Senator Tim Kaine, D-Va., went on a small tour of Black-owned farms in Unionville, part of Orange County, on July 21. The trip was to gather information that could be used to craft the new Farm Bill, aimed not just at helping Virginia farmers, but potentially growing their numbers.
The United States Congress renews and revises the Farm Bill every five years, which has set standards and policies for farming across the country since it was first devised in 1933.
Kaine toured Carter Farms, an organic farm specializing in vegetables native to Africa, and Sweet Vines Farm Winery, one of the first vineyards and wineries owned by an Black woman.
According to its website, Carter Farms has been in operation since 1947 when Mattie Carter bought the 150 acre parcel of land from her siblings. The siblings inherited the land from their parents, Jeff and Catherine Shirley, who purchased it in 1910.
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The farm’s current owner, Michael Carter Jr., keeps the farm going by growing crops that are originally from Africa, including okra and sweet potatoes. According to Carter, these crops grow well in the African heat and have done well in the Virginia climate.
He is also involved in Africulture, a nonprofit which holds workshops and seminars that teach about the practices and history contributed by Africans to agriculture. They also offer outreach and training services to ethnic minorities throughout the country.
Carter said he hopes the new farm bill will strive to address the needs of African American farmers, “We need access to better markets, the Black farmer, at this point, is almost extinct. We’ve gone from approximately 50,000 in 1925 to about 1,300 now. We’d like more access to markets, more access to customers for us and small scale farmers.”
Also on hand was Michael Carter, Sr. who currently manages the Small Farm Outreach Program with the Virginia State College of Agriculture, who provided background on why the number of Black farmers in the commonwealth has shrunk so drastically. He said that while the obstacles black farmers have faced by past generations have gotten better, the effects still linger on their operations.
“Labor, the prices of goods, the availability of getting assistance from USDA, for about 25 to 30 years, was not something that the small black farmer was able to obtain.”
The senator’s tour continued to Sweet Vines Farm Winery, where he held a small roundtable discussion, including the winery’s owner, Saidah Armstrong.
A former middle school principal, Armstrong first opened the 122-acre winery in Dec. 2021. She said she comes from many generations of farmers, going back five generations starting with sharecropping cotton in Mississippi, to her grandmother moving to Chicago to open a community store before settling in Memphis.
Armstrong’s family has made wine going back to her great-great grandmother but she also did a lot of research in order to open her winery.
Armstrong and other farmers spoke with Kaine and offered some possibilities he could present to the new bill. One suggestion was for agriculture education to be more present in schools. Armstrong also said home economics classes, in addition to agriculture programs, such as hydroponics and aquaponics, could help with not only attracting new farmers, but potentially alleviate the issue of food deserts.
“In order to spur the knowledge of future farmers, we have to let them know that this exists, so we have to start from preK-12 which might mean the education committee working with the agriculture committee and create some type of resource for students that will inspire them to grow their own food. To inspire them to help grow the food that will be in the cafeteria.”
Armstrong also feels education could help to change the mindset of potential Black farmers, who may feel that farming may not be the best way to make a living or believe it may bring them too close to the historical memories of slavery in the United States.
Kaine commented on the necessity of the new farm bill to have incentives that would benefit Black farmers as well as attract new farmers as that cohort continues to age out.
“What I’ve heard from these folks is the tremendous history of Virginia’s African American farmers, we had 50,000 a century ago and 1,300 now,” Kaine said. “They talked about the challenges of programs that were available to other farmers but not to African American farmers. They’re available now, but generation after generation after generation, some farms were advancing and others were still.”
Kaine mentioned a $2.2 billion fund that was part of the Inflation Reduction Act, which sought to address this disparity. He also briefly discussed the costs of land and material that may put off future farmers.
Kaine said there were some agricultural ideas that caught his attention, such as the concept of “food as medicine.” The concept, as stated by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation, outlines that food and nutrition play a role in sustaining health, preventing disease and as a therapy for those with conditions or in situations responsive to changes in their diet.
Kaine also visited Augusta County, where he held a roundtable in Verona, and the Allegheny Mountain Institute Farm in Fishersville.
Richard Horner: 540/825-0773