of non-white producers, said Schutz, to reflect the changing demographics of the world.
"Most growers' markets are still too traditional, and there's a big learning curve out there, when growing something that maybe isn't readily seen around here," said Schutz. "We've got to figure out how to get more cultures represented in these arenas, but also the logistics — like how to promote it, how to sell it and how to educate people on it."
Currently, Schutz is working with growers part of the Rochester Cambodian Association to find ways to introduce their products to the community. In the end, she said it comes down to having representation to attract associations with BIPOC producers.
"If you want every culture to be comfortable at a market, then have every culture represented there," she said. "You have to break the ice, because people that come in here and don't see people of their own color often, might come once and then they don't come back."
To be a white ally to members of underrepresented cultures, Schutz said it just takes being thoughtful with your words. Instead of asking someone where they're from, ask what cultures they identify with. And don't let skin color or curiosity about physical appearance dictate what you say to a person.
Schutz, who refers to herself as being "bright-skin," said one day at the market this summer a woman looked at her braids and the jewelry on her neck, and asked, "Are you Indian?"
"When I said yes, the next thing out of her mouth was 'Oh my god, I'm so sorry,'" said Schutz. "I just thought, for what? We're good. We're all on a learning curve."
Data is off
When examining USDA or state census data for BIPOC farmers, Bailey said it's important to realize the numbers aren't accurate.
"The data is not correct," said Bailey. "The most important thing to realize with the data is that the USDA doesn't have a directory or list of how many BIPOC farmers are in the state of Minnesota — there is no list."
He said the numbers change depending on who you're talking to. According to the most recent state farm census, there are 39 Black farmers in Minnesota.
"That number has a lot to do with who actually owns land, versus who rents land, and who is signed up with (Farm Service Agency)," said Bailey.
Bailey said with so many baby boomers set to retire and the demographics of the state set to change drastically in the next decade, it's time to put more BIPOC farmers on the land, and set them up to stay there.
"The profession dies off when you retire, if you don't transfer it," he said. "If you rent it out, there's no promise that the person who's renting five acres is going to keep those five acres, because everyone has a price at some point."
He said out of the 25 million acres of the state, 16 million of that is on "prime farmland." But that farmland will be sold if developers offer the right price to farmers looking to get out of the industry and be comfortable financially.
"I always look at the issues of agriculture not for the day, but what does it look like two years from now," said Bailey. "It's a race for equity, for people to be able to see the same view as everyone else does."