In movies, children’s books and country music videos, the quintessential Farmer Brown is inevitably a weathered old white guy in overalls and a seed cap. There are still plenty of flesh-and-blood embodiments of this stereotype planting corn and beans across the Heartland. But the new Farmer Brown is a little different: She’s more likely to be a woman and a person of color. She’s probably growing a variety of organic crops. And chances are her farm is tucked into some corner of urban green space.
This is the new face of the American farmer. According to the five-year USDA Census of Agriculture, the largest growth trends between 2007 and 2012 included farms that are operated by women, by people of color, organically cultivated, and direct-to-consumer—or all of the above.
Although this change is remarkable, it’s no surprise to the organizers at the Minnesota-based Women’s Environmental Institute (WEI). Founded in 2003, the group devotes itself to the education and empowerment of small-scale farmers, most of whom fit the profile of the new Farmer Brown.
WEI has a strong focus on environmental and food justice. That’s because farmers are by no means magically immune to the larger socio-economic forces that shape communities of color. Indeed, many of them come to farming precisely because of those forces. Issues such as neighborhood access to quality food and urban land contamination are vital obstacles that these farmers contend with on a daily basis.
A current WEI project, for example, involves assessing the contamination of metropolitan-area farmland used by Hmong farmers. Working with the University of Minnesota, WEI is conducting soil research and also investigating relocation options. Another initiative, the Community Food Justice Council, brought Native American Indian, Latino, African American, and Hmong farmers together to receive training, share skills and techniques—and to address issues like health and food disparities within their respective communities.
One vital component of WEI’s operations is a farm/campus at Amador Hill, some 60 miles north of Minneapolis/St. Paul. The farm boasts a certified organic orchard (Minnesota’s first), a CSA, and farm plots developed by various cultures that represent the diversity of Minnesota’s farm community.
As a campus, Amador Hill serves as a vital training ground geared specifically for urban farmers, and it serves as the regional outreach training center for Will Allen’s Milwaukee-based Growing Power, Inc. Here, small-scale farmers can learn the essentials of organic cultivation, or how to build low-cost hoop houses that can extend the growing season, or how to manage the business and marketing aspects of running a farm.
What ties all these various programs together, according to Jacquelyn Zita, who manages Amador Hill and serves as WEI’s director of education and operations, is a larger vision of transformation. By addressing issues of food justice and supporting farmers of diverse backgrounds, WEI aims to further the growth of sustainable and equitable farming. “We are changing our world one farm at a time, one food justice worker at a time,” she says. “No plot of land is too small to begin.”
Organic Valley is committed to building a just and sustainable food system and is proud to support the Women’s Environmental Institute in its efforts.