COVID-19 has hit our economy like a wrecking ball. While news headlines have been filled with stories about bars re-closing and shuttered hair salons, even the most fundamentally essential of industries, farming, has been hard hit. Now, as wildfires rage across more than a million acres of California, dense smoke fills the air, further compromising the health and well-being of those working to put fresh food on our tables.
Just as the first spring crops of asparagus and strawberries were beginning to show up at California farmers markets in March, schools and restaurants throughout the nation abruptly closed and entire food supply chains collapsed. Farmers—especially those on small and family farms—faced tough decisions about how to safely harvest and where to sell their produce. Farm owners and laborers of color faced additional layers of challenge, including lack of health care and sick leave, limited access to sanitation and personal protective equipment (PPE), and difficulty accessing government assistance.
Yet, even in these dire times, California agricultural producers and nonprofit organizations continue to advance innovative strategies for resilience in the field and in the markets. Here, RLF spotlights four grantees of our Land-Sea Connection program, made possible by the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment, who are leading the way toward a more equitable, sustainable, and locally robust food system.
Located in rural San Diego County, Solidarity Farms works to create a more resilient and just food system for all, employing ethical farming practices that balance the needs of people, animals, and plants as part of an interconnected system. Their farm is leased from Pauma Band of Luiseno Indians, and works to integrate traditional land use practices for food production and watershed health.
“We could not do what we do without the generosity and inspiration of Pauma,” said Ellee Igoe, farmer and co-director of Solidarity Farms.
Much of Solidarity Farm’s work focuses on empowering and supporting small-scale farmers in the outlying areas of San Diego, while building community food equity and security. The concept of “foodshed” is central to Solidarity Farms and its partners. “Essentially, a foodshed is the practice of ensuring that local, organic fresh produce is supplied to the people who live closest to where it’s grown, to help build local communities, rather than exporting to wealthier markets,” said Igoe.
In March, Solidarity Farms began coordinating with 24 small and medium-sized farms—at least half of which are led by women, or Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)—to purchase their products and start emergency food distributions to underserved populations. Through a partnership with Botanical Community Development Initiatives, Solidarity Farms is distributing locally grown, community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes to the City of Oceanside’s four community centers. The deliveries help provide a secure food source to this economically impacted community, especially the heavily Latinx population, which faces deep inequities in job security and access to state and federal COVID relief. “The food that our small farmers are growing is far too valuable to send outside of our community. We need to build bridges to nourish our community. In some ways, COVID is expediting the building of those bridges,” Igoe explained.
Left: Ricardo Catano, Foodshed Community Organizer, helps distribute CSA boxes in the City of Oceanside. Right: Solidarity Farms and Pauma Tribal Farms receive the Carbon Sink Farm of the Year Award for their regenerative farming practices (Photos by Solidarity Farms).
Recently, Pauma Band of Luiseno Indians also created their own micro-foodshed, distributing the first CSA box of all Pauma-grown vegetables to their Pauma community for free, and to neighboring Indigenous reservations at a steep discount.
“Through our partnership with Pauma and local growers, we’re farming with regenerative practices so that we can continue farming into the future. Rather than focusing solely on an organic label and market value, we are using the unprecedented challenges of COVID to build systems that protect our health, our livelihoods, and our community,” said Igoe.
For 20 years, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) has provided education and training to limited-resource, aspiring farmers in the Salinas Valley, an area sometimes referred to as the “Salad Bowl of the World.” ALBA offers a low-cost, 10-month, bilingual (Spanish/English) curriculum that provides hands-on instruction in organic growing, business management, and marketing. Course graduates may then enter an incubator program where they lease and manage up to five acres of land.
Since its inception, ALBA has helped over 100 farm laborers—men and women of varying ages, mostly Hispanic/Latinx and Asian—fully transition from farm work to farm business ownership. Despite COVID-19’s challenges, ALBA has redoubled its work to train a new, more representative generation of farmers, uplift immigrant farmers, and expand organic agriculture techniques, all while serving the surrounding communities.
Chris Brown, Director of Development at ALBA, said, “Food production is typically like a freeway; it’s a rigid route from food production to sales. COVID has disrupted that traditional route and highlights weaknesses in our food system.”
But ALBA is anything but traditional, and therein lies a strength in times of crisis. “We’re a small farm—just 80 acres, but we have 40 different farmers growing about 60 types of produce. Our diversity has helped us pivot and meet local demand through CSA boxes, which are seeing exponential growth, in part due to government programs connecting low-income communities to local producers. We’ve also been able to tap into new markets in the [San Francisco] Bay Area and pool resources for capital-intensive activities like transportation,” said Brown.
Left: ALBA farmers, Carlos Gonzalez Torres and family (© Nancy B. Porto, ALBA). Middle: COVID-19 safety reminders at ALBA (© Nancy B. Porto, ALBA). Right: ALBA farmers Maria Ana Reyes and family harvest strawberries (© Antonio Acosta, ALBA) .
Amid the disruptions from COVID, technology has helped ALBA’s students stay connected with each other and with the broader farming community in the face of social distancing recommendations. “Our new reliance on technology creates an added benefit for our farmers by showcasing the value of technology in their work,” said Patricia Carrillo, Executive Director of ALBA. “Our farmers have all adapted well, whether it’s responding to bilingual text messaging, taking online classes, utilizing virtual office hours, or participating in monthly farmer meetings. In fact, there is so much interest in our virtual meeting spaces that we’ve added time to accommodate socializing and community building.”
ALBA and its farmers also have fortified their business by harnessing the strength of their assets: diversity of products and strong community relationships. “What’s special about our program is that it creates a space for farmers to come together, learn from one another, build a business, and share the joys and challenges of organic growing. Our farmers pool resources, lease land, and solve problems together,” said Carrillo. As COVID has impacted farmers nationwide, ALBA graduates have built relationships and networks that allow for creative problem-solving, and resilience when traditional food production pathways have shifted.
ALBA created the California BIPOC Farmer and Land Steward Relief Fund to provide financial support for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color farmers and land stewards impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The fund is managed by a seven-person collaborative of people of color representing the following organizations: Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, CA Tribal Fund/First Nations Development Institute, Kitchen Table Advisors, Mandela Partners, and Minnow. “Many of our farmers can’t access other government relief programs, so this is their lifeline. We approved 34 grant requests and look forward to distributing those funds soon, with additional rounds of future funding,” said Carrillo. “These farmers have been marginalized, and it’s great to play a role in helping them grow in their craft and as people.”
California FarmLink and Community Alliance with Family Farmers
RLF’s Land-Sea Connection program also supports nonprofit organizations focused on reducing the institutional and financial barriers small farmers, especially BIPOC farmers, face in establishing and maintaining their farms; these challenges are exacerbated under COVID-19. For example, California FarmLink and Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) have long histories of working to strengthen the capacity of small-scale farms. In response to COVID-19, they have both rapidly implemented new programs and relief.
FarmLink offers a loan program that currently supports nearly 200 farmers with loans totaling more than $14 million, which help pay for annual operations, land purchases, and equipment. So far in 2020, almost every FarmLink loan has gone to a low-income borrower; 93 percent have been made to farmers of color, many of whom are immigrants; and 90 percent have been made to organic farmers. FarmLink has set aside $1 million for COVID-19 emergency loans of up to $20,000 at no interest.
CAFF’s focus is on policy advocacy and on-the-ground programs to create more resilient family farms, communities, and ecosystems. CAFF launched a COVID-19 emergency fund which has awarded 93 micro-grants (up to $2,500 each) to farmers, totaling over $232,000 so far. More than 90 percent of awardees are farmers of color or immigrant farmers and most have not—or are unlikely to receive—other forms of assistance from state and federal stimulus efforts.
The impacts of COVID-19 have been especially hard felt by small-scale farmers and BIPOC farmers. But the ingenuity and resilience of Solidarity Farms, ALBA, Farmlink, CAFF, and other organizations have been critical in supporting farmers and the communities that depend on them. By providing additional capacity to local farmers and amplifying the benefits of their locally grown produce, these efforts may lead to a post-pandemic food system that is locally grown, more equitable, more resilient to future disasters, and better for farmers, consumers, and nature.