One-point-four percent. That’s the percentage of U.S. farmers who identify as Black out of the country’s 3.4 million producers, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture report conducted in 2017.
Larry Holland is part of that 1.4%. Larry is a fifth-generation farmer, operating a grass-fed beef, goat and free-range poultry operation in Tylertown, Mississippi. He is also a farmer within the Land O'Lakes cooperative system, who was recently named as one of 12 members of the newly established Equity Commission’s Subcommittee on Rural Community Economic Development (RCED) by the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Long-standing structural and institutional barriers have limited the access of Black, Indigenous and people of color to land, financial assistance, and educational resources. Subcommittee members like Larry have begun evaluating USDA programs and services and will make recommendations to USDA as to how the agency can remove access barriers and address long-standing inequities in agriculture.
“It’s a huge responsibility. I am a bit daunted but absolutely honored and committed to doing whatever it takes to make a difference,” said Larry. “When I got back into farming nearly 30 years ago, it was hard for me to make use of the financial and educational resources available because I just didn’t know what was out there. That is the biggest barrier for most Black farmers. We either didn’t know or were completely denied access to those resources.”
The RCED subcommittee will take a closer look at four key areas: rural water, rural broadband, rural housing and rural economic development. Larry says he has a keen interest in broadband because of Land O’Lakes’ work with the American Connection Project (ACP). Since its launch in 2019, ACP has continued to make incredible strides in closing the digital divide for rural communities. Larry hopes his contributions to the USDA will help improve broadband access to all Americans.
The group meets at least once a month for public meetings to share information and feedback from their community members. Larry says from his research so far, his main priority is advocating for more appropriate staffing at the field level.
“Right now, I am talking to as many people as I can in my community, as well as across the country, to inform my thinking and to understand what can be improved to help create a more inclusive ag industry. From my conversations with people who already work for the USDA, they are constantly concerned about the depleting field staff levels over the last couple of years. If we are going to carry out these ambitious recommendations, we first need to make sure we have the right people to implement these changes on the ground.”
In August, the USDA announced up to $550 million in funding to support projects that help historically underserved producers access land, capital and markets, and train the next, diverse generation of agricultural professionals. These investments are made through funding provided in the American Rescue Plan Act. Larry says while it’s a major step forward, there’s still a lot of work to be done to advance equity for minority farmers and he hopes to be a part of that change.
As a farmer-owned cooperative, Land O’Lakes is committed to working with our member-owners to provide solutions that help feed a growing global population. This requires diverse and innovative ideas, so Land O’Lakes is engaging in a number of activities to expand our talent pool by breaking down barriers to entering and sustaining careers in the ag industry.
In addition to helping effect change within the USDA, Land O’Lakes has taken steps within our own four walls to provide career paths into agriculture for minorities. Land O’Lakes is a proud sponsor of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS), partnering with the organization to connect students to internships and full-time career opportunities at Land O’Lakes. MANRRS is a national organization focused on helping minorities gain personal and professional skills while connecting them to careers in agriculture.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just 22% of students who graduated with an Agriculture Bachelor’s Degree in 2017 identified as minorities. MANRRS COO Ebony Webbers says her organization is trying to change that statistic through outreach, education and networking.
“Many minority students aren’t interested, or don’t know they are interested in careers in agriculture because they haven’t had that type of exposure,” Ebony says. “We are grateful to have such a well-known organization like Land O’Lakes invest in MANRRS and help expose students to the agricultural space.”
Ebony and Larry both agree that organizations, leaders, and farmers in the ag industry need to keep advocating for change because the industry responsible for feeding the world needs to have more voices at the table.
“The thing is, folks have to see it to become it,” Larry says. “Right now, I am mentoring four young farmers. Everything I’ve learned I am passing on to them. When you see people that look like you succeed in farming or in leadership roles in the ag industry, the more you believe you can do it. As a committee, we should be seeking out and advocating for organizations that can scale that support for young minority farmers.”
At Land O’Lakes, we are committed to continuously advocating for our member-owners and providing resources to help create a more inclusive ag industry. As we take intentional steps towards progress, we know our efforts will help build a more resilient ag system and improve outcomes for future generations.