Restorying Regenerative Agriculture
RAF Launches Project to Connect, Support, and Learn from Black, Indigenous and People of Color
Regenerative agriculture is an important tool for advancing healthy soils, clean water, and climate change mitigation. Yet that’s only part of the story. It is a pathway to a more sustainable and resilient future that addresses the inextricable link between ecological and human systems. For the sake of our future, long-term soil and water benefits must coincide with progress toward a more just, equitable, and thriving agricultural economy, in which many people can participate, lead, and prosper.
Clearly, these are no small tasks. Ecological degradation and pervasive wealth and resource inequities present tremendous and daunting challenges. Racial inequities are particularly pervasive in the U.S. agricultural system. For example, White people own 98% and operate 94% of US farmland, while White landowners generate 98% of all farm-related income. Further, current and historic agricultural funding programs have starkly excluded or limited access to Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) farmers.
RAF is a small intermediary funder with inadequate funding to impact the disparities and ecological destruction on its own. We are committed, however, to listening deeply and thinking creatively about how to address the pervasive problems in agriculture. We have consistently heard calls to support organizations representing farmers and land stewards who operate outside of the dominant U.S. commodity crops. These organizations, many led by BIPOC individuals and focused on BIPOC communities, often have far less access to capital yet have long utilized innovative, regenerative approaches to growing food while also maintaining the health of land and water. We have also been repeatedly reminded that Indigenous people–having studied, understood, and practiced sustainable food production for millenia–hold tremendous wisdom and potential to guide regenerative agriculture, yet too often remain marginalized in the prominent discussions of this landscape.
Grounded in an aspiration to support more BIPOC-led organizations, as well as the belief that funding decisions are best made directly by leaders in those communities, The Regenerative Agriculture Foundation (RAF) is thrilled to announce our Restorying Regenerative Agriculture program –an effort to shape a broader perspective on regenerative agriculture by funding organizations grounded in communities of color. Over the past several weeks, RAF has distributed $500,000 to BIPOC-led agricultural and food-related organizations, selected through a collaborative process directed by a selection committee of leaders from around the country.
Through decades of well-documented discrimination, Black, Indigenous, and Farmers of Color have been constrained in, denied, or forced out of land ownership and farming, resulting in the current extreme racial disparities in the agricultural sector. BIPOC farmers also have been disproportionately excluded from participation in many USDA farm programs that have helped White farmers to thrive.
BIPOC farmers have also experienced disproportionate exclusion from funding through the philanthropic sector. Foundations tend to have an aversion to any activities that present a reputational risk, which often results in foundation staff providing grants to a well-known array of nonprofits that are connected to existing power structures. While it’s a model that certainly has had some success driving positive outcomes, it also tends to increasingly reinforce status quo trends. Small-scale and novel projects, or those that work outside the dominant systems, tend to be pushed aside in favor of those using established methods that have solid fundraising capacities and known networks.
Particularly in agriculture, the status quo philanthropy model is prone to perpetuating racial inequities. For example, a foundation that aspires to improve water quality and soil health in the Midwest, will likely be pulled to focus on the crops with the largest acreage and pollution issues. This leads to projects targeting the primary commodities – corn, soybean, and wheat – all of which are overwhelmingly grown by White farmers. The grant recipients for this work tend to be environmental and agricultural organizations that are also overhwhelmingly White.
These issues in philanthropy received far more attention over the past year thanks to the efforts of the HEAL Food Alliance. HEAL drew national attention with a July 2020 letter to food systems funders urging a change in practices.
The year 2020 raised unmistakable urgency to challenge the status quo philanthropy model. An out-of-control pandemic, racial reckonings, and climate disasters all pointed toward a society struggling to confront the big challenges before it. Changes are in order that go beyond simply diversifying portfolios. A meaningful commitment to equity and racial healing, not to mention true climate solutions, requires shifting the processes and the power structure in philanthropy that contribute to pervasive racial disparities in health, wealth, and leadership empowerment.
Additionally, dominant agriculture systems have much to learn from perspectives and practices of BIPOC communities, many of which have practiced sustainable, innovative food production and land management without outside support for generations. Bold solutions to the crises before us are more likely to emerge from people working outside the conventional paradigm. It is also important to note that innovations must not be appropriated from communities; collaboration has to move forward with consent and recognition.
RAF has been grappling with how to step forward with a greater commitment to racial equity and support for a broader array of farmers and land stewards. It goes beyond an issue of fairness and atoning for historical and ongoing wrongs; we all lose when the ingenuity and creativity that BIPOC organizations, farmers, land stewards, and other food systems leaders could provide is under resourced and otherwise thwarted. The Restorying project emerged from a determination to expand the story of regenerative agriculture to one that clearly advances racial equity, healing, and BIPOC organizational development. In winter 2021, the RAF board of directors committed $500,000 to new funding for BIPOC-led organizations, as well as supporting a collaborative process for determining how to distribute the funds.
How will we “Restory” Regenerative Agriculture?
The Restorying program reflects our vision of a future in which all can contribute to and benefit from healthy soils, clean water, and climate change mitigation. It centers the empowered participation of Black, Indigenous, and people of color-led land stewards and leaders, growing and sharing their knowledge and skills for the benefit of their respective communities, which ultimately benefits all. Specifically, we commit to supporting organizations grounded in the following regenerative agriculture principles and practices that were devised by the program’s selection committee:
- Draw from intergenerational and ancestral knowledges and practices
- Promote and restore health of lands and waters
- Center community health- physical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual
- Ensure people who work land are able to have economic livelihood
- Connect within and across movements rooted in liberation for land and people
- Enact respectful and reciprocal use of “resources”- land, water, and energy
In addition to uplifting organizations that embody the above principles, a co-equal component to “restorying” was designing and conducting a grantmaking process that utilized participatory grantmaking. Philanthropy needs to figure out how to better engage frontline leadership in program design and decisionmaking, and this process provides one example for consideration by the broader funding community.
The Selection Committee
The “restorying” program was shaped and led by Brett Ramey– who also serves as the Climate Resiliency Planner for his tribe, Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, and has worked extensively at the intersections of ecology, food systems, and Indigenous ways of knowing. Before moving to Minneapolis in 2020, he directed the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of Washington- a national undergraduate student program that “critically analyzes the intersections of biodiversity conservation, cultural identities, and environmental justice”. He recently helped to diversify the conservation portfolio of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) through serving on the selection community for their “Building an Inclusive Conservation Movement” program.
Drawing from the inspiration gleaned from his participation in the DDCF process, Ramey worked to ensure that a collaborative, relational process is at the heart of the “restorying” initiative. Unlike most grantmaking that relies on competitive processes for distributing funds and decision making authority is held primarily by the granting entity’s board of directors and executive leadership, RAF deferred to the guidance of a selection committee comprised of frontline, community-led organizations in the food and farming sector.
Finding knowledgeable, wise, and collaborative people for the selection committee was critical. Brett led a process of identifying and reaching out to food and agriculture leaders, located in different parts of the country, who worked across the intersections of agriculture, education, environment, health, labor, and policy. From that thoughtful process, the following four leaders agreed to serve on the committee:
- A-dae Romero-Briones, Director of Programs – Native Agriculture and Food Systems; First Nations Development Institute
- Helga Garcia-Garza, Executive Director; Agri-Cultura Network and La Cosecha CSA
- Noah McDonald, Research and Land Work Coordinator; SAAFON
- Rosie Fitz, Operations & Events Manager; HEAL Food Alliance
Incorporating a Historical Context, Refining Goals, and Making Decisions
The selection committee first convened in early March 2021. Following initial introductions, intention setting and collective grounding, they began refining a vision for what a truly regenerative agriculture might be when grounded in knowledge, practices, and visions of their respective communities. Foundational was adding a historical imperative to the work: they determined “we must recognize that the modern food system came into being via the violent replacement and marginalization of pre-colonial Indigenous food systems. This process of replacement required the dispossession of land, knowledge, and labor of Indigenous and African People. Many of the structures and foundational values driving that replacement are still visible and prevalent in the current food system.”
From that vision and historical context, the selection committee clarified the following program goals:
- Provide flexible, general operating support that strengthens the capacity of BIPOC-led organizations;
- Contribute to shaping a future of regenerative agriculture grounded in BIPOC knowledge systems, values, and practices, and use them as a guiding ethic for the field moving forward;
- Build relationships and trust among the selection committee, grantees and RAF staff, and strive to incorporate the values put forward in the Justice Funders’ “Just Transition for Philanthropy” framework and the example of NDN Collective;
- Assist RAF with shifting its portfolio to better honor and support the regenerative agriculture work conducted by BIPOC-led organizations;
- Catalyze movement of additional resources towards BIPOC-led efforts by:
- Demonstrating a participatory grantmaking process where decision making lies with “on the ground” BIPOC food and ag leaders;
- Raising the profile of the selected organizations;
- Providing an example of a process that can be utilized by other funders, and
- Implement an equitable participatory grantmaking process to be drawn from in the future.
The committee held a majority of decision making authority for the program- including finalizing the aforementioned goals and principles, putting forward organizations to offer funding to, and determining the process for administering the grants. In a deliberate move to not replicate some of the often problematic practices of philanthropy, the committee also decided to provide an equal amount of funding to all 15 of the nominated organizations, rather than add a layer of competition by narrowing the list down to a select few through any sort of application process or provide varied amount of funding to the orgs.
Once all of those foundational decisions were made, the nominated organizations were invited to 1-hour video conversations to build relationships, learn more about each other’s work, and assess their interest in receiving general operating support from RAF. If they were interested, they were asked to complete a short online form that outlined a general overview of their organization, a paragraph on how they might utilize the financial support, how much of the $32k offered they wished to receive, and a short list of checkbox questions gauging their interest in being part of optional conversations with RAF and/or other grantees going forward.
After several months of conversations, internal negotiations, and meeting grantees, the RAF board and staff are pleased to announce grant awards to the following organizations. Each organization is receiving $32,000 of general operating support.
- Agri-Cultura Cooperative Network/ La Cosecha
- American Indian Mothers Incorporated
- Black Dirt Farm Collective
- Black Farmer Fund
- Black Oregon Land Trust
- Catatumbo Cooperative Farm
- Gangstas to Growers
- Kokua Kalihi Valley
- Los Jardines Institute
- Mississippi Association of Cooperatives
- Red Willow Center/ Taos Pueblo
- Rosebud Economic Development Corporation (REDCO)
- ShipRock Traditional Farmers
- Sistas in the Village
- Swinomish Indian Tribal Community
RAF recognizes that a $32,000 grant is not enough to transform an organization. We do hope that the funding eases some financial pressure on these groups, increases awareness of the important work that each is doing, and presents opportunities for future collaborations. We also see this effort as another learning experience that adds to the important work that funders such as the Kataly Foundation and Ceres Trust have done in participatory grantmaking. And finally, we hope that this “Restorying Regenerative Agriculture” project amplifies the voices and increases awareness of BIPOC practices, ethics, and leadership in regenerative agriculture while also advancing truly resilient and equitable food production systems.