Why BIPOC farmers seek a farmland trust
By Rebekah Denn
At first, Friendly Vang-Johnson helped connect local Hmong farmers with customers for their glorious bouquets. She was one of many informally helping out when COVID-19 shut down the farmers’ usual outlets and threatened their livelihoods.
Even when the blooms returned to Pike Place Market and other spots, though, the policy analyst knew a structural problem remained. The farmers who worked so hard to cultivate dazzling dahlias, peonies and other cut flowers almost never owned their land, leaving their businesses unstable and under-resourced.
It’s not just Hmong farmers. A recent survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition reported that finding affordable land to buy is the top challenge for all young farmers, but even more so for those who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). By 2021, Vang-Johnson’s volunteer efforts during COVID had grown into a full-blown Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and youth leadership program, but it had inherent limits.
“I quickly realized that no matter how many families we help, no matter how much I sell through my CSA, no matter how many people I get to say ‘I’ll take a box of vegetables,’ it’s never going to be enough for farmers to own land…” Vang-Johnson said.
That’s why she’s working to co-create the Pacific Northwest Black, Indigenous, People Of Color Farmland Trust (PNW BIPOC Farmland Trust). Its initial goal is buying 60 acres of farmland that would be permanently kept in agricultural production and leased to farmers below market rates. In partnership with the Washington Farmland Trust (WFT), the PNW BIPOC Farmland Trust recently applied for a $4 million King County Conservation Futures grant, aimed at preserving parks and open space, to fund the purchase of farmland. If it receives funding, WFT would hold any land purchased until the PNW BIPOC Farmland Trust incorporated as an independent nonprofit.
“I could never sell enough flowers or vegetables to bring about justice… but there are things that we can do, as a community, to pull together other resources to support our farmers,” she said. It is especially important that the solutions to help BIPOC farmers be co-designed and led by those farmers, she added, so the PNW BIPOC Farmland Trust advisory board currently has a supermajority of BIPOC farmers.
If the trust is funded, whether through that grant or other means, the first priority for land is intended for six Hmong families facing imminent loss of the farmlands they are currently leasing and/or other needs, all in “the legacy of historic disparities that have left Hmong farmers, after nearly 40 years of farming in this region, without reliable tenure or ownership.”
Many Hmong farmers resettled in the Seattle area as refugees because of CIA covert operations in Laos, which had recruited them to aid the U.S. When the U.S. pulled out of Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War, Hmong people arrived and turned to flower farming, in part due to the nonprofit Indochinese Farm Project that connected them with Eastside farmland. Washington has the nation’s 10th largest population of Hmong residents, according to the 2010 census, still relatively tiny at around 2,100 people.
Vang-Johnson has worked as a federal analyst for two decades, and she holds a master’s degree in public policy, but said what gives her insight and keeps her involved and advocating is her personal background as the daughter of Hmong farmers who settled in Minnesota. “I have the muscle memory of running around in the fields, picking green beans with my grandmother, staying up really late washing produce, going to the farmers market at the crack of dawn. I know what that’s like. I know how hard these families are working to bring the abundance displayed at the markets. ”
She hadn’t planned a large-scale project when the Hmong Association of Washington asked for volunteers to help the farmers sell their bouquets in 2020, which led to the Friendly Hmong Farms CSA, a volunteer-led social enterprise business. But the ongoing needs were clear, as when she worked with one family applying for an organic farming grant. It required a letter of support from the farmer’s landlord, she said, but the landlord refused support for any of the multiple Hmong families farming his land until an unrelated dispute was settled. The landlord effectively lumped all the Hmong families together, even though they each had their own independent farm businesses.
I could never sell enough flowers or vegetables to bring about justice
And when she encouraged her own mother to apply for a federal loan aimed at supporting disadvantaged farmers, she learned they wouldn’t even be eligible for the loan until a purchase agreement for the land was signed—an agreement that would be impossible without knowing if the loan was approved.
In an essay on that experience for the National Young Farmers Coalition, Vang-Johnson wrote that such programs need to change for truly equitable access.
“On the surface, (the experience) might appear race-neutral and simply the typical way that commercial property loan transactions are handled. That is, there is no intent to harm or disenfranchise BIPOC farmers, so how could it be racist? …” she wrote.
However, historic and systemic racism means most BIPOC farmers—and refugee farmers in particular—lack pre-existing relationships with landowners through familial or community ties, she wrote. It puts them “at a distinct disadvantage when we are bidding on land and when we are trying to access public programs that are structured the way the USDA’s are structured.”
As land prices rise, it’s become even harder for farmers to break through the cycle of barriers. Less than 5% of the nation’s farms are operated by BIPOC farmers, according to the grant application, while the majority of farmworkers in the U.S. are people of color. “BIPOC farmers have long been limited to leasing land, frequently without the protection of formal contracts due to factors such as limited English proficiency or the unwillingness of white landowners to consider BIPOC farmers as buyers for their property,” Vang-Johnson said.
Meanwhile, Vang-Johnson has continued to work on the Friendly Hmong Farms CSA as a volunteer. Ironically, she now operates it from Minnesota. Selling her Lake City home and moving to an area with a lower cost of living allowed her “the power and the privilege to do this work without taking a salary.”
In the grant application, she warns that farmers will abandon farming in this region if their work continues to be so unsustainable and if land ownership remains out of bounds. It would be a shock to a region that has come to expect the breathtaking bouquets—and the people behind them—as a given of the seasons.