RAFI-USA co-hosts NC state candidate forum 

On September 9, we joined with several other organizations to present an NC State Candidates Forum on the topics of farming, food, and hunger. We invited candidates in related areas from both sides of the aisle to join us. Those who were able to join included candidates for the offices of NC Labor Commissioner (Josh Dobson [R], Jessica Holmes [D]), NC Agriculture Commissioner (Steve Troxler [R], Jenna Wadsworth [D]), NC Superintendent of Public Instruction (Jen Mangrum [D]), and NC Lieutenant Governor (Yvonne Holley [D]).

The entire event was recorded and can be viewed here on YouTube in English and here in Spanish. Here is a transcript of the final question before closing statements.

Moderator Calvin Allen, Director of Rural Forward NC: North Carolina has a long legacy of farms owned and run by African Americans. There is also a long history of discrimination against Black farmers, to the point that today, only 4% of farm operations in the state are African American-owned.  If elected, what will you do in the role of your respective office to support Black farmers and other underserved farming populations such as beginning, female, or small scale farmers, in North Carolina?

Jenna Wadsworth: I want to start by saying Black lives matter, Black farmers matter, absolutely and without any caveats. And I encourage you to read the op-ed that was published by the Fayetteville Observer that I wrote after Juneteenth, talking about the plight of our Black farming community in North Carolina. Black farmers in this country own 1/10 of the land now than they did a century ago because of a dirty history of discrimination on the part of USDA, Farm Service Agency, predatory lending practices, or lack of access and awareness to the resources available to them. I believe that we should support these small business owners and allow them to be successful in competing in our economy. And I have been so excited to see so much community support galvanize around these Black farmers markets over the last few months. But I’m also disheartened that a lot of the Black farmers I talk to that went about creating these initiatives did so because they didn’t feel welcomed or supported at the state-run farmers markets. So I think that there’s a lot of room for improvement to do better by farmers who traditionally don’t have a seat at the table. And we know that representation matters. Sometimes some of these voices aren’t being heard in the Department of Agriculture and I’m someone who believes that you cannot effectively lead or govern from within an echo chamber where everyone else’s experiences mirror your own. So I’m about giving people a seat at the table, allowing them to be a part of the discussion. I actually have been speaking to Black farmers since day one and we have been working on a targeted plan to change the future in North Carolina.

Yvonne Holley: First of all I would like to point out the fact that as a family – if you were in a family – and one of your children is in need or is sick, sometimes, you have to take extra resources and put it to that child, so that child is able to be brought to the point of the other members of the family or they’re made whole, or well again. Well, that’s what we need to do in some of these instances of discrimination in underserved communities. We need to do the investment in the problem. And if the problem is you’re not getting them loans, if you’re not helping them with the same things that the other farmers are having then you need to do so. You need to make a special effort. It’s like when you’re teaching children in school and someone is falling behind, you start a special program to enhance the education of those kids who are particularly in need. We need to do this for our farmers and bring them up to a level so that they are and should be equal partners in being able to get the same kind of loans, the same kind of seeds, the same kind of treatment and contracts as everyone else is getting.  It is a discrimination that has happened across the world, it won’t be solved quickly, but there are policies and procedures in place. As your next Lieutenant Governor, I will do everything I can to make sure that attention is brought to these issues and I will lobby my friends in the General Assembly to make sure that we can bring our farmers – our Black, and female, and underserved small farmers — up to a standard that a lot of the other farmers deserve and enjoy.

Jessica Holmes: I’ll start by noting that feeding people isn’t something that is a partisan issue. As the next Labor Commissioner, I will use my voice on the Council of State to address some of the disparities that have already been acknowledged such as the reality that many of our Black farmers don’t have access to the resources that some non-minority farmers have access to. One unique challenge in the Black community that is a legal term is heirs property. We need to do a better job of ensuring that our Black farmers know what their options are and that they are better protected from development and making sure that they are able to keep their farms in their families and address those challenges. We have a problem. We have a solution when it comes to food insecurity and food deserts. But yet, we have Black farmers who can’t sell their produce. This is one reason I will absolutely support more farmers markets, particularly Black farmers, and quite frankly, using their produce to address food deserts in what tends to be Black and brown communities. So we have a problem, and we also have a solution. We just need to do a better job of connecting those farmers with the needs that are already apparent in our communities, for example, ensuring those black farmers and their communities have access to the produce that they grow.

Steve Troxler: Within the Department of Agriculture I have a small farm section that works almost exclusively with Black farmers, farmers that don’t have a lot of resources, small farmers. Each of these four employees are African American and they spend their time helping farmers get through some of the federal programs that they don’t understand. It’s been unforgivable that in the past that we had only 3% of minority farmers that were using federal programs. We’re changing that. We work with A&T State University on this small farm program and the things that they do to work with especially small and minority farmers. We’re trying to do our best. In fact, this morning I was at A&T State University highlighting the small farm section and the small farm program. We had two minority farmers there and it was so heartwarming to hear their stories about how we had helped them be successful in what they endeavored to do and how they had grown over time. So that is the way we’re approaching this problem. We are helping.  We do work exclusively with this group of people. So I’m very proud of this section.

Jen Mangrum: Look at my colleagues who are running with me. Yvonne Holley, Jenna Wadsworth, Jessica Holmes, and myself. We are people of color and we are women. We understand the needs of those that are marginalized. If you want to help North Carolina, you need to select people who are as diverse as the population of North Carolina. One of my goals is to have an office of equity at the state Department of Public Instruction. So, right from the beginning, we are going to talk about race and racism. There’s an ugly history that we’ve not been open to talking about.  Black farmers are not doing poorly now because of something that happened yesterday; this has been a longstanding, continuous concern. And whoever has been in charge up to now, hasn’t done anything. As an elementary teacher and professor, I’m not running for power or notoriety—I’m running to make North Carolina better. If you want to make North Carolina better, you need to pick people who want to see that North Carolina—all of North Carolina—is represented. I assure you that our children are going to grow up being better than we are and are going to leave the world better than we did.

Josh Dobson: Being an elected official doesn’t make you an expert on everything. And some of the best policy proposals that I’ve put forward come from listening. I would want to visit those minority farms and listen to the concerns and listen to the issues that are being faced. And listen to solutions that those who own minority farms have.  And, then go about advocating and putting policies into place that help them move forward. And that’s what I will do. I will start by listening. Then after listening I would go about advocating for those policies to help those who most need it. 

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