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Feb. 23, 2024

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These farmers of color caught a pandemic boom. Now, many fear a bust

5 Photos
Albert Sanchez unloads leeks at Alvarez Organic Farms in Mabton, Washington.
Albert Sanchez unloads leeks at Alvarez Organic Farms in Mabton, Washington. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

For any Washington farmer, 2020 was a desperate year.

That spring, with a COVID-19 vaccine still distant, disruptions to the economy and supply chains sent unemployment, poverty and food insecurity rates soaring, magnifying inequities. Food systems broke and farmers’ key customers — restaurants, hotels and schools — shut down. Farmworkers became scarce.

But that first devastating pandemic year also brought a windfall as federal food assistance funding surged to keep Americans from going hungry. And, unusually for the subsidy-soaked agricultural sector, that federal aid cleared a path for farmers of color to rise in an industry that has long shut them out.

Millions of dollars in direct payroll support coupled with billions more in assistance to key customers like food banks meant smaller farmers, which farmers of color tend to be, were able to grow as COVID-19 receded. Now, though, those supports have fallen away and many Washington farmers of color wonder if they’ll lose a toehold in an industry that, while rife with workers of color, retains an ownership that is overwhelmingly white.

In Washington, over 98% of farm owners describe themselves as white, a ratio even higher than the national average of 96%, according to the latest available agricultural census data. Nearly all farmworkers say they are of Hispanic heritage. That demographic mismatch stems from a legacy of racist laws, as well as policies and attitudes that exclude people of color from participating in agriculture, except as labor.

Over the past century, farm ownership among communities of color has grown marginally, according to a state Department of Agriculture report on underrepresented farmers released earlier this year. Now, 0.4% of farmers in the state describe themselves as Black, 1.9% as Asian and less than 3% as Indigenous. About 4.7% of farm owners identify as Latino.

Most owners of color run small operations that have trouble competing with larger or corporate farms for assistance programs that pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the industry each year, the report found. The pandemic funding came with far fewer strings as states tried to gain control over the public health emergency.

Millions of dollars in fresh public support for Washington’s food banks in 2021 and 2022 allowed for a new financial ecosystem to take root — one between food banks, vulnerable communities and farmers of color.

The simpler terms on those grants allowed relief organizations to pay farmers up front so they could quickly stock up on fresh produce. With advance payments and a new assured market for their crops, farmers could confidently scale up their operations. For some, the American dream started to blossom.

Two years later, as COVID assistance money dwindles and food insecurity grows, Washington’s farmers of color once again find themselves left out. Food bank funding has dropped 40%. The nascent ecosystem is collapsing.

“2020 was our best year ever,” says Eddie Alvarez, standing between two delivery trucks at Alvarez Organic Farms, a 70-acre farm in Mabton, an agricultural community in Central Washington’s Yakima Valley.

Since the pandemic, food bank contracts have accounted for over 30% of Alvarez Organic Farms’ income, which in a regular year is about $600,000. Their other sources include 16 farmers markets in the Seattle area, as well as prominent city restaurants like Canlis, Joule, Bar del Corso and Portage Bay Café.

More than restaurants and wholesalers, food banks and farmers markets saved the business, according to Alvarez. Farming is easy, he said. Finding a guaranteed outlet for all his produce is harder.

“Now with food bank contracts going away … I’m hoping we just break even,” he said.

On a recent October morning on the farm, Alvarez went over the details of an upcoming shipment with a couple of workers as they prepared to load boxes of green beans onto the trucks. Out back, a farmworker sat on a lawn chair under a large yellow umbrella, shaking the soil off freshly dug peanuts. Ranchera music filled her section of the field as a cool breeze blew through four towering poplar trees Alvarez’s father, Hilario Alvarez, planted when he bought the farm in 1988.

“Don Hilario” arrived in Washington in 1976, newly married, from Michoacán, Mexico. After working on the farm of a Filipino American in Wapato for several years, he purchased a 20-acre plot with a loan from a white real estate broker.

The first 10 years were hard. “It was like subsistence farming — we were living hand to mouth,” he said. Then another farmer suggested he get certified as an organic farm. “Things took off after that.”

Over time, through private loans, they purchased two other 20-acre plots and one 10-acre plot.

Hilario walked through the field of peppers, his favorite lot on the farm, plucking a Black Beauty pepper and beaming with pride. This is a signature Alvarez chili born from Hilario’s experiments. Shaped like a sharp little bullet, it turns from red to black once ripe. A couple of rows on, the Super Hot Red Pepper, another Alvarez creation, gleamed in the sunlight. It’s the hottest of over 200 pepper varieties cultivated on the farm.

Late last year, Eddie convinced Hilario to buy a pepper transplanting machine with the profits they earned through food bank contracts. Until then, they’d been working the pepper crop by hand. The first day the machine got to work, the septuagenarian watched with curiosity as the pepper planter did hours of farming in minutes. “Then he was like ‘Ohhh! We should have gotten this years ago!’ “ Eddie chuckled.

Early this year, Eddie scored a new potato digger. Like other farmers of color in the state, these long-desired forays into mechanized farming were out of reach for the Alvarezes until now.

Though they also often confront subtler barriers, including language differences, a lack of community connections and persistent gatekeeping by major players in the industry, paying for large capital expenses — buying farmland and equipment — is one of the primary obstacles blocking would-be farmers of color, a Washington Department of Agriculture review found.

Most government financial supports are designed to serve the larger, predominantly white agricultural businesses, compounding inequities in the industry. For instance, of the 6,478 agricultural businesses in the state that received Paycheck Protection Program loans to maintain their workforces during the pandemic, just 1% of owners self-identified as Latino, according to a Seattle Times analysis of data from the Project on Government Oversight’s COVID Relief Spending Tracker.

While Alvarez Organic Farms was one of the few Latino-owned PPP recipients, receiving $75,000, Eddie said the program was “more of a struggle than what they give you.” He said he prefers approaching private organizations for support than going through the government.

Farmers are not business administrators. Their work is farming, said Rosalinda Guillen, a farmworker justice leader and executive director of Community-to-Community Development, a food sovereignty and immigrant rights advocacy organization. The organization helped set up Cooperativa Tierra y Libertad — “Land and Liberty” in English — as a worker-owned cooperative currently farming 65 acres in Whatcom County.

The system of grants and loans is based on a corporate structure that naturally favors big farms, she said.

“Big farmers have staff to specifically focus on accessing funding, reporting and maintaining data of their farm, and so on,” Guillen said. “There’s a huge power imbalance in the state’s agricultural industry and the language issue for farmers of color just makes it worse.”

Edward B. Hill is a farmer, co-founder of the Black Food Sovereignty Coalition and currently leading Food Loop Northwest, a food distribution company that links farmers of color to communities most in need. As he describes it, what’s lacking are practitioners in the community to help underrepresented farmers access government resources. Hill — who previously worked for Tilth Alliance, a food equity nonprofit, and helped launch the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands project — works to fill that gap.

“We need people who look like us, who understand how to unpack those documents, write those grants, and put the paperwork down, especially if I know that the system is biased and Washington has an issue,” Hill said. “That’s critical to breach the psychological and internal issues that are related to living in a mostly white, formerly apartheid state.”

When Washington was still part of the Oregon Territory, the federal government provided 320 acres of “free land” to white men and married women to cultivate. Subsequent laws similarly encouraged white farmers and marginalized communities of color and women, weaving the current fabric of land ownership, land use, and agriculture in Washington state, according to the state report on equity in farming.

That exclusion continues in some parts of the Pacific Northwest, said Hill.

“We’re still not invited,” he said.

In January 2022, the sale of the 1,500-acre Inaba Produce Farms near Wapato to the Yakama Nation broke fresh ground in this new era of farming in Washington state. The Inabas, now a third-generation Japanese American family, started out farming on leased Yakama land in the early 1900s, at a time when the U.S. prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning property.

Since tribal leadership took over the farm and wholesale operation, Yakama Nation Farms has prioritized food security, developing food distribution systems and building trade with 28 other tribes in Washington.

“It’s a bit of a different model than before,” said Jonalee Squeochs, interim general manager of the farm and tribal member of the Yakama Nation.

Before the acquisition, agricultural land on the Yakama Nation reservation was typically leased to nonnative farmers. Taking over a large-scale farming operation did bring challenges, Squeochs said.

Contracts with relief organizations like Northwest Harvest, which received $18.9 million in government funds at the peak of the pandemic, cushioned those. When public funding to the nonprofit fell 64% the next year, Squeochs admitted it led to “a pretty substantial monetary impact” to Yakama Nation Farms’ budget.

Like Alvarez Organic Farms, the farm is now looking for other food relief contracts and connections. “And we know those opportunities are going to be fewer and farther between for our type of operation,” she said.

As federal support dried up this year, farmers’ costs skyrocketed. Many of those costs were passed on to consumers, exacerbating food-insecurity issues farmers like Squeochs hoped to address.

While monthly spending on groceries rose across the state, those increases particularly hurt rural households and households of color, which already saw higher rates of food insecurity. Food-insecure households saw their grocery bills rise 71%, compared with a 49% rise among food-secure residents, according to the Washington state food security surveys carried out by the University of Washington and Washington State University.

Systemic racism, the key reason why farmers of color remain exceptionally rare in Washington, is also a root cause of hunger in the state, said Thomas Reynolds, CEO of Northwest Harvest, the food justice nonprofit supporting more than 400 relief programs.

“That’s why we got really explicit about prioritizing our relationships with growers of color and communities of color that were part of production and food systems,” he said.

In February, the federal government rolled back Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, shifting the pressure from “food stamps” to food banks. In the five months that followed, food bank and food pantry use was up 50% compared with 2021, according to a Seattle Times analysis of data provided by the WSDA.

“When you see SNAP benefits get reduced, that means those households that were utilizing those resources are going to need something else to fill that gap and that means turning to food banks or other programs like that,” said Esther Magasis, director of human services for Yakima County.

Stubborn inflation, decreased donations and persistent supply chain problems indicate food insecurity is likely to stick around, according to the UW food systems report. Communities of color will be disproportionately at risk of hunger.

Hill contends those high rates of food insecurity are deeply linked to the discrimination people of color face in the agriculture industry.

“It’s not just about bringing food to the food bank,” he said. “It’s about giving agency to the communities to grow their own food as well.”

The state is aware of this ecosystem and has sought to tap into its benefits. In 2014, it piloted a Farm to Food Pantry initiative that contracts with local farmers, prioritizing farmers from underrepresented communities, to create food systems resilience.

“The outcome is more fresh food purchased locally that is culturally familiar to pantry patrons — and those two points are huge,” said Jeff Mathias, lead farm-to-community specialist at the state Agriculture Department.

However, at a budget of $650,000 this year, the program remains a small part of a food support network that relies mostly on larger food relief programs.

“Traditional food banking has looked like whatever excess food is in the system is what is offered to hunger relief,” said Gary Newte, interim senior director of supply chains at Northwest Harvest. Food pantry contracts with local small farmers put an “intentionality behind what we procure and what we distribute based on feedback from patrons,” he said.

The funds farmers of color accessed through food banks is money the government has been trying to get to them all along, said Guillen. The financial ecosystem that emerged during the pandemic, she said, revealed how to offer meaningful support.

“And now that the farmers have access to it,” she asked, “Why is it going to sudden death?”

Back in Mabton at Alvarez Organic Farms, Eddie walked into a drying house carpeted with red peppers. A steady current of warm air circulated in the tunnel, dehydrating guajillos, red jalapeños, serranos, ancho chilies, ghost chilies and cayenne peppers that will later be sold to Seattle restaurants and farmers markets as well as local food banks.

“We want to keep providing food for these food banks — fresh food — not second-grade food,” said Alvarez. “And the government can do that.

“They have the money to provide for so many other things, so why not help a farmer that’s trying to feed America?”