Assembly Ag Committee Hears Update on Implementation of the Farmer Equity Act

Posted on Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021 by Tessa Salzman

Note from CalCAN: This hearing took place the same week that eight people were murdered in Atlanta, seven of them women and six of them Asian American. This is yet another expression of pervasive racism and misogyny in the U.S. The passage and effective implementation of the Farmer Equity Act is one important way to address the many systemic barriers to equity for people of color. We recognize and lift up the leadership of the California Farmer Justice Collaborative who sponsored the legislation as well as the presenters at the hearing.

On March 17th, the Assembly Agriculture Committee, led by its new Chair Assemblymember Robert Rivas (D-Hollister), hosted a hearing to discuss implementation to date of the Farmer Equity Act of 2017 (AB 1348) and how the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) plans to move forward. Presenters included CDFA’s Farmer Equity Advisor, two UC small farms advisors and three farmers. The following is a brief summary, and we recommend watching the entire hearing here.

CDFA Presents Progress & Plans

The Farmer Equity Act, which was authored by Assemblymember Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters) and sponsored by the California Farmer Justice Collaborative (CFJC), aims to decrease the long standing, systemic barriers for farmers in California who have faced discrimination based on their race, ethnicity or gender. This Act directs CDFA to include historically disadvantaged farmers in the development, adoption, implementation and enforcement of policies and programs. For more detail on the Farmer Equity Act see this blog from 2017.  

CDFA’s Farmer Equity Advisor, Thea Rittenhouse, opened the hearing by summarizing their progress to date on implementing the Farmer Equity Act as outlined in CDFA’s 2020 Report. The report was informed by interviews with 33 urban and rural farmers whose operations were between ⅛ to 300 acres and whose crops ranged from stone fruit and cannabis to nuts, strawberries and diversified production. 

The major challenges laid out in the Report include: 

  1. Land tenure
  2. Language barriers
  3. Engagement with agricultural industry and CDFA Boards and Commissions
  4. Knowledge of available resources and programs

In an effort to more effectively address these challenges in 2021, CDFA has created two advisory committees made up of small farm support organizations and farmers of color, who will guide future program development and implementation. They have also created a new Farm Equity Analyst position for the Specialty Crop Block Grant program to provide one-on-one assistance for applicants. Finally CDFA requested $6.7 million in the State budget to fund technical assistance and grants for small, mid-sized, and underserved farmers.

Michael Yang, Small Farms and Specialty Crops Hmong Agricultural Assistant (left) and Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, PhD, Small Farms Advisor in Fresno and Tulare Counties (right).

Small Farm Advisors, An Essential Resource

After Rittenhouse provided her update, UCANR Small Farm Advisors Ruth Dahlquist-Willard (also a CalCAN advisor) and Michael Yang highlighted the stories and needs of the culturally diverse immigrant and refugee farmers they serve in the Fresno County including Hmong, Chinese, Cambodian, Thai, Lao and Latino growers. Dahlquist-Willard, Yang and their team serve as a cultural and language bridge to resources on topics such as pest and nutrient management, governmental grant programs, trainings, research, regulatory compliance, and even accessing Covid-19 vaccines. To learn more about their amazing work, read our blog on their support for farmers applying for and implementing Healthy Soils and State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program grants.  

Farmers Share Impacts of State Policy

The second set of panelists included Patricia Rodriguez of Rodriguez Farms in Watsonville, Executive Director Doria Robinson of Urban Tilth in Richmond, and Mai Nguyen, Co-Director of Minnow, independent farmer and part of the California Farmer Justice Collaborative. These farmers shared rich and specific stories about their work in the food system and the barriers they face. 

Patricia Rodriguez started out by describing her journey from harvesting conventional strawberries to running her own organic farm. Rodriguez noted that as a farmworker she knew how to farm, but not how to navigate permits, regulations, credit checks or leasing land required to run her own operation. The Agriculture Commission and CCOF provided essential resources for her transition. 

Doria Robinson highlighted two major challenges for urban farmers including the lack of permanent access to land and barriers in government grant programs. As a solution to the first problem, she recommended that community-based farming projects be prioritized like low income housing development on surplus urban land, making the case that agriculture is an equally essential community resource. She also recommended that the population threshold in the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act should be lowered so smaller cities like Richmond could qualify. Regarding government grant programs, she noted the administrative burden for urban farms to apply to environmental incentives programs does not pay off on a per-acre basis.

Mai Nguyen shared how in partnership with five organizations they started the California BIPOC Relief Fund for Farmers and Land Stewards in response to the lack of government support received during the pandemic. Nguyen noted that this hearing was a rare opportunity for farmers of color to be heard by our state policy makers. They asked why CDFA hasn’t made more of an effort to create meaningful relationships over the past three years since the Farmer Equity Act was passed and described that the efficacy of the Farmer Equity Act will depend on ongoing collaboration, communication, and influence by historically underserved and underrepresented farmers in all CDFA programs. Noting that the CDFA Report does not explicitly define equity, Nguyen shared with the Assemblymembers one definition of equity to consider, paraphrased here: 

Equity is the proportionate resourcing to compensate for disproportionate extraction, oppression and harm; it is the accurate appraisal of the past, paired with an action plan for repair and healing.

Nguyen suggested CDFA review the recommendations outlined in the California Young Farmers Report as a reference for their ongoing efforts.  

Assemblymembers Agree There’s Work To Be Done

The five Assemblymembers present in the Chamber (Assemblymembers Rivas, Mathis, Aguiar-Curry, Wood, and Jones-Sawyer) all acknowledged the disproportionate barriers non-White farmers face in a profession that is already vulnerable to changing weather patterns, drought, pests and market volatility. 

Assemblymember Jones-Sawyer reminded listeners and his fellow Members that American agriculture was built on the backs of free and exploited labor, which created lasting wealth for some and not others. He asked CDFA to establish ongoing accountability measures to respond to this fact and improve the current system. 

Three Assemblymembers informally volunteered to create a Farmer Equity Task Force to expedite progress on building an equitable food and farming system for BIPOC growers and land stewards in California.

Stay Connected
Get newsletter and blog updates and action alerts from CalCAN