Public/ Private Institutional Partnerships for Regional Food System Organization


In the modern institutional framework, nearly all of the world’s farmers and food businesses experience the effects of global competition and price pressures. Many of the negative effects of large-scale industrial agriculture are left to be remediated through private non-profit organizations or other private efforts, such as market-based eco-labels. While eco-labels draw some academic criticism because they utilize the dominant system to their advantage (Gunderson, 2014; Guthman, 2007), many ecolabels are a conscious attempt to counter the effects of the global marketplace by protecting farmer’s interests, the environment, animal welfare, and/or certain types of foods (Barham, 1997).

However, due to their marketability, alternative food systems and eco-labels face intense competition as well as the pressure to gain economies of scale, which could ultimately defeat their original purposes. At the same time, non-profits are facing increasing funding difficulties, and as a result are offering less programming or are focusing on helping to establish self-sustaining alternative food systems (including eco-labels.) In light of this, the question arises of what institutions are needed to provide the social benefits that will remediate the effects of our food system and bring us to long-term sustainability?

The answer may lie, in part, in consciously designed public-private institutional partnerships such as France’s Label Rouge. This is because in such a system, standards can be codified in the law and public oversight can be provided effectively with a low cost to the government. Also, a brand can be developed that has a strong and unique type of legitimacy due to public/government support. Furthermore, the private side can do most of the “heavy lifting,” provided the system is designed to function well within the marketplace.


Label Rouge eggs in a French supermarket

Overview of Label Rouge

France’s Label Rouge quality label is associated with nearly 500 products including fruits, vegetables, flours, breads, and animal products. Poultry was its flagship product; in the late 1960’s, French poultry farmers worked with the government to create the institutional basis for the Label Rouge program. In order to achieve Label Rouge status, any group must establish a collective entity called a “quality group” to oversee the production of the product. The quality group many times consists of various actors in the value chain, including farmers, farmer cooperatives, processors, feed mills, and hatcheries for the poultry groups. The group must apply for the label by providing a specific plan of production to the government. This plan will detail everything from the genetics that will be used to the space requirements of animals (outdoor and indoor.) It will also detail the product’s processing standards and food safety plan (Westgren, 1999).

To achieve Label Rouge status, a product must prevail in regularly administered consumer taste testing against a standard, which is usually the conventional version of the product. For example, Label Rouge chicken is judged against standard chicken (the type that we typically find in U.S. supermarkets.)

Products sold under the label generally achieve a significant price premium. For example, as a result of its reputation for high quality, Label Rouge poultry products can command nearly twice the price as its conventional counterpart. According to the poultry website (English version here) more than 60% of whole chickens purchased by French households are Label Rouge birds.


Label Rouge chicken is 8.10 Euros/kg here (approx. $4.05/lb, Spring 2015)


Price of conventional chicken is 3.70 Euros/kg in the same store (approx. $1.85/lb, Spring 2015)

This system has obvious interest for those of us working to develop local/regional food systems. Interest in free range, pastured, and non-industrially raised animals is high in the U.S. and is a potential driver for rural economic development. We experience a higher degree of seasonality in Michigan than in France, which creates a challenge for raising year-round outdoor poultry. However, other meats can potentially be raised year round (such as grass fed beef) and the standards and requirements for raising animals could be designed to vary by season, as is the case with certain organic systems (notably dairy.) Also, as the state with the second-highest agricultural diversity, Michigan has plenty of other products that would be good candidates for a public/private quality label program, such as apples, potatoes, flour, breads, and dried fruits, among others. It is also possible that a program for Michigan could be developed that would market seasonality as a strength versus a handicap.

So what are the key aspects of Label Rouge and other similarly organized French models (such as Geographic Indications) that could be transferred to regional food system efforts in the United States? What institutional mechanisms can help to obtain similar outcomes, where high quality, regionally produced products are made available in grocery stores, and farmers are able to retain enough of the revenue to make a decent living? In addition to reviewing the available literature, I went to France in May 2015 to interview knowledgeable industry, government, and academic personnel in order to answer these questions.

One observation about these models is that their standards are effectively codified in the law at various levels. The overall Label Rouge program is codified in the French Rural Code, (see Section L. 641-1), as are the different programs for geographic indications.

IMG_1622For the other levels, the quality group must create the plan of production, as mentioned before. The French government and others, including third party certifiers, work with the quality group to create the standards for a particular product (referred to as the “specification,” e.g. Gers chicken.) In the case of Label Rouge, once the government approves the standards, the specification is actually codified into the law by a formal decree which states the official name of the product. As a result, the specification/product enjoys a particular type of legal protection- this is the second level of codification. Finally, once the specification is codified at the second level, its standards become regulations that the group must follow, which is the third level of official codification.

It is extremely difficult to change these regulations/standards once they are adopted; the relevant authorities are very reluctant to make changes, unless those changes will lead to a product’s higher quality. Cost savings alone is not enough for a change to be approved. In any event, a simple change to one of the standards can take 3 to 10 years to be approved.

The upshot of this is that these French models are extremely resistant to green washing. The standards cannot be chipped away at, and the brand cannot be transferred or sold to a competitor who will cheapen the production using lower cost ingredients or production processes. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happens with many other eco-labels and quality products. This is because their firms (or their brand names) can be acquired by other food system businesses in order to exploit their marketing potential.

Label Rouge Institutional Structure pdf

Pic LR inst strctr

Another observation about the Label Rouge is the low cost, yet effective public oversight of the program. When interviewing several industry and government agents, I was told that the entire Label Rouge program is carried out on the public side with approximately 20 to 30 full time government sector jobs. Considering the enormous amount of business done under the Label Rouge, this is an encouraging fact. The program serves over 64 million people in metropolitan France (Wikipedia population estimate) and has a high recognition rate (up to 94% according to a 2009 study, noted here.)

This leads to the observation that these models may enjoy a valuable type of legitimacy with consumers because of their support and involvement by the government. During my interviews, industry, government, and academic respondents seemed confident that government backing gives the Label Rouge added strength, and several of people I talked to or interviewed noted that they, themselves, trust that the label delivers the high quality, safe products it promises. This is an area where research is needed to establish whether and to what extent public involvement in an eco-label can provide legitimacy with consumers, thereby increasing their marketability.

A final observation with these models is that the private side does most of the work within the competitive marketplace. While there is oversight and approval by the French government and the government owns the Label, the businesses involved in the quality group own all the means of production, manage the day-to-day operations, govern themselves via the quality group, and freely contract with buyers (such as supermarkets) (Menard, 1996). Third party (private) certifiers are used to insure that the standards are kept up; the French government also oversees these certifiers. For Label Rouge, there is competition inside the quality groups (for example, several processors and feed mills might vie for the farmer’s business,) between the quality groups (for example, Gers poultry and Landes poultry compete for the same consumers in the supermarket,) and with other branded labels (the organic label, for example.)

To summarize, public/private partnerships for local and regional food system businesses can provide advantages to consumers and farmers if the proper legal and organizational mechanisms are in place. Standards can be codified and regulated by the government in such a way that they are resistant to green washing, and the brand can develop added legitimacy resulting from the government’s involvement. A program can be designed where effective but relatively inexpensive oversight is provided by the government, while private businesses provide the capital needed for the production, the day-to-day management of the business operations, and the lion’s share of marketing for its products and the program.



Landes bird on the way to the oven


 Barham, Elizabeth. “Social Movements for Sustainable Agriculture in France: A Polanyian Perspective.” Society & Natural Resources 10.3 (1997): 239-49. Link

Gunderson, Ryan. “Problems with the Defetishization Thesis: Ethical Consumerism, Alternative Food Systems, and Commodity Fetishism.” Agriculture and Human Values 31.1 (2014): 109-17. Link

Guthman, Julie. “The Polanyian Way? Voluntary Food Labels as Neoliberal Governance.” Antipode 39.3 (2007): 456-78. Link

Menard, Claude. “On Clusters, Hybrids, and Other Strange Forms: The Case of the French Poultry Industry.” Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics (JITE) / Zeitschrift für die gesamte Staatswissenschaft 152.1 (1996): 154-83. Link

Westgren, Randall E. “Delivering Food Safety, Food Quality, and Sustainable Production Practices: The Label Rouge Poultry System in France.” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 81.5 (1999): 1107-11. Link


Brokering the Middle: Food Hubs Help Small Farmers Access Big Markets


The Big Business of Local Food

Local food is gaining traction in the traditional food supply chain.  Only recently relegated to farmer’s markets and the occasional community supported agriculture program (CSA), local foods are making big waves in grocery stores, restaurants, and more recently, schools and institutions.  Driven by increasing consumer demand, the USDA estimatesfood hub that in 2014, local foods represented an 11.7 billion dollar market.  That market is expected to grow to over 20 billion by 2018.

Consumers, perhaps initially drawn to local food as a trendy buzzword popularized by media food gurus like Michael Pollan and movies like Food Inc., are becoming more sophisticated in their understand and definition of local food.  A recent consumer survey conducted by management consultants, A.T. Kearney, found that in 2015, the percent of people providing a definition of local food is higher than measured in the two previous years.  In addition, definitions were more complex and included concepts of distance, growing practices or processing methods. It’s clear consumers are demanding locally produced foods and that their knowledge and experience with locally produced foods is growing with their demand.

at kearney

*New category in 2015 ** Consumers could pick more than one answer       Source: AT Kearney

Traditionally, local food distribution has occurred primarily via direct to consumer markets like farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs.  At the same time local food demand is growing,  growth in direct to consumer markets is flattening out.  The USDA reports that between 2007 and 2012, the number of farmers engaging in direct to consumer sales increased by 5.5%, while the actual  sales decreased by 1%.  Not every consumer interested in local food may have access to or wish to purchase produce via a direct to consumer outlet.  To get local food into large chain stores where these customers can find the products they are demanding, a new business model is required. Food hubs are that business model.  In contrast to direct to consumer market sales, The USDA reports that local food sales are increasing in intermediated markets, of which food hubs are type.

Small Farms, Big Ideas

In addition to accessing new markets for local food, food hubs primarily work with small and mid-sized farms.  Large scale agriculture systems do not operate on the scale that can effectively produce and distribute locally produced food locally.  Small and mid-sized farms can fill this gap and what’s more, this market has the potential for more lucrative margins than large scale agriculture and can help stabilize the shrinking number of small farms. But, there are some big problems that come when small farms try to service big volume customers like grocery stores.  In addition to large quantities, large volume customers also require truck capacity, refrigeration, packaging and in some cases, processing.  It’s logistical infrastructure which most small farms can’t afford to provide.

While meeting demand on the consumer end, food hubs are filling the logistics gap that keeps small farmers from getting their foot in the door with large volume customers.  In general terms, Food hubs are businesses that actively manage the aggregation and distribution of source identified, local food. The video, “Local Food in Every Cart”, produced by Red Tomato, a large food hub operating in New England is an easy tutorial on how and why food hubs work.


A Kinder, Gentler Distribution System

Food hubs may take many legal structures and may serve direct to consumer, retail, institution or any combination of these three markets.  However, the legal structure and market mix are less important to defining food hubs than what the food hub does.  There is general agreement that food hubs are characterized by similar coordination, partnership, marketing and community activities.


In November 2015, I had the honor of presenting findings from the collaborative research efforts of the Center for Regional Food Systems and The Wallace Center at Winrock International to shed light on the scope and function of food hubs nationwide.  The 2015 National Food Hub Survey along with its predecessor, the 2013 National Food Hub Survey, represent the first longitudinal data available about food hubs.  The 2015 survey, answered by 151 food hubs, contained items about coordination, partnership, marketing and community. Let’s dig a little deeper using this framework and see what makes a food hub a unique food distribution model and how food hubs can be seen, not just as filling a logistical need, but as important agents for food system change.

Just a note before we get going.  I’ll talk a lot about the 2013 and 2015 National Food Hub Survey results.  To make things easier on you and on my poor typing skills, I’ll just refer to them as 2103 and 2015.



My mentor, Rich Pirog told me once that food hubs were like snowflakes- no two are ever alike.  Hundreds of statistically non-significant correlations later this research says, “Yup, Rich was right!”.  Well, he was mostly right.   To be a food hub you, at least, need to put significant effort into bringing food from different producers together (aggregating) and selling that food to different buyers (distributing).  Some hubs have a fleet of box trucks while other take a more hands off approach and act as brokers.  Some food hubs  do all their business online and some have sales reps with territories and farmers and stores to keep happy.  Some are multi-producer CSAs and some serve large grocery stores in a muti-state region.  Regardless,  at a minimum, you have to aggregate and distribute from multiple producers to be a food hub.  

There’s one other thing and this one causes much disagreement over semantics; you have to do it  “locally”.  The USDA defines local or regional as within 400 miles and in the next breath, says there’s no definition.  In 2015 hubs defined local as areas small as within their county or as large as several states; as small as a hundred miles or as many as 400 miles.  Others said within a day’s drive or left it up to the customer to decide what was local enough. Whatever definition is chosen, the agreement between all parties is that the food meets their definition of local.

Food hubs don’t just move fresh produce through the value chain, they also work with locally produced or manufactured value-added  products such as cheese, baked goods, sauces, jellies and in some cases, non-food products like soap.  About one out of five food hubs work with only one category of product like fresh fruit or meat, but most work with multiple product lines and almost of the time that includes fresh produce. Almost half of food hubs carry 6 or more product categories.  From hand-crafted laundry soaps to organic stone ground flour, that’s a grocery store’s worth of variety!  



On the supply side, food hubs have partnerships with both farmers and small businesses that manufacture value added  products. In 2013 and 2015, hubs reported they moved product from an average of 80 businesses.  About a third of 2015 hubs were less than three years old.  That means the number of food hubs is growing fast, but what’s important here is that food hubs that are just getting off the ground tend to have fewer suppliers they work with, so that may explain why the average number of suppliers didn’t change much since 2013.  Hubs that answered in both 2013 and 2015 increased the number of suppliers they work with by 31% in that same two year period.

Nine out of ten hubs get product from farms and ranches.  One in four hubs has their own farm, sometimes called an incubator or teaching farm, from which they get product and train new and existing farmers how to grow more effectively.  That’s important not just because it means more supply for the food hub, but because it helps create a strong, ecologically educated and diverse farming population- that’s a great pro-social goal.  I’ll get to that later!

But, are food hubs benefiting small scale farmers?  Nine out of ten hubs gets all or almost all of their fresh product from farms that make less than $500,000 in sales per year and work day-to-day helping small farmers get access to markets.  Hubs also provide a variety of technical assistance, that their larger, traditional counterparts don’t.  From crop scheduling to helping farmers develop plans to keep crops safe for human consumption, food hubs are bringing it!



Perhaps it is a part of the sense of partnership they have with their suppliers or perhaps it just makes good business sense; food hubs provide a large variety of services to their suppliers.  From on-farm pick up of products (70%) to packaging to meet buyer specifications (59%) to minimal (freeze 22%, cut 17%) or more intensive (can 10%, licensed shared use commercial kitchen 15%) processing, food hubs are investing in their suppliers to build both the suppliers’ and the food hub’s business.  Eight out of ten food hubs provide marketing and promotional services. Two-thirds help with preserving product origin though stickering, etc.

Food safety, a looming issue with the impending changes associated with the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA), is something almost all food hubs are concerned about and almost all worry that suppliers will have a hard time meeting requirements under FSMA.  Most hubs will assist with food safety plans and 43% will help with or offer the most common food safety certification for small farms, Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) training. Food hubs are at the farms, visiting the farmers and providing services and infrastructure to help them succeed.



Most food hubs can be categorized as social enterprises and many are owned by social entrepreneurs.  A social enterprise is a business, of any legal structure, that has both as its core mission and value proposition a pro-social goal or goals.   Earlier, I said that you aren’t a food hub if you don’t operate “locally.”  That particular fact is also the common pro-social goal among all food hubs.  Fischer (2015), in analysis of the 2013 survey said it well:  “Food hubs are, or intend to be, financially viable businesses that demonstrate a significant commitment to place through aggregation and marketing of regional food.” Every food hub representative surveyed in 2013 and 2015 mentioned something akin to this definition in their written mission statements.

Beyond aggregation and distribution, food hubs are engaged in many other activities that demonstrate commitment to place.  Two out of three food hubs worked to increase good environmental or animal welfare production practices, improve community health and/or make sure they paid their employees a fair wage.  Hubs engaged in positive  externalities. That’s the economist’s way of saying in terms of pure profit, there’s not a compelling business reason to be spending time and resources on such activities.   For example, it’s cheaper to throw out unsold produce rather than sort it, repack it, and use your trucks and staff to drive it over to a food bank. But, 83% of food hubs do just that.  Seventy nine percent work to provide education about community food systems issues. Half offer nutrition or cooking education and 6% offer health screenings.

In every domain, I’ve given examples of how food hubs are very different from traditional supply or value chains.   In fact, many use “values chain” to describe both how food hubs add financial and social value to the troubled food system.

Multiple Models

While food hubs share many similarities they can be very different operationally and structurally.  In these videos, two hubs, both in Michigan and both very different from each other, are highlighted. Allen Marketplace Exchange Food Hub is a new extension of the Allen Neighborhood Center.  The Allen Neighborhood Center already had an existing farmers market and CSA when they decided to add an online exchange for restaurants and institutions to purchase large quantities and a licensed commercial incubator kitchen.

In contrast to the overarching non-profit structure in which the Exchange exists, for-profit  Cherry Capitol Foods in Traverse City, at first glance, resembles a very traditional small food distribution business.  But, in true food hub fashion Cherry Capitol shows a strong hands-on commitment to famers and the local community.


Imagining Impact

So, here’s where I’m going to get a little cautiously creative with the numbers.  That’s something an academic expected to publish doesn’t get to do all that much.  Because food hubs are a new business model and because they are self identified, no one is really sure how many food hubs there are in the United States and that causes some statistical problems making inferences about all food hubs based on the results of any survey.  Experts are pretty sure there is at least 350 in the United States.  So, for illustrative purposes only, I’ll to use this number to try to get some perspective on the total impact of food hubs.

If there are 350 food hubs in the United States then food hubs might expect to…

  • Generate over 1 billion in revenue
  • Employ over 4,200 full and part-time individuals
  • Help about 28,000 farms and other suppliers find markets for their product
  • Contribute to the social and environmental well-being of 350 communities

Last, but not least, is an obviously critical piece for food hubs to be long term business and social solution.  They have to stay in business.  That means they have to make enough to pay the bills.  Even if including new hubs and heavily grant funded hubs, 3 out of 4 hubs are breaking even or better.  From 2013 to 2015, hubs, on average, went from losing money to making a profit.  Same hub comparison between the years show the most dramatic and certain results.  These hubs went from an average 4% profit in 2013 to an average 16% profit in 2015.

Final Thoughts

Questions still remain.  What makes a food hub profitable?  Can social goals fit, long term, with financial goals; particularly when any grant funding runs out?  Food hubs agreed that with increasing demand for local RT+farmstandfood will come increasing competition.  Can food hubs keep a competitive advantage as farmers try their hand at selling direct and other bigger players try to get in on the local action?

Certainly, food hubs are not a panacea for all the ills of the food system. Nor are they the only trajectory for scaling up local and regional food.  But, for now, food hubs, are receiving a lot of attention from government, non-profits and savvy social entrepreneurs.  The attention is warranted.   These flexible evolving social enterprises are making “growing” impacts on the status quo of the conventional food system.



All sources not listed here are available through hyperlink within the article and on the resources page.

Fisher, Micaela, Rich Pirog and Michael W. Hamm (2015) Food Hubs: Definitions, Expectations, and Realities, Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 10:1, 92-99.



It’s Not Just a Man’s World Anymore: Women on the Rise in the American Agriculture Narrative

By Allyssa Merwin

In the sphere of agriculture and farming a domestic and a public sphere has and continues to exist. This perpetuates the presence of one gender over the other. For the traditional American homestead, women were the leaders in the domestic sphere and the men were the leaders in the public sphere. Men historically and currently are the face of farming. If one were to go into a kindergarten classroom and ask the students what a farmer looks like, the overwhelming majority of children would describe someone along the lines of a tall white man in overalls (a stereotypical Old McDonald). However, agriculture is progressing in many ways, including gender roles. With climate change being a prevalent topic on the global minds of both agricultural producers and politicians alike, buzz words such as sustainable, subsistence, and resilience are now being tagged onto farming. How are we, the world, going to change farming practices to combat climate change and global warming while still feeding the projected 9.7 billion? Women all across the planet have stepped up and assumed these roles, yet the United States falls behind developing country. Why? The United States desperately need a next generation of farmers, younger adults have experienced barriers breaking into and staying a viable part of the farming industry. Those who experience these barriers the most are women, specifically women of color.


Girls. We Run This – The Quick and Dirty History of European Women in American Agriculture:

For centuries, men have been the farmers and women the wives of farmers. Not until 1900 were women given a label on the farm and termed farmer’s wives or farm wife. These titles, though not always showing up on U.S Census information, are weighted with untold histories. This continued until the 1960s Women’s Rights movement and the creation of Women’s Studies higher education disciplines. Today’s farming landscape, no pun intended, is made up of women from all walks of life, with all different perspectives on the future of agriculture.

Women’s roles in agriculture in the United States of America are believed to begin with the first humans crossing the Pacific Ocean by either the Bering Straight or by boat from the western many islands. Native Americans created a culture of equality between gender roles where turns where taken in planting, growing, harvesting and finally collecting the seeds for the next season (Diamond, pg 138). Some archeologists will argue that this form of farming is not farming in a modern sense at all and just subsistence living. Though an argument I disagree with because it is highly Eurocentric, for argument’s sake and to move along, we will begin with the influx of European settlers in the British colonies of the Americas.

With the expansion of the British Empire in the colonies, the majority of people coming over to America and staying in the colonies were indentured servants. Of these indentured servants, most of them were men. When women did survive the three-month crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, because of their scarcity, if they were not indentured servants themselves, they were quickly married off. Once married, women were expected to help run the household, within the confines of their gender roles and domestic sphere (Zinn, pg 84). This help would range from anything from raising and caring the livestock and tending to the subsistence gardening. These activities would take place both in town limits, as well as in the wilds of the New World. Besides the disease, childbirth and the complications after was the biggest killer women had to battle. As European settlers expanded across the continent, women’s roles did not change vastly until the Industrial Revolution, as did the solidification of gender roles on the farm.

Before the Industrial Revolution, women were expected to fulfill certain roles, like caretaker, healer and mother. The sheer lack of European women in the colonies and frontier resulted in the sharing of roles and responsibilities throughout the rest of the homestead. Both men and women planted, maintained crops, and harvested at the end of the season. They canned food together, butchered and preserved animal meat together, all in the name of survival and rarely for profit (Lawrence, 2009).

When the Industrial Revolution took hold in the New World, the colonies had been their own sovereign nation for forty plus years. The point of the agricultural application of the Industrial Revolution was two pronged. Farming equipment was invented to help farmers compete for profit with larger plantations and also allow plantations to keep up with the work, as transporting new slaves from Africa was illegal in 1807 and beyond. Plantations fueled by cotton and sugar cane demand in Europe would have easily folded without the invention of machinery like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. Men were driving cotton gins and plow systems and women were not expected to, thus gender roles on the farm were solidified. These roles were not challenged in open air until the 1960s with the Women’s Rights Movement.

Before the Women’s Rights Movement, women born into the world of homesteading

and farming were expected to fulfill one role, a farmer’s wife and never a farmer. If they wanted to be anything else, they would have to seek education in the cities of the United States, typically in an area not directly associated with Agriculture. Farming and all things related were a man’s world and women would not and could not possibly be taken seriously in this arena. The Women’s Rights Movement helped open new doors for education and shared responsibilities for both men and women who were born into a farming family or those who sought out farming from other walks of life (Brasier, et all, 2014).

Sharon Steffens and Pat Cohill, members of Women for the Survival of Agriculture in Michigan recently penned their thoughts on women in agriculture pre-1960s:

“Beset with many serious problems, American Agriculture, as a fragmented industry, lacked a single voice through which to speak to bring about effective change. Many felt agriculture needed to develop a voice to speak for the entire industry. Women were to play an important role in developing a united voice for agriculture.”

The biggest victory for women in agriculture came with the Love v. Vilsack federal court case ruling. Filed back in October 2000, it took over 15 years for the women represented to prove that the United States Department of Agriculture took an active role in the discrimination against women in the agriculture industry in the form of denying them farm loans to begin or sustain their farming practice. The court ruling has allowed all women in the United States better access to resources need to get their feet of the ground.

Today, women are making history in the agricultural world. More women are leading in the research field as well as the fields. There are all women run organizations whose mission is specifically designed to support women in agriculture (see Farming Equity section). Minority women are gaining a voice in the agricultural world academically, politically and economically. It is good to be a woman farmer in 2015. However there are still hurdles to overcome. In 2007, women were operators of 30% of all the land designated as agricultural and 14% of all farmers were women who classified themselves as principle operators (typically both owners and operators). The 2012 census shows a decline in both areas by 1% and 4%, respectfully. Thought these look like major setbacks, the United States Department of Agriculture has created programs to cultivate opportunities in farming for women. These grants and programs directly target those most marginalized by American societies, not only women, but also women of color. Only time will tell if these programs will help boost economic growth for women farmers.


gardenPhoto by the author 

Mind the Gap! Ending the Inequity of Women of Color in Agriculture and beyond:

There have been many victories for women and women in agriculture in the United States, but those who feel these victories the least are women of color. African American women especially have a difficult time embracing farming due to one major event that haunts the United States to this day, slavery. This mental reflex does occur primarily in the Deep South where racial undertones simmer just under the surface of daily life. The tendency to distance oneself from agriculture can also be found in children of immigrant farm workers.

The ghost of slavery and subhuman working conditions still found in the agricultural fields make those who are already marginalized American citizens find farming less than desirable. However, there are now community-led efforts finding footing in Southern societies of color, led primarily by women (Ammons, 2014).


Food has always had its way of crossing social, economic, racial, and religious boundaries. The heritage of food in Southern culture, specifically African American and Hispanic culture, is by far the strongest in the United States. Tapping into that sense of self and identity, community-based organizations are bringing a resurgence of young women of color to Agriculture. Though these organizations are helping women of color create equitable and profitable careers in farming and agriculture, African American women trail Hispanic and White women farmers with just over 46,500 farms operated compared to 99,734and 288,264 respectfully. There is still along way to go to increase access and sustainability for all women.

Fighting the Good Fight- Who is Spearheading the Change for Farming Equity?

Though we are strong and independent, women cannot go it alone in the world of agriculture. Support systems off all shapes and sizes have been invented and have evolved to help women who have inherited farm ownership to those who are just starting out.

American Agri-Women

American Agri-Women is a large coalition of organizations supporting women in all areas of agriculture. There primary focus is on collective advocacy of women’s rights in agriculture. They are a national organization hoping to foster the next generation of women in all areas of farming, ranching and research.

Land Loss Protection, Inc.

Land Loss Protection, Inc is a grass roots organization based in North Carolina. These groups of lawyers focus on the prevention of the loss of land owned by famers of color through policy advocacy and legal technical assistance. Mainly supporting African American communities, Executive Director and founding member, Savi Horne describes the passion behind LLP’s mission here.

Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS)

The Center for Environmental Farming Systems is a combined effort from North Carolina State University and North Carolina Agricultural & Technological State University. They focus on four primary areas: sustainability and heath, economic security, community engagement and extension and outreach. CEFS does this all through a racial equity lens in hope of prompting the next generation of farmers in marginalized communities emphasizing the growth of women of color in all sectors agricultural industries but specifically sustainable agriculture.

Farmworkers Association of Florida

Farmworkers Association of Florida is a prevailing non-profit organization that provides support and technical assistance for a number key issues migrant farm workers face in the fields and in their homes. In the realm of women, Farmworkers Association of Florida provides pre-partum and post partum help for farmworkers by partnering with free women’s health clinics who do not require U.S identification to be admitted. The ability for pregnant women and new mothers to seek medical care and support has vastly increased the mother and child’s overall health and well-being. In addition to the clinics, Farmworkers Association of Florida have partnered with The University of Central Florida and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida to track how the pregnant body coups with constant exposure to pesticides and what it does to the unborn child. This study has directly helped curb pesticide and herbicide usage and human exposure while in the greenhouses and fields of Florida.

National Women in Agriculture Association

The National Women in Agriculture Association is a fairly new organization that primarily focuses grass roots outreach programs design to strengthen women in agriculture as well as the diversity of American Agriculture. They support a wide variety of areas in agriculture. Some of the areas include urban agriculture, master gardener, nutrition and livestock rising.

What’s Next? – Conclusion:

In order for people to live, we must eat. In order for us to eat, we must grow food. By 2050 the world will reach 9.7 billion people and current agricultural practices and farmer populations will not be able to sustain such a large number. Opening the door for every one in the United States, and beyond, if they desire to be able to successfully be a part of the agricultural industry is key. Women all over the U.S. are breaking down barriers for fellow women and future generations to be a pivotal part of farming and agriculture. With pressure from organizations, key policies are being enacted to insure equity among all women in farming to have a fair chance at making a profitable and sustainable career.

Works Cited:
Brasier, Kathryn J., et al. “Capturing the Multiple and Shifting Identities of Farm Women in the Northeastern United States.” Rural Sociology 79.3 (2014): 283-309.

Brown, Minnie Miller. “Black Women in American Agriculture”. Agricultural History 50.1 (1976): 202–212.

Lawrence, Deborah. Writing the Trail: Five Women’s Frontier Narratives. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006;2009;.

Rotman Deborah. “Separate Spheres? Beyond the Dichotomies of Domesticity”. Current Anthropology, Vol. 47, No. 4 (August 2006), pp. 666-674

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.