color photograph of a farmworker bent over a row of strawberry plants in the midground. around them, multiple water sprinklers spray water
VENTURA, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 05: A farm worker labors in a strawberry field amid drought conditions on Aug. 5, 2022, near Ventura, California. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In 2017, California launched a first-of-its-kind program to utilize farmers, ranchers, and growers to tackle the climate crisis. Through involvement in the Healthy Soils Program (HSP), participants would use state grants to implement practices designed to store carbon in the soil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The state and its agricultural and environmental agencies are aiming to not only recognize the reality of climate change, but also to deploy agriculture as a tool to mitigate its effects. However, the program is struggling to account for the challenges BIPOC farmers and ranchers have historically faced, including being boxed out of land ownership. Additionally, California’s decades-long policy of banning preferential treatment of BIPOC applicants for public institutions and programs can further complicate efforts to address the specific barriers toward accessing the program that BIPOC farmers and ranchers also contend with.

The HSP is based on the scientific knowledge that soil health is essential to climate health. Healthy soil (that is, soil with a balance of minerals, nutrients, bacteria, and fungi) is better able to absorb water, resist erosion, and prevent pests and diseases from taking root. Not to mention soil health contributes to the productivity and taste of the food grown in it. Healthy soil can trap carbon from the atmosphere. Soil gives us food and clean air. And with soil at risk, so too are our climate and food systems. 

California has made it clear on a number of occasions that priority funding and support should be given to BIPOC farmers in its agricultural programs and to BIPOC communities when it comes to climate mitigation writ large. Out of California’s 124,405 farmers, 23,592 fall under the category of “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers” (SDFRs), who in total farm 4,309,471 acres. That’s about 19% of the state’s farmers; nationally, the number of BIPOC farmers hovers around 5%. The term “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers,” which refers to Latinx, AAPI, Black, Native Alaskan, and Native Hawaiian farmers, is also used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Yet implementation of healthy soils strategies requires at least three years of land access, which can be difficult for farmers who lease land on a shorter-term, even year-to-year basis, said Tim Bowles, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at University of California, Berkeley. 

Additionally, nearly half of all farmland in California is leased. As the CDFA’s report shows, farmers can’t even consider government grants—like the healthy soils program—if they don’t know where they’ll be farming years down the line. Not to mention that it’s extraordinarily difficult for BIPOC growers to begin their farm business, as acquiring land and leases in the first place often requires loans that are hard to come by and historically have been withheld from BIPOC. And as the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has pointed out, a lack of land access presupposes a lack of input as to what the country’s food system looks like. 

“Such exclusion has prevented truly sustainable food systems from being established, and created enormous barriers for communities seeking to maintain or revive culturally appropriate foodways and to live in balance with their ecosystems,” the UCS wrote

In other words, the reason why BIPOC currently account for 65% of California’s population yet operate only a fraction of the land, is directly connected to why they historically have less access to healthy food and bear the brunt of environmental damages, not the least of which comes from industrial agriculture. It raises the question of how the program might be differently designed if the aim were not only healthier soils, but prosperous BIPOC farmers as well. 

As Bowles noted, the HSP “can be kind of reifying [or] reinforcing some of the dominant power structures that already exist.” 

Farmers need funding to change agricultural practices

The farming practices the state is incentivizing, like mulching, cover cropping, composting, and planting hedgerows, aren’t new to the world of agriculture. Many of these practices, which fall under the umbrella of “regenerative agriculture,” are rooted in Indigenous foodways and practices, meaning that these soil-conscious practices have been used since time immemorial. But the system of agriculture in the U.S. is so profit and outcome driven that using methods of organic or regenerative farming can often be time-consuming and costly.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), which runs the HSP, established that implementation for healthy soils strategies last a minimum of three years. This gives producers enough time to see results, both in terms of soil health and air quality impact. Emissions drawdowns—or how many greenhouse gas particles are removed from the atmosphere—are later measured with COMET-Planner, a calculator created by the USDA and Colorado State University.

Ideally, the program can enable the implementation of practices that farmers and ranchers might be interested in and would otherwise not have the financial resources to fund. It could also bring on board producers who are less interested in the total environmental benefit but willing to experiment with soil health practices if it comes from the government’s bank. But without accounting for the systemic barriers that marginalized farmers and ranchers often face in applying for such programs, the HSP could remain farther out of reach for those who would benefit from its assistance the most.

When Javier Zamora initially heard about the program in 2017, he was hesitant to apply because of the bureaucracy of the application process. Zamora is the owner and operator of JSM Organics in Royal Oaks, California, and English is his second language, which made him reluctant to fill out an application. He was worried that he might not be able to write what the grantors wanted to hear. 

“I don’t have the skills for that,” Zamora said. “So therefore, the chances for me to get a grant will be very slim, but my practices that I’m doing are really, really good, perhaps even better than some people that are asking for grants to do these things.” 

Ultimately, Zamora applied with the support of what the HSP calls “technical assistance providers,” who are dispatched to work through the grant application with farmers and ranchers.

CDFA does not translate all application materials, and while some technical assistance providers speak Spanish fluently, there’s no telling how the lack of standardization is keeping some Spanish-speaking farmers and ranchers from applying. It’s worth noting that a number of other non-English languages are spoken by California’s BIPOC farmers and ranchers.

Eventually, Zamora received two grants through the program, starting with funding for hedgerows and soil improvements on his land. Having been involved with the program since its inception, Zamora can see that it’s expanded its reach to more BIPOC farmers and ranchers, even if only slightly. 

A portion of that progress is due to Zamora’s advocacy within the world of organic agriculture. He said that he’s pushed HSP officials and organizational heads to consider farmers of color who they might not know about, as well as promoting farmers who are already implementing sustainable practices “for them to be able to get some of this money or a little piece of this pie.” 

“I think today I can tell you that that gap is shrinking, and it’s getting better,” Zamora said. “I think it’s gonna take a while before it can be an even field, but it is definitely going in the right direction.”  

How to make sure BIPOC farmers receive direct support

There are two problems that CDFA is trying to work through: first is the issue of making sure that BIPOC farmers and ranchers have a fair shot at HSP funding, and second is that the confusing or cumbersome institutional hurdles in the application process are related to difficulties BIPOC farmers and ranchers face when operating their own farms in the first place. 

CDFA seems to at least acknowledge how inequitable the HSP funding application process can be for BIPOC. In 2021, the agency established that 25% of the funding dollars would be allocated to SDFRs out of a $50 million state fund for the HSP. 

A more direct method of ensuring funds make their way to BIPOC farmers and ranchers is to make sure that all qualified grants by BIPOC are awarded first, said Renata Brillinger, the founding executive director at California Climate and Agriculture Network. That way, the HSP wouldn’t run its funding dry before it gets to applications at the end of the line.

“[Funding] doesn’t always meet the need or meet the demand of the socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers who apply,” Brillinger said. 

In 2022, the CDFA received $85 million for the HSP and proposed a new method of allocation, offering lump sums of funding to local organizations that can disperse HSP grants to qualified applicants. It’s a direct way of reaching BIPOC farmers and ranchers who might otherwise be excluded. 

A new method of allocation could potentially work toward more equitable distribution of funding, said Kelsea Jacobsen, an environmental education manager at the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation, based in San Diego. The center is one of the Healthy Soil Program’s technical assistance providers, meaning that Jacobsen works with farmers and ranchers to secure HSP funding and navigate the application process. 

But while these attempts work toward equitable access to the program, the impact remains to be seen.

“They haven’t really publicly released any documents being able to show how much of the funding actually went to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers,” Jacobsen said. “There is perhaps a lapse there in terms of accountability and being able to verify that those funds have been distributed in the way that they promised they would be.” 

However, there’s an even larger complication: in the end, the block grant method is a creative workaround for a state that, since 1996, has banned preferential treatment of BIPOC applicants in public institutions or programs. The question of how to bring historically disenfranchised people into a sector’s ranks—and whether that incorporation can include shifting the foundation of a system or needling around the edges to create more equity—is one that applies to agriculture as much as any other U.S. industry. 

As Maia Foster and P.J. Austin explained in the Duke Law Journal Online, Section 1005 of the 2021 American Rescue Plan dealt with this very overlap. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government wanted to provide debt relief to farmers and specifically wanted to do so for SDFRs. A federal judge found this form of affirmative action unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause in that the debt relief program appeared “to fall well short of the delicate balance accomplished when a legislative enactment employs race in a narrowly tailored manner to address a specific compelling governmental interest.” 

By the court’s standards, it is not a compelling interest that Black farming arose out of the Transatlantic slave trade.

Legal challenges to the constitutionality of affirmative action for farmers led to the repeal and replacement of the American Rescue Plan Acts debt relief with the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law a year later. And while the federal funds for debt relief ultimately began their journey toward qualified applicants, the federal government changed the legislative references to history and historical discrimination, like “socially disenfranchised,” to language that solely focuses on current plight, like “distressed,” which could be applied to any farmer of any race or ethnicity. 

There are other ways that the USDA offers programmatic support and loans to those like beginning farmers and Indigenous farmers who navigate additional hurdles in the way of farming. But affirmative action is decidedly different from demographic-specific programs according to the Supreme Court, which tends to treat affirmative action as entering the territory of government-sanctioned reverse-discrimination if the guardrails aren’t incredibly specific. 

The U.S. Supreme Court will rule on this June in two cases that will impact the future of affirmative action in college admissions and potentially have spillover impacts on other public programs and institutions. Students for Fair Admissions v. the University of North Carolina and Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College were argued in late October 2022. Eighty-two members of Congress filed an amicus brief with the court in opposition of affirmative action, writing that programs like federal “COVID-19 relief measures aimed at ‘socially disadvantaged’ farmers and ranchers” fell under the category of laws and policies that are “dividing people by race” that are “immediately suspect.”

While it’s unlikely that the SCOTUS ruling on these two cases will have a direct bearing on the HSP operations, the court’s previous rulings were used to challenge USDA and federal payments and could set further precedents. 

Impacted first, worst, and tapped in last 

BIPOC are impacted first and worst from climate change’s many and ballooning consequences such as flooding, wildfire, extreme heat, and hurricanes, as well as economic crises that follow: debt, displacement, houselessness, PTSD, and intimate partner violence. Now, BIPOC farmers and ranchers are being recognized as key players in implementing climate solutions while being least responsible for climate change and most vulnerable to its impacts.

There is potential for the HSP to make a notable impact on the environment by making respectful and environmentally responsible land management practices more accessible and affordable to farmers. However, the weight of that impact could be hampered by California’s own rules coupled with the potential of a June SCOTUS rulings against affirmative action, ultimately limiting the ability of programs like the HSP to incorporate the consequences of systemic discrimination into funding determinations for BIPOC farmers. 

The New Republic has also touched on the “foundational conflict of interest” within the USDA that appears to be reflected in California’s plan to tackle emissions and improve soil health, in that the agency “is both the regulator of the U.S. agriculture industry and its promoter and marketer.” In other words, CFDA belongs to a state government that openly acknowledges climate change yet continues to make way for the entities that contribute to it, proposing to solve injustice in one area while perpetuating it in another.

Public policy adheres to the bounds of the state and federal courts, but it doesn’t have to be limited by them. For instance, California has the ability to approve policy that not only benefits environmental aims, but also cracks down on its detractors—like refusing to greenlight new oil drilling leases. In the end, BIPOC farmers exist in a continuum of realities brought by policy proposals, touching everything from water rights and land ownership to fire management and renters’ rights. This also means that when policymakers are crafting and revising policies, BIPOC farmers are dependent on them to recognize how limited their choices are. Until then, the ideas motivating policies like the HSP may be sound, but their effectiveness will be limited by the policies themselves. Meanwhile, BIPOC farmers will continue to be hamstrung in their efforts to sustainably work and care for their land and the food they grow.

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.