Racial Equity Blog Post by California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross

My first experience facing the reality of people experiencing impacts of racism was during my time as chief of staff at the USDA (2009–2011). There was a concerted effort to settle long-standing civil rights cases brought by African American farmers (Pigford vs. Glickman); Native American farmers and ranchers (Keepseagle vs. Vilsack); and Hispanic and women farmers and ranchers in discrimination claims. These cases documented decades of USDA policies, programs, and practices that prevented farmers of color from having access and opportunities to grow their businesses and build generational wealth, while continuing to favor those in the industry who already had access to natural resources, capital, inputs, and professional expertise. There are too many examples of acts of discrimination in the history of agriculture — far too many.

That was the beginning of my personal journey to reconcile this history of an industry that I love with the desire to do everything in my power to ensure it is truly inclusive and to make sure that the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is demonstrating leadership in making our programs and services accessible to all Californians.

Acknowledging racism in the history of the agricultural sector is the first step to a more inclusive and equitable food system that works for producers, communities, and consumers. Slavery, combined with the taking of land stewarded by Native American Tribes, laid the foundation for early U.S. agricultural development throughout the country and the west. It depended upon forced or low-wage manual labor mainly provided by immigrant and marginalized populations.

It is urgent that we accelerate our drive for equity. Climate change is impacting agriculture at all scales, but if falls heaviest on smaller-scale agricultural operations and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) producers who have fewer resources to withstand the disruptions of climate-induced weather hazards like drought and extreme heat. It is imperative that our structures and support systems serve everyone, including these most impacted populations.

The State of California took a step to recognize this history and move in a new direction with the Farmer Equity Act of 2017, which acknowledged the history of discrimination against people of color and women and recognized the need to change programs and policies that are still creating barriers for those who would like to enter or stay in agriculture. CDFA has taken the tenets of this legislation and begun a long-term process of addressing systemic racism at its roots by taking direct action to focus on programs, policies, and access to resources through a lens of racial equity.

In 2020, CDFA published the Farmer Equity Report, which outlined five major challenges facing socially disadvantaged producers and recommendations on how to address those challenges. Nearly 20 percent of California’s farmers and ranchers identify as a member of a socially disadvantaged group based on race. Furthermore, these individuals are more likely to farm diversified crops on smaller acreages, speak languages other than English, and experience a lack of secure land tenure. The challenges outlined in the report point to the urgent need to modify programs, policies, and resources so that these producers can thrive and be more resilient in the face of climate change.

This week, CDFA released its first Racial Equity Action Plan, which outlines a pathway to address racial equity and aligns with the recently released Ag Vision for the Next Decade.

Although we have taken bold first steps to address racial equity through these new initiatives, it is not enough to change programs and policies. We must look deeper at data and metrics to measure real impacts. This approach will also be featured prominently in CDFA’s updated Strategic Plan, expected later in 2023.

At the program level, CDFA is embedding equity by prioritizing technical assistance, or targeted support to ensure all communities can access resources and funding. Currently, 86% of all CDFA grant programs include a technical assistance element. In many programs, assistance is prioritized for socially disadvantaged producers and offered in languages other than English. Furthermore, CDFA is working to ensure our programs are flexible and accessible to many different types of entities, recognizing that first-time applicants and small-scale businesses may need additional assistance to access government grants.

I am a big believer in technical assistance and have made it a key element of my work at CDFA, including by being a champion of technical assistance in my role on the State of California’s Strategic Growth Council. In 2022, CDFA signed on to a memorandum of agreement with partners at the Natural Resource Conservation Service, California Association of Resource Conservation Districts, and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, specifically to address technical assistance for climate-smart agriculture.

We know that equitable access to land is key to the future of California agriculture, and we need to ensure that there are systems in place to support BIPOC farmers and ranchers seeking to obtain land tenure, whether through farmland succession for those who are retiring, or through support structures for beginning farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers who are ready to become farm business owners. Even today, there is evidence that they may be subjected to biased lending practices such as higher interest rates and limited access to credit. Discrimination can also manifest in the form of unequal treatment, barriers to market access, and limited opportunities for growth.

CDFA supports sister agency programs such as the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program administered by the Department of Conservation and Strategic Growth Council, community-based projects such as the F3: Farms, Food, Future — Fresno/Merced Innovation Project, initiatives such as the Land Equity Task Force at the Strategic Growth Council and our own grant programs such as the Beginning Farmer/Farmworker Training and Workforce Development Program. Throughout these initiatives and others, CDFA staff devote significant time to thinking about how to ensure all California producers have access to these programs.

Not only have farmers of color suffered a history of discrimination while seeking loans, insurance, or other financial assistance; farmers of color are also disproportionately underrepresented within the agricultural industry as well as policy-making bodies. Limited representation before policymakers can hinder these farmers’ ability to influence decision-making, access key resources, and address specific challenges.

Beginning in 2021, I convened two ad-hoc advisory committees to advise on impacts of COVID-19 on small-scale agricultural producers and BIPOC producers. I am pleased to say that these groups have gone through the process of becoming formal advisory committees at CDFA. The BIPOC Producer Advisory Committee will advise on the tenets set forth in the Farmer Equity Act and the Small-Scale Producer Advisory Committee will ensure that CDFA programs and policies will reach and serve small-scale producers in California. Both groups serve as a platform for the voices of those most underserved by CDFA programs, policies, and resources. Furthermore, these groups will collaborate with the recently formed Strategic Growth Council Land Equity Task Force to ensure cross-collaboration on the issues of land equity and land access.

There are significant, ongoing challenges that we will have to address to get to the root of racial discrimination. These include ensuring not only avenues for access to land for farmers of color, but also ensuring technical support in languages other than English, capacity building resources, adequate farmworker housing, safety from extreme heat, and creating the jobs of the future in agriculture that are attractive, well-paying, and dignified. We also need to assist with business planning for climate resilience and improve our immigration system so that those who want to come here to work can be accommodated by the industry, which desperately needs them. We need to take all necessary steps to ensure the health and safety of farmworkers by providing good training, protective equipment, and safe conditions, to name a few things.

It is not enough to do policy and program change from the top; we also work within our own organization at every level to honor and benefit from the diversity and dedication of our staff who are serving Californians in every part of the state. This is why CDFA was an early participant in the Capitol Collaborative on Race and Equity (CCORE), and we have dedicated a significant portion of our REAP to focus on internal staff goals and trainings such as implicit bias. CDFA staff are very engaged in issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), from thoughtful contributions to the REAP itself, to energetic participation in the CDFA DEI committee, our employees are integral to the success of our plan. We cannot achieve any of the above aspirations without first creating an inclusive culture within CDFA to hear all voices, respect all perspectives and foster employment practices for the most effective customer service possible from a state agency.

With so many challenges ahead of us, I am grateful to have the support of the Strategic Growth Council, with its many programs and resources for building equity, as well as the support of my colleagues on the Council as we work together to address the many facets of discrimination that continue to persist today.

I would also like to express my gratitude to Governor Newsom for his leadership in pursuing racial justice and equal opportunities throughout the state and across all of government. Working together, we can truly create a California for all.



California Strategic Growth Council (SGC)

SGC coordinates and works collaboratively with public agencies, communities, and stakeholders to support healthy, thriving, and resilient communities for all.