Michael Carter giving tours at Carter Farms, land that has been cultivated by his family for five generations. Carter's goal is to highlight the legacy of black farmers and pass that history on. (Photo by Andrea Smith)

When Michael Carter Jr. needed to increase revenue for his family farm, his instinct was never to till more land. Instead, Carter wanted to create a memorial forest preserve, off-limits to farming. Carter thought it would be difficult to fund the project, but he wasn’t accounting for the help of the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA’s Farmers of Color Network. 

Carter said RAFI-USA and the Farmers of Color Network understand the importance of legacy and of maintaining black farms. “They didn’t blink an eye at this project idea,” he said. The program granted Carter the funds to honor his forebears by creating a sacred forest. 

Through Friday, February 19, RAFI-USA is soliciting applications for its next round of funding from Southeastern farmers of color like Carter. Selected applicants will receive up to $10,000 for their proposed projects. Applications may be submitted through an online portal. The awards will be distributed in March.

The program supports farmers of color who are pursuing innovative ways to sustain their farms, expand the local food economy, or preserve cultural heritage. The size of the grant pool will triple this year. The program has also expanded its geographic priority area to include Georgia and Florida, as well as the original focus area of the Carolinas and Virginia.

“We’re in expansion mode,” said Tahz Walker, senior program manager of RAFI’s Farmers of Color Network. “I think we’ll be in expansion mode for the next few years.”

In 2020, a lot of people wanted to spend their money at black- and brown-owned farms, Walker said. Despite the economic downturn caused by Covid-19, many farmers of color saw record sales this year. 

Increased desire from consumers to purchase goods from socially disadvantaged farmers has been a source of hope, said Walker, but it has also left historically under-resourced farmers struggling to meet new levels of demand. 

Michael Carter during one of the tours of Carter Farms that include a walk through a memorial forest preserve with “artistic renditions of Carter’s forebears, who struggled to maintain ownership of the family farm.” (Photo by Andrea Smith)

For farms long stifled by discriminatory lending practices, increasing output is a big undertaking. Infrastructure needs have increased, said Walker, but scaling up looks different for every farm.  “We’re really taking our guidance from what farmers are asking for.”

In its most recent round of grants, the Farmers of Color Network funded almost 30 applicants. In 2021, the number will be closer to 75. Interest in the program is high: according to Walker, there were nearly 100 inquiries before the application went live. 

The grants are intended to support projects aiming “to increase farm viability, support farmers’ local food economies, and preserve traditional farming practices.” Since 2018 the network has financed all kinds of projects, from commonplace but crucial greenhouses and fence lines, to sacred forests and sweet potato curing barns. 

RAFI Executive Director Edna Rodriquez said she hopes the grant program can help encourage more people of color to farm.

“Farmers of color make up just 4% of all farmers; the Farmers of Color Network seeks to grow that number by investing in the creativity and innovation of traditionally underserved farmer communities,” Rodriguez said.

A 2019 report by the Center for American Progress stated that, from 1910 to 2007, black farmers in the U.S. lost 80% of their land. The report attributed the decline to familiar forces of structural racism: discriminatory debt practices and unfair distribution of government farm support. For the farms that survived this depletion, history can be as motivating a force as profit. 

Carter said his family has been farming for at least 11 generations. Five of those have cultivated the tract of land in Orange County, Virginia, that is now Carter Farms. “My family was a part of Virginia agriculture before Virginia was Virginia,” said Carter. “This grant allowed me to highlight that legacy.”

The memorial forest funded by the Farmers of Color Network is complete with artistic renditions of Carter’s forebears, who struggled to maintain ownership of the family farm. Tours of the property aim to merge family history with the nation’s racial history. 

Carter said the forest will serve as a symbol of what it means to maintain the land. The forest—and the racial history tours it made possible—are also intended to increase profits for the farm, said Walker.

“They wrote a great proposal and really sold it,” said Walker, “in terms of how it would bring in other resources for this farm.”

“There are a lot of ways to make money in agriculture that have nothing to do with planting a seed or getting your hands dirty,” said Carter. 

For Millard Locklear, owner of New Ground Farm LLC, in Pembroke, North Carolina, the grant program made possible an extended growing season. In 2020, Locklear received $7,000 for two mobile hothouses. This winter, they’re full of vegetables.

Millard Locklear’s winter vegetables in his new hoop house allowing for longer growing season and more profits. (Photo submitted by Millard Locklear)

When Locklear was laid off by DuPont in his mid-50s, he decided to make a go at farming the land owned by his family for seven generations. He said despite growing up on a farm, he still had a lot to learn. “No, I really didn’t know how to farm,” he said. “I didn’t know how to vegetable farm that is. Some guys can make 20 or 30 thousand off an acre of land and we can’t even make 500 off an acre of land.”

In groups and conferences for black and indigenous people of color, he found lots of wisdom and the inspiration to try to grow crops 365 days a year. In RAFI-USA and the Farmers of Color Network, he found a trustworthy partner. 

Locklear avoids dealing with the USDA because it discriminated against generations of his family, he said. He is thankful that there are outside groups doing work to support marginalized farmers. 

Carter, too, finds RAFI-USA particularly suited to helping his farm meet its goals. If the Farmers of Color Network did not exist, said Carter, he believes no other organization would have funded the project.