1% of farmers in Pennsylvania are people of color. Changing that could help solve an agricultural labor shortage

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This story comes from our partner, 90.5 WESA. It is the third in a series about the challenge of cultivating a new generation of farmers in Pennsylvania.

In Pennsylvania, more than 99% of the people who operate farms are white, according to federal estimates. The Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is more than 90% Black.

This gap is one of the reasons the Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh cooperative established its farm in Homewood in 2017.

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Founder and executive director Raqueeb Ajamu-Osagboro said the group acquired the land through the city of Pittsburgh’s Adopt-A-Lot program. Several residential properties once occupied the site, the 31,000 square feet of which includes lots on both sides of Homewood’s Monticello Street.

Raqueeb Ajamu-Osagboro, a native of the Pittsburgh’s Hill District, is founder and executive director of the Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Cooperative. Photo: Herring An-Li / 90.5 WESA

However, the old accommodation was demolished years ago and in its place there are now raised beds, a bee yard and a greenhouse, which looks like a greenhouse.

The farm holds classes on how to grow different types of food — an important topic, Ajamu-Osagboro said, in a neighborhood that hasn’t had a grocery store in more than 25 years.

“We are serious about empowering our community,” she said. “We can’t wait for outsiders to help us.”

Her group is working with other organizations to start a cooperative, community-owned grocery store where local producers can sell their food. Called “Freedom Foods,” the outlet will open next year at Homewood’s House of Manna Faith Community, Ajamu-Osagboro said.

But given the past dispossession of indigenous lands, broken promises following slavery and discriminatory lending practices, she says, people in her community feel alienated from farming.

“For a long time and even sometimes today, our people…because of slavery, they [say,] “We don’t want to do this, or we don’t want to get our hands dirty,” she said. “So groups like ours, we teach [that] it is not a stigma to be ashamed of.

Point of pride and prosperity

Denele Hughson, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh, said growing food can instead allow black people to reclaim a famous part of their heritage.

“We have to teach [that] Africans were enslaved because of their experience and knowledge of cultivation and agriculture – that is why they were brought here,” she said.

Oasis Farm & Fishing

An “organic shelter” houses Oasis Farm & Fishery’s aquaponics system for growing fish and produce. Photo: Herring An-Li / 90.5 WESA

With city farms in Braddock, Point Breeze North and Wilkinsburg, Grow Pittsburgh offers educational programs in and around predominantly black neighborhoods.

Such instruction could help steer more people into farming at a time when the sector is facing an impending labor shortage. Pennsylvania officials predict that over the next five years there will be openings for more than one-fifth of agricultural jobs in the state.

Oasis Farm & Fishing

Using an aquaponic system, Oasis Farm & Fishery grows lettuce, cucumber, basil and tilapia indoors. Fish waste helps fertilize plants. Photo: Herring An-Li / 90.5 WESA

But despite the need for agricultural workers, Pittsburgh urban farmer Rafael Vencio noted that it was never a profession he envisioned growing up between the Philippines and the United States. A leader until COVID-19 hit, he recently completed his first season as owner of AmBoy Urban. Farm, which is based at the Hilltop Urban Farm incubator in St. Clair.

“I think a big reason why there’s a lack of diversity in farming, especially in race, is because I think we’ve created the stereotype of ethnic backgrounds where I think it’s is the expectation of what you should be,” he said. “Filipinos, for example, are almost always expected to be nurses.”

Vencio said his experience selling at farmers’ markets reinforced that view.

“Just seeing other vendors around me felt like I stood out like a sore thumb. I was the only Asian person there,” he recalls with a laugh.

Tacumba Turner at Oasis Farm & Fishery

Tacumba Turner is a program manager at Oasis Farm & Fishery in Homewood. In addition to providing agricultural training for high school students, the group recently launched a business incubator for new farmers, called Urban Farming Academy. Photo: Herring An-Li / 90.5 WESA

But Tacumba Turner, Oasis Farm & Fishery program manager at Homewood, said people from marginalized communities would see tangible benefits from greater representation in the industry. It provides agricultural training to secondary school students as part of a summer program organized by the local workforce development agency Partner4Work.

“What’s at stake is the potential of multiple generations of people who might not thrive because they’re malnourished or don’t have access to food,” Turner said. There is a “cognitive impact on your diet, your mood, your life outcome and your life expectancy”.

Turner said racial disparities show that today’s food economy isn’t working for poor and minority neighborhoods. He said it is important to diversify ownership in agriculture.

Oasis Farm & Fishing

Oasis Farm & Fishery is installing an elevated tunnel on its corner lot for growing produce. Photo: Herring An-Li / 90.5 WESA

“But at the end of the day, you are always in competition. So it’s not just like, ‘Oh, we’re going to train this thing that we all have’ and then that’s it.’ No, we still need to evolve this. We still have to operate a bit like a business,” he said.

Because of this, he teaches Oasis Farm & Fishery students not only the technical aspects of growing food, but also the leadership and thinking skills they need to start and run their own businesses.

Meet future farmers where they are?

This approach has gained traction elsewhere. Since 2019, the state has certified farm management apprenticeship. Participants receive training in agricultural techniques while taking business courses.

Subarna Sijapati started her vegetable growing apprenticeship shortly after the arrival of COVID-19. Originally from Nepal, he had to close his catering business due to the pandemic.

New Morning Farm Tractor

Located in Hustontown, along the ridge of Tuscarora Mountain in south-central Pennsylvania, New Morning Farm has been training apprentices for 50 years. About two years ago, he began accepting apprentices from a state-certified program run by Pasa Sustainable Agriculture. Photo: Herring An-Li / 90.5 WESA

After being cleared to apprentice, he partnered with New Morning Farm, located along the ridge of Tuscarora Mountain in south-central Pennsylvania.

“Now I manage these greens, then I manage all the herbs,” he said, surveying rows of leafy produce that ran along an elevated tunnel.

New Morning Farm

In the fall, apprentice Subarna Sijapati was responsible for overseeing New Morning Farm’s herb growing operation as well as two types of green vegetables. He had previously managed the farm’s tomato harvest. Photo: Herring An-Li / 90.5 WESA

At the end of his two-year apprenticeship, Sijapati wants to open his own event space, where he will prepare food and grow his own herbs.

Dan Dalton

Dan Dalton is the Three Rivers Hub Manager for Pasa Sustainable Agriculture as well as the Program Manager for the nonprofit Diverse Vegetable Learning. From 2015, he played a key role in starting the apprenticeship program. Photo: Herring An-Li / 90.5 WESA

At New Morning Farm, he receives a modest monthly stipend, as well as free room and board. The farm is an hour and a half from his family in Gettysburg.

“So Saturday night I go home, and then I spend the night Sunday night [and] drive here early, early — 4 a.m. — to get back to work,” he said.

That kind of journey may be asking too much of people who might otherwise consider a career in agriculture, noted Dan Dalton, who helps run the apprenticeship program as Three Rivers hub manager at the body in non-profit organization Pasa Sustainable Agriculture.

“I think if we had more city farms across the state, we could place a lot more people because they seem to want to be closer to cities than farther away,” he said.

But of the roughly 70 people deemed eligible for Pasa’s apprenticeship program, he said, only about 25 have been matched with farms and trained.

So building a particularly diverse agricultural workforce might be more about bringing farms to more people than about bringing more people to existing farms.

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