Nonprofits Pledge to Use Millions to Diversify Farm Ownership in Vermont | Agriculture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Nonprofits Pledge to Use Millions to Diversify Farm Ownership in Vermont


Bear Roots Farm in South Barre and Williamstown has participated in VLT’s Farmland Access Program - COURTESY PAUL E. RICHARDSONN
  • Courtesy Paul E. Richardsonn
  • Bear Roots Farm in South Barre and Williamstown has participated in VLT’s Farmland Access Program
The High Meadows Fund said on Thursday that it has given a $6 million gift to the Vermont Land Trust to be used to transition agricultural land to new farmers, diversify farm ownership and promote sustainable and climate-resilient farming practices.

The nonprofit organizations announced the gift during a press conference at the Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte, one of the largest Black-owned farms in the state.

One third of the total gift, or $2 million, is earmarked for a "land sovereignty fund" intended to expand farmland access  to those who have been historically marginalized or oppressed based on their race or ethnicity. Further details weren't specified Thursday.

The other $4 million is for the general transition of agricultural land to new farmers, and for climate-resilient farming practices.

According to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, Vermont had only 17 solely Black or African American-owned farms, accounting for 0.33 percent of all farmland. That's slightly lower than the national percentage of 0.5 percent.

Lydia and Jack Clemmons, both now 98, bought the 148-acre Charlotte farm in 1962. Long used to promote Black culture, it's now a stop on Vermont's African American Heritage Trail and frequently hosts events.

The couple's daughter, Lydia Clemmons, is president and executive director of the farm. At the event on Thursday, she described how her great-grandparents in Louisiana built a successful farm for themselves in the 1930s. Many white farmers in the community were jealous, Clemmons said, and the situation worsened when valuable oil was discovered on the family’s land. Warned by “kindly white neighbors, allies,” the family escaped just before a mob of white farmers arrived and burned the farm to the ground, she said.

Such incidents of racially motivated discrimination are not a thing of the past, Clemmons noted. She briefly referenced incidents during which she was treated poorly by the police, who she called repeatedly to investigate a problem tenant beginning in 2017. As previously reported by Seven Days, the Vermont Human Rights Commission investigated Clemmons' allegations and earlier this year found reasonable grounds to believe the Vermont State Police had discriminated against her because of her race and gender.
“Our family stories are not unique,” Clemmons concluded. “They've been experienced by Black farming families across the state and around this country for generations. Owning and stewarding land comes at a price for those who have been historically oppressed.”

Well-documented research chronicles decades of systemic racism that contributed to pushing many Black people off their land. A landmark class action case against the U.S. Department of Agriculture alleged racial discrimination against African American farmers who applied for farm loans and assistance between 1981 and 1996; it was settled in 1999 in favor of thousands of plaintiffs.

Gaye Symington, executive director of the High Meadows Fund, said that the $2 million earmark is just a first step in making amends to people of color who have contributed to the country’s agricultural system — and faced discrimination.

“For too long in our nation's history, the labor of Black and brown farmworkers has not fed those workers,” Symington said. “Through forced labor, Black people who did not come to America of their own free will, strengthened our fledgling economy and created a foundation of wealth in which they were not able to participate.”

Symington and Nick Richardson, president and chief executive officer of the Vermont Land Trust, acknowledged that they helm white-led organizations. But they promised that the new land sovereignty fund is intended to be led by BIPOC farmers and leaders. The effort will be about “putting resources and decision-making into the hands of Black, indigenous and other people of color,” Symington said.

Richardson said that as the white leader of a white organization, “we recognize how ill-equipped we are to be the recipient and holder of those funds. They should and will be held by others.”

Richardson went on to acknowledge the work of several Vermont and regional organizations including the Northeast Farms of Color Land Trust; Vermont Releaf Collective; the SUSU Collective; and the four bands of the Abenaki.

“We're accepting this gift with only one purpose in mind: to ensure that it quickly flows to BIPOC organizations and leadership in order to build their strength and capacity,” he said.

Members of two of those organizations expressed some concerns about those pledges.

During the press conference question and answer period, Amber Arnold, co-executive director of SUSU commUNITY Farm, an Afro-Indigenous-stewarded farm and land-based healing center in Brattleboro, spoke up.

“When I'm seeing that there is a $6 million gift going to an all-white organization, based out of a partnership with three white-led organizations, and I see no Black and brown organizations as part of this powerful decision-making and development structure, I feel a lot of deep concern and sadness,” Arnold said. “I feel like when I hear people talking about the importance of passing over control, and [I’m] not actually seeing that in even this decision, it feels very concerning to me.”

Reached by phone after the press conference, Ana Mejia, environment organizer with Vermont Releaf Collective, was surprised to learn that the organization had been mentioned when no one from High Meadows Fund or the Vermont Land Trust had reached out to discuss the effort or invite them to the announcement event.

Releaf is a 170-plus-member statewide network by and for Black, indigenous, and people of color advancing racial equity in land, environment, agriculture and foodways — a group's cultural practices and customs around food.

Despite the many statements made at the press conference about the desire to see people of color lead the land sovereignty project, Mejia said she has not yet seen proof of that commitment in action.

“The fact that we and other organizations representing BIPOC communities weren’t notified of this directly is evidence of the lack of communication and relationship-building with BIPOC communities,” Mejia said.