The production sector is the network of farms, ranches, and fisheries that use natural resources, capital, labor, and other inputs to cultivate food, including both crops and livestock.
California stands as the nation’s agricultural capital, annually producing millions of pounds of more than 400 unique farm and animal products that feed families across the country and globe. California has historically produced almost half of all fruits, vegetables, and nuts in the country, as well as a large share of livestock and dairy. Despite a period of severe drought from 2011 to 2018, the state’s 77,500 farms and ranches spanning 25.5 million acres brought in over $47 billion in 2015.
And yet, the people who form the foundation of the sector — those who plant, harvest, and raise the food we eat — still face significant challenges in accessing and securing stable incomes, quality jobs, and land ownership. In 1920 in the U.S., 14 percent of farms — a total of 925,000 at the time — were owned by Black families. Today, less than 2 percent of farms are Black owned. Many farmers and farmworkers themselves face difficulty accessing quality, affordable, healthy food. Consider these contradictions: Monterey County is the third highest grossing crop-producing county in the nation, yet 66 percent of farm workers interviewed in Salinas Valley were food insecure and the highest proportion of food insecure households in California is in Monterey County.
Key factors that have shaped inequities in the production sector include the following.
- Federal farm and food policies, such as the Farm Bill, unevenly support different segments of the production sector in delivering health, economic, and environmental benefits. For example, Title I of the Farm Bill provides crop insurance and subsidies to commodity crops, not specialty crops — i.e., corn, wheat, soy, and sugar are covered, but not fresh fruits and vegetables. These commodities are often used in processed and packaged foods, and even non-food products like animal feed and ethanol. Such policies contribute to a challenging environment for small- and mid-sized farms, specialty crop producers, ranchers, and fisherfolks to grow and cultivate the necessary components of a healthy diet.
- Federal land management and lending practices, such as those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency, have discriminated against and led to significant land loss and stripping among farmers of color. Beginning with the takeover of Indigenous lands in the 1490s and the annexation of Mexican-owned Southwest land in the 1840s, farmers of color have experienced unprecedented land loss since the Civil War. In particular, Black farmers in the South experienced the largest documented land losses, culminating in the class-action lawsuit against the USDA in Pigford v. Glickman (1999). Today, Black farmers make up less than 2 percent of the country’s farmers. Subsequent class action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of other groups, such as Keepseagle v. Veneman (2000) for Native American farmers and Garcia v. Veneman (2000) for Hispanic farmers. In fact, just 6.5 percent of all private U.S. agricultural lands are owned by non-White farmers.
- Poor wages, unsafe and substandard working conditions, and limited employee protections are the reality for millions of farmworkers. In California alone, more than three million seasonal and migrant farmworkers grow and harvest the food we eat. Over 85 percent of farmworkers are immigrants, the majority from Mexico and Latin American countries — a significant portion are undocumented and face economic, health, and legal vulnerabilities. On average, California farmworkers earn just $17,500 a year and nearly two-thirds live below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Both farm and factory workers are routinely exposed to physical and chemical health risks from machinery and pesticides on the job, and women are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment in the fields. The accumulation of workers’ economic insecurity, exposure to toxins and hazards, and mental stress can have lifelong negative impacts on themselves and their families.
- Climate change poses significant challenges to the long-term sustainability of U.S. agriculture. In the U.S. and globally, food systems have an immense reliance on not just human capital, but also water, soil, air, and other natural resources. The agricultural production sector consumes 80 percent of all freshwater used in California, and livestock production produces more than 60 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the state . Conventional production practices — tilling the land, irrigating fields, deploying pesticides — deplete the topsoil and pollute air and water resources. Coupled with severe drought and extreme weather events, climate-related challenges disproportionately impact small-sized family farmers, farmers of color, farm and factory workers, and residents of rural communities who lack the capacity to withstand climate change with resilience.,
- Increase access to flexible capital, technical assistance, and other supports for farmers of color, low-income farmers, and new farmers. While the numbers of these farmers are growing, many still face systemic barriers to accessing resources and networks to finance, launch, or sustain their businesses. Farm businesses are capital and resource-intensive, offer low-profit margins, and take years to become profitable. Farmers of color are often least likely to access federal and state programs. Policies that offer not only financial assistance (e.g., loans, grants, set asides) but also culturally relevant capacity-building resources (e.g., technical assistance, pre-development services, mentorship) are needed to help address historical and systemic barriers. These supports will collectively build farmers’ knowledge and skills to support economically viable businesses for the benefit of their families and their communities.
- Invest resources to grow community land trusts or other alternative land ownership models. A movement of alternative land ownership models is growing that takes land off of the speculative market and into the community. These actions are aimed at curbing the rising trend of losses of vacant plots of land and of rural farmland for both urban and rural farmers. For example, community land trusts, such as the Black Family Land Trust in North Carolina, in many ways reflect the values of a cooperative ownership model. A community land trust is a mission-aligned nonprofit organization or a group of individuals who have pooled their financial resources to acquire land for the purposes of conservation and community economic and agricultural benefit.
- Expand and enforce farmworker protections, including paid overtime, paid sick leave, high-quality health insurance, and occupational safety and health regulations. Historically, agricultural workers have been excluded from many labor protections, workplace safety laws, and public benefit programs, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. While some progress has been made through the advocacy of farmworker groups, many policies — including the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) revised standards on minimizing farmworkers’ pesticide exposure — are often not strong enough and lack oversight. Only very recently in California, through AB 1066, were farmworkers granted the right to overtime pay. With the complexities of farm and factory workers’ economic, health, and legal vulnerabilities, a wide array of protections should be put in place to ensure that those feeding the country receive their fair share.
- Develop urban agriculture incentives zones and other supportive policies. Production can occur beyond traditionally rural farmland. Many community leaders and organizations have recognized an often-underutilized asset in many urban metropolitan regions — vacant land. Policies that support urban agriculture efforts, such as incentives, grants, loans, supportive zoning policies, and technical assistance, can bring multiple benefits to a low-income community. These benefits include local access to healthy food, workforce development, job training, as well as economic revitalization. Often in disadvantaged communities, the widespread conversion of vacant land to urban agriculture projects brings about additional benefits in adding green space to concrete jungles, producing fruits and vegetables and other value-added goods, and commonly providing education and outreach programs.
Equity In Action
- Los Angeles County Urban Agricultural Incentive Zone Program: In 2013, the California State Legislature passed AB 551, the Urban Agriculture Incentive Zone program, to encourage urban agriculture in California by offering reduced property tax assessments in exchange for converting vacant or unimproved property to urban agriculture. In 2015, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a motion to have this program implemented countywide. As of 2016, $3 million in unrealized tax revenue loss is set aside for this program, which offers flexible eligibility to unincorporated properties, as well. The Los Angeles Food Policy Council offers resources to guide prospective applicants through the process.
- CDFI Farmer of Color Capital Access National Project: The Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems coordinated a learning community of three community development financial institutions (CDFIs) to increase access to capital among farmers of color. The three CDFIs — California FarmLink, the National Capital Investment Fund, and Shreveport Federal Credit Union — all agreed to learn from each other’s outreach strategies, partnership enhancement, and lending strategies to improve their capacity to serve and their relationships with farmers of color.
Resources & Tools
- Los Angeles Food Policy Council: The Los Angeles Food Policy Council advocates for a healthy, affordable, and fair food system in Southern California. Through a collective impact model, the council works on an agenda encompassing good food for all, food security, food equity and access, street food, regenerative and urban agriculture, food waste, and a good food purchasing policy.
- Community Alliance with Family Farmers: The Community Alliance with Family Farmers addresses current problems and challenges in food and farming systems, creates more resilient family farms, and advocates statewide for policies and on-the-ground programs. The alliance builds strong partnerships between California’s family farmers and their communities, with a focus on farm-to-school, farm-to-market, food safety, climate-smart farming, and food and farm policies.
- California Climate and Agriculture Network: The California Climate and Agriculture Network advocates for policies that ensure the resilience and sustainability of farms and ranches in the face of climate change. It is a coalition of representatives from agricultural, environmental, and food safety organizations who advance policy solutions for issues involving climate change and sustainable agriculture.
- National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition: The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is an alliance of grassroots organizations that advocates for federal policy reform to advance sustainable agriculture, food systems, natural resources, and rural communities. The coalition developed the “Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs” to provide an overview of all federal programs and policies relevant to farmers, ranchers, and other grassroots organizations.