Ashley Webb was trying to tend to her shop, but her two young children were bickering over a pair of shoes. As she showed a customer her stock, the kids ran around her fresh produce shop — Barcelo Gardens Fresh Market — and Webb had to break up the quarrel, eventually allowing them some time on a smartphone.
It was late October, but Webb still had some summer fruit left in stock. One customer walked in and bought three yellow-seeded watermelons, some of the last available. The shop, on a mostly empty stretch of Piety Street in the Desire neighborhood, also boasted Italian cucuzza squash, various greens, and locally-made pepper jellies — otherwise hard-to-find items in the immediate area, which lacks full-service grocery stores.
One of Webb’s chief goals is making local produce available in places where it’s not easily accessible. “At least here in the 9th Ward, but a lot of other areas too, there’s no grocery stores, and then what there is, there’s just not a lot to choose from,” she said.
She opened the store in January. It’s located about a mile north of the couple’s micro-farm, which they started in 2017. After three years of growing, the couple started selling at farmers markets in the area. Now, Webb estimated that Barcelo Gardens serves about 100 customers per week between sales at the fresh market, their garden, and their visit to a farmers market in Napoleonville. Some of what the store sells comes from their farm. But quite a bit has to be brought in from around the region.
“We can’t grow enough for the amount of people we get,” Webb said. In order to keep up with the demands of the community, Webb and Barcelo-Sanchez buy wholesale from Mississippi and North Shore farmers.
Webb said she hopes to grow Barcelo Gardens even more, and make it “a connector” between rural farmers, urban farmers and people living in food deserts. And she wants legislation like the farm bill, a massive omnibus law that governs food and agriculture policy, to make this aim more feasible. A May estimate from the Congressional Budget Office predicted the 2023 farm bill could exceed $1 trillion — the most expensive in the law’s 90-year history.
In the next farm bill, Webb would like to see more grants and programs that connect urban and rural farmers together or to intermediaries, like Barcelo Gardens. This would give more opportunities for farmers to sell their produce while offering people in cities a healthier and more varied diet, Webb said.
Renewed every five years, the farm bill spans a wide range of policies ranging from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to crop insurance and conservation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also provides direct support, in the forms of grants and microloans, to small and beginner farmers.
The most recent version, the 2018 farm bill, showed a greater focus on supporting urban farms than previous bills. But it expired last month amid chaos in Congress, including a near-government shutdown followed by an extended period without a speaker in the House of Representatives, delaying consideration of a new bill.
Agricultural policy experts say the delay will not significantly affect most farm bill programs for now. But if congress misses the end of year deadline, key programs that provide support for major crops would expire, technically reverting to farm bill policy from the 1930s and 1940s, which were passed without an expiration date.
The limbo status of the next farm bill also leaves young, small-scale farmers of color waiting to see if federal policy will prioritize their demands and work to address decades of discrimination in agriculture policy.
Michael Richard, the farms director at Recirculating Farms in Central City, said the 2018 farm bill was a major win for urban agriculture.
The law created new grants for urban farmers and established an Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production at the USDA; in August, New Orleans welcomed a new USDA service center on Bayou Rd. Richard hopes that the next farm bill will expand on these efforts by making the farm bill’s larger, older initiatives — like a cost-share for equipment program — available to urban farmers.
The attention paid to urban and small-scale farms helped “legitimize” urban farming, Richard said. Now, he hopes to build on that recognition. “Some of the things that we would really like to see are more ways to get small farms in [the farm bill] because most urban farms are small,” he said.
Richard would also like to see greater funding to incentivize more farmers of color such as Webb and himself. Young Black and brown farmers are needed to counteract an aging farming population, he said, but he also believes they will benefit their communities. “Even if you’re not doing it for business, if you know how to grow for yourself and grow for your community, that makes communities and households more stable,” he said.
He and Webb both pointed to the historical stigma around farming for some people Black people that prevents them from entering the agriculture industry. “It brings back slavery,” Webb said.
Erica Sage Johsnon, an urban farmer and homesteader in New Orleans, stressed the importance of recognizing past and ongoing discrimination by the USDA towards Black farmers in ongoing legislation.
Due in part to discriminatory USDA lending policies, over the last century, Black farmers lost around $326 billion worth of land. The amount of agricultural land they owned fell from 16 million acres in 1910 to 4.7 million acres, or 0.5% of the nation’s farmland, in 2017.
“We’re still seeing reports about discrimination against Black producers,” she said, especially when it comes to getting loans. In 2022, 72 percent of white farmers were approved for direct loans by the USDA, while only a third of Black farmers who applied for the same loan were approved.
The government has made some moves toward addressing those problems. After a loan forgiveness program specifically for farmers of color was halted due to lawsuits from white farmers alleging discrimination, the USDA opened an amended program in July for farmers who experienced loan discrimination. And earlier this year, U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) reintroduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which aims to protect against further Black land loss, safeguard against USDA discrimination, and empower historically Black colleges and universities to expand their agriculture programs.
Mike Strain, the commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said the first thing to look at when it comes to assisting minority farmers is research initiatives at HBCUs and extension, an educational program that offers practical support for farmers.
“Extension is a big deal,” he said, because it gives farmers greater access and understanding of the programs available through agencies like the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the USDA. Minimizing barriers are essential “both for access to capital, but also in participating in the myriad of farm programs,” he said.
Securing access to capital for the next generation of farmers is also key, Strain noted, because the average farmer is nearly 60 years old, and almost half of the farmland in the country is going to change hands in the next two decades, according to a 2022 report by the National Young Farmers Coalition that analyzed survey responses from more than 10,000 farmers ages 40 and younger.
Iriel Edwards has advocated for the next generation of farmers through a fellowship with the National Young Farmers Coalition. Edwards, 25, worked for a Black-led regenerative rice farming organization in Alexandria before buying nearly nine acres of farmland in Boyce, a small town in Rapides Parish, in 2021. She echoed the National Young Farmers Coalition survey results that found accessing land and capital the top concerns among young farmers, an issue complicated by the costs of health insurance, housing, climate change and student debt.
“This is such a prime opportunity to give land back to generations of people who have had land stripped from them by the government and mobilize the next generation to fight climate change and our impending doom,” Edwards said.
For her, the new Farm Bill is a chance to correct past harm and secure a more sustainable future. The expansive and expansive nature of the Farm Bill also makes it an invitation for “everyone to get involved,” she said.
“This conversation is not just about farmers, it’s about all food and everyone who eats food.” Edwards said. ““Sometimes people might see farmers or agriculture and think, ‘That’s not really something that I’m involved in.’ But everyone’s involved.”
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