The Biden administration is steering its work to develop markets for lower-carbon farm commodities in an unprecedented government effort to ensure Black farmers and other minority producers benefit from shifts in agricultural practices to address climate change. 

The Agriculture Department has long carved out support for “socially disadvantaged” farmers in farm credit programs, and the current Congress has passed new loan forgiveness programs for Black and minority producers. 

But the administration’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities Initiative goes a step further by including minority farmers as target beneficiaries in many of the projects that are being funded. 

In September, the department announced plans to provide up to $2.8 billion for 70 projects, many of which include Black and minority farmer organizations as “major partners.” And USDA will soon announce $300 million in additional awards for 65 additional projects that will be “significantly focused on new innovations and serving historically underserved producers,” said Robert Bonnie, USDA’s undersecretary for farm production and conservation. 

The initiative’s goals include looking for “ways that we can work with small farmers, medium farmers and historically underserved” producers, Bonnie said in a recent speech at the 2022 Sustainable Agriculture Summit. 

Robert Bonnie 3USDA Undersecretary Robert Bonnie

The department also will have minority farmers in mind as it allocates $18 billion in new farm bill conservation program funding provided by the Inflation Reduction Act, he said. 

Sponsors of the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities projects are still negotiating their final details with the Agriculture Department and have been reluctant to discuss how they will work. 

But a project led by Field to Market, an organization that facilitates sustainability initiatives and provides the FieldPrint platform for measuring farmers’ environmental footprint, was awarded up to $70 million for a project to provide “innovative financing” for farms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and link climate-smart farming practices to commodity purchases. Some $30 million will be dedicated to Black and American Indian producers, Field to Market President Scott Herndon told Agri-Pulse.

The project’s partners include the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a group representing Black farmers, and its Land Assistance Fund; and Akiptan, a South Dakota-based financial institution dedicated to Native American development and the Intertribal Agriculture Council. Corporate sponsors of the project include Archer Daniels Midland, PepsiCo and Mondelēz. 

“I think our proposal was in line with what USDA was looking for with reaching out to underserved producers,” said Herndon. 

The project partners “share a common vision for advancing innovative, flexible, finance mechanisms that will enable historically underserved producers to adopt climate-smart practices,” he said. 

He said he hopes the project will eventually attract enough private capital to keep it going after the USDA funding runs out. 

Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives said “all producers have to be engaged” in efforts to improve sustainability, but “so often, Black farmers, farmers of color, have been left out.”

Ensuring that minority farmers benefit from commodity markets will require compensation that takes into consideration the higher costs of aggregating commodities from smaller-scale farms, he said. 

His group also is involved in a project led by Truterra, the sustainability and carbon market arm of Land O’Lakes, that was awarded up to $90 million in USDA funding.  Truterra said its partnership with Federation of Southern Cooperatives would give minority farmers and women producers access "to Truterra technology, networking resources and support for conservation services."

“Our successful bid for USDA Climate Smart Commodities funding will enable Truterra and our partner, American Farmland Trust, to implement a variety of farmer-focused programs, including initiatives that will focus specifically on historically underserved farmers," Truterra President Tom Ryan said in a statement to Agri-Pulse

Another multi-state project led by ADM and funded at $90 million will involve 5,000 of the company’s “underserved producers.” Partners include the National Black Growers Council, an organization of larger, Black-run row crop farms, and Keurig-Dr. Pepper.

A $90 million project led by the National Association of Conservation Districts includes as major partners the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance; the Rural Coalition, an advocacy organization for underserved farmers; the Kansas Black Farmers Association; and the Rural Advancement Fund of the National Sharecroppers Fund.

A South Carolina-focused project funded at $70 million includes the Center for Heirs Property Preservation; the Gullah Geechee Community, descendants of slaves who worked on rice, cotton and indigo plantations; and the South Carolina Black Farmer's Association as partners. 

The Kansas Black Farmers Association also is partnering in a sorghum-focused project funded at $65 million and led by the National Sorghum Producers. 

Numerous other projects include involvement by Indian tribes or historically Black colleges and universities, including Alcorn State in Mississippi, Prairie View A&M in Texas, and Lincoln University in Missouri. 

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Without the new projects, minority farmers are at risk of being left behind as U.S. agriculture tries to address the demand from food and apparel companies for crops and livestock produced with fewer greenhouse gas emissions, according to Black farmers. 

“This opportunity to partner in these climate-smart initiatives is really straight up the gut for historically underserved producers because they're the ones who are implementing” the climate-smart practices, said P.J. Haynie, an Arkansas farmer who is president of the National Black Growers Council. 

Black farmers typically don’t participate in trials of seed and technology, he said. “We're trying to make sure that the historically underserved farmers … are included at the same time that our neighbors are on these new launches,” he said.  

Haynie, who grows rice, corn and soybeans, already uses some climate-smart practices, including planting cover crops, which build up soil carbon. He reduces methane missions from his rice fields through a method known as alternate wetting and drying. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, methane emissions from rice farms account for about 3% of greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. agriculture. 

Kimberly Ratcliff, a Black cattle producer in Texas, said she’ll be involved in a Texas-based project led by Texas A&M University. Participating farmers will receive some compensation for the adoption of climate-smart practices, and there will be monitoring of the pastures and fields to quantify the amount of carbon being sequestered. 

There are several challenges involved in ensuring that Black farmers can participate in climate-smart commodity markets. Getting advice and help to Black farmers requires linkages between extension agents and the community organizations, as well as role models who other producers can follow, she said. 

Some Black farmers in Texas and elsewhere also lack clear title to their land because of heirs’ property issues. 

Prairie View A&M is a partner in the Texas A&M project, which will receive up to $65 million in USDA funding. Prairie View has closer relationships with Black farmers, who are often concentrated in geographic areas, but has long lacked the state funding for anything like the research facilities at Texas A&M, Ratcliff said.

In her view, Black farmers would be more likely to benefit from a project run by an HBCU such as Prairie View with connections to their community. 

She said it’s critical that small-scale farms be included in research on climate-smart practices. Otherwise, “you’re really not … analyzing the whole system. You’re just analyzing one aspect of it,” she said.  

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