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Oregon agriculture seeks to provide equal opportunity

Percentage of minority farmers grows slowly despite outreach efforts

The vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. included equality of all races when it came to pursuing a dream. Everyone should be free to seek the profession of their choice, including farming. Even though there are opportunities today for all racial or ethnic minorities, relatively few have made that choice. Only about three percent of Oregon’s 38,553 farm operators are classified as something other than white. The reasons for the low percentage can be traced to the nation’s past when it was especially difficult for minorities to own and operate a farm or ranch.

“Agriculture today is hopefully a color blind industry in our state, providing an equal opportunity for all who wish to work the land,” says Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

As the nation celebrates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this year, it should be noted that the low percentage of African-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and Asian-Americans farming in Oregon doesn’t necessarily have to stay that way.

The latest Census of Agriculture reports only 80 black farm operators in Oregon, but that’s up from 47 a decade ago. That represents about two-tenths of a percent of all operators in Oregon. Nationwide, there are just 30,599 blacks operators out of the more than 2.2 million US farms. That is about 1.4 percent. Southern states report the highest number of black farmers with Texas and Mississippi each recording 8,400 and 6,700 black operators respectively. The Pacific Northwest historically has not been home for black farmers and ranchers, with only 90 residing in Washington and 21 in Idaho.

Many of the reasons for Oregon’s relatively low percentage of African-American farm operators can be traced back to before and after statehood in the mid-1800s.

“Oregon was settled in the generation that created the Civil War in American history,” says Darrell Millner, professor of black studies at Portland State University. “Between 1840 and 1860, when most of the pioneers came across the Oregon Trail, many of the people came west trying to escape some of the problems and difficulties of the Eastern racial experience. When they got here, one of the things they tried to do to avoid those same kinds of problems was to create a mono-cultural society– basically create a white homeland. Some of the early legislation and political activities of American settlers in Oregon simply tried to exclude blacks from the Oregon experience. Agriculture, in the form of the Homestead Act of 1850, was a very big part of that.”

Exclusion laws in early Oregon didn’t allow blacks to homestead. With no ability to claim land as their own, farming wasn’t an option for 19th Century black settlers. By the 20th Century, more opportunities for blacks existed in urban areas where the railroad industry was centered. Many blacks who came to Oregon at that time worked for the railroad. The pattern continued right up to the 1940s. As more blacks came to Oregon, they were attracted to those areas where the ethnic group already lived– the cities.

“Many Oregon farmers today can be traced to the homesteading experience and a kind of generational inheritance,” says Millner. “But that doesn’t explain the whole reason for such a small number of blacks in agricultural professions today.”

Nowadays, of course, any ethnic group with the financial ability to own land can farm. However, that is exactly one of the problems, according to Millner.

“A lot simply has to do with the factors that impact any person who seeks to be a farmer today– economic reasons,” he says. “Agriculture often demands a good deal of economic investment.”

Financial assistance programs are now available to minorities who want to farm in Oregon. Under the Socially Disadvantaged Applicants Program, the US Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) specifically earmarks federal funds for ethnic minorities and females who need help in purchasing land for farming and who need to pay for operational expenses.

“This program is specifically designed to provide opportunities for blacks and other minorities to begin new farming operations, maintain existing ones, and acquire ownership of farm land,” says Lynn Voigt, FSA state executive director in Oregon. “This set-aside of funds is established solely for the benefit of minorities and women. We are very proud that over the past several years, 40 to 45 percent of the dollars FSA has loaned in Oregon has been for women and minority operators.”

Another federal program, announced this week by US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, helps small and family operations as well as beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers secure loans under $35,000. The new microloan program aims to bolster the progress of producers through their start-up years. It certainly could help minority farmers who are having difficulty making the financial investment needed to enter the profession.

There are other racial and ethnic minorities listed by the 2007 Census showing some interesting numbers in Oregon. Due to some extensive outreach by census takers, the number of American Indian farm operators is more accurate and shows a tremendous jump over the 2002 statistics. In 2007, there were 1,391 American Indian farm operators in Oregon compared to just 623 in 2002. There was a little bit of growth in the number of Asian-American operators, with 506 in 2007 compared to 429 in 2002.  There was actually a drop in Hispanic or Latino operators in Oregon, with 1,330 in 2007 compared to 1,612 in 2002 despite the fact that Hispanics represent the fastest growing group in the state's general population.

The upcoming holiday, however, is a time for some to reflect on history.

“You’d think there would be more blacks and other minorities involved in Oregon agriculture,” says PSU’s Millner. “But  those historic circumstances of not being able to own land and today’s economic factors have combined to produce that small number.”

For more information, contact Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559

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