Across the state of Kentucky, Black farmers represent fewer than 600 of the more than 76,000 agricultural operations. That's just 1.4%, a statistic that mirrors the equally bleak national average. However, all that's going to change if Ashley Smith has anything to say about it.
"I'm a native Lexantonian and have lived here my whole life. But, I'm new to agriculture. I'm actually like a farming cheerleader," Smith said with a laugh. Though really, calling herself a "cheerleader" for the industry is putting it far too mildly.
In 2017, Smith and her husband Trevor co-founded Black Soil: Our Better Nature, an organization on a mission to "reconnect Black Kentuckians to their legacy and heritage in agriculture."
"I work with farmers in helping track down opportunities for them to increase their market share and increase their sales," Smith explains. "I came to ag from working in healthcare doing event management, planning development, and grant writing and arts. When I sat in city hall meetings I was just so taken aback by the possibilities and opportunities found within agriculture."
The team at Black Soil help to introduce any and all opportunities that promote self-sufficiency, encourage healthy living, and activate cooperative economics to farmers across the state. That includes everything from assisting with farmer's markets, social media, marketing materials, networking, and grants, which are important tools to assisting those who feed the world. As a 2019 analysis by the Center for American Progress found, Black farmers lost 80% of their farmland between 1910 to 2007, due to a "pattern of discrimination [that] virtually eliminated Black farms." The authors added, "The unequal administration of government farm support programs, crucial to protecting farmers from an inherently risky enterprise, has had a profound impact on rural communities of color."
Two more ways Smith is combating this more than a century-long pattern of discrimination is by introducing a new CSA program and agro-tourism opportunities to help her farming friends spread the word even further about their delicious offerings.
"COVID actually has launched our business into a completely different stratosphere," Smith says. "It really forced our hand to start doing CSA sales. And you know, this looks super sexy from the outside, but there's a lot of just loss and working against waste, and working against expectations."
Luckily, Smith says, the CSA has an extremely strong customer base that's only continuing to grow.
As for agrotourism, Smith and the team are back at it to get people visiting farms post-pandemic. Those interested in tours and even private farm-to-table or winery events merely have to reach out and ask on the Black Soil website.
However, if your plans aren't taking you to Kentucky any time soon that's ok because you can still donate to Black Soil, which uses the funds to directly support six Kentucky-based Black small scale farmers for 20 weeks in subsidizing weekly shares of local farm products, including eggs, seasonal vegetables, and meats, to single or expectant mothers living at or below the poverty line, among other items.
"There's a pipeline gap to build up that next generation of farmers who, right here right now, can take on their own land, can take on all of the insurances, the loans, the financial products that come along with it," Smith says. "There are so many factors outside of our control, but we want to focus on what we can control. And the farmers from east-central and western Kentucky have really helped me understand the hard heart-wrenching work that goes into farming." One silver lining of her work, Smith adds, is getting to "watch our farmers be resilient."
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