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40-Acre Co-op, Big River Farms offer more opportunities for state’s emerging farmers

40-Acre Co-op offers farmers from socially disadvantaged backgrounds support and resources to succeed in the field, while Big River Farms is an incubator farm near where farmers have access to land, farm resources and education to build their businesses.

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Patrice Bailey moderates a discussion with Angela Dawson, Reginaldo Haslett-Maroquin and KaZoua Berry at the Ag & Food Summit hosted by AgriGrowth on Nov. 10, 2022.
Noah Fish / Agweek
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ST. PAUL, Minn. — In recent years there’s been a concerted effort by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and other organizations to reach and support the state’s emerging farmers. Groups like 40-Acre Co-op and Big River Farms are making that dream of earning equity through farming a better possibility for farmers facing barriers.

According to the Emerging Farmers in Minnesota Legislative Report , the word “emerging” refers to something that is starting to exist, or something which is just beginning to be noticed.

“In this regard, Emerging Farmers encompasses both those individuals who are entirely new to farming as well as those individuals who have been farming for generations but were outside the scope of traditional state and Federal agricultural support programs,” reads the report.

Some innovators and leaders of the emerging farmers movement were given the chance to share their stories during the panel titled Reimagine MN Agriculture’s Production at the Agrigrowth Ag and Food Summit on Nov. 10.

Patrice Bailey, an assistant commissioner with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said to this day, one of the main questions he always gets is who are emerging farmers.

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“One of the answers I always have is that the emerging farmers in the state are the ones that you don't see every day,” said Bailey, including the ones in the earlier stages of beginning their operations. “I’m talking about women entrepreneurs, people of color, Indigenous, those with disabilities and you have the LGBTQIA.”

Bailey acknowledged at the Agrigrowth Ag and Food Summit that there weren’t many of those people in the room.

40-Acre Co-op

Angela Dawson, who farms on land near Sandstone, Minnesota, is the founder and CEO of 40-Acre Co-op . The cooperative, which currently has 35 active members, offers farmers from socially disadvantaged backgrounds support and resources to succeed in the field.

In the mid-1970s, Dawson’s father’s family lost their farm in southern Iowa after falling into debt on the rented land.

“I myself am a fourth generation farmer, meaning that farming has been in my family for multiple generations — five, if you count my slave ancestors,” said Dawson. “My family has been actively farming in the upper Midwest, and I'm the first one to reclaim that legacy, so it's been challenging, but also really rewarding. I tell people that I didn't choose to be a farmer, that farming chose me.”

She started 40-Acre Co-op — the first national black farmer co-op since the reconstruction era in the U.S. — three and a half years ago, after finding multiple barriers to entering the market herself as an organic vegetable grower.

“Right now we're focusing on hemp as our primary crop that we're developing, and we're looking to expand more into other areas,” said Dawson.

Dawson said the cooperative model helps level the playing field for farmers and keeps producers alive and thriving through cooperation with other producers.

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“Our co-op provides increased market power to everyone involved, and it pools the risks across everyone instead of putting it all on one individual,” said Dawson.

Big River Farms

KaZoua Berry is farm director at Big River Farms, a program of the Food Group of MN, which addresses issues in hunger relief, food insecurity and resources for sourcing and growing local food.

Berry said that the term emerging farmers doesn’t mean just farmers who are fresh to the industry.

“The concept of emerging farmers does not mean that we are a group of farmers who don't have farming experience,” said Berry. “We are farmers who have much experience, much legacy, professionalism, skill and education, but we lack the imminent resources in order for us to find the way that they need to.”

Big River Farms is an incubator farm near Marine on St. Croix, Minnesota, where farmers have access to land, farm resources and education to build their businesses, learn, and grow sustainable and organic foods. Berry said the incubator farm has 18 farmers this year.

“We do land-based education, where they have an allocation of up to an acre to farm on, and then we help them build their businesses,” said Berry of Big River Farms. “And the unique thing about our program is that we provide interpretation and culturally relevant education as well as resources.”

Berry is also a farmer, and farms with her husband for an operation called Lifestyle Wok. She said as an immigrant who’s been in the U.S. a long time, she’s still not used to the cold winters.

“One thing that we do at our incubator training program is that we teach farmers how to grow seasonality, according to our short seasons that we have here,” said Berry.

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She said that farming for her and other producers is a lifestyle choice that will never get you rich, but it’s a way to pass down a legacy to the next generation, if they choose to pursue it.

“My parents were farmers, and they were always just farming for other people, but they never had any equity in farming,” said Berry. “And that's something I want to teach my children as they continue to grow, is that equity is beyond just making money, and having money in your bank account — it’s actually owning something.”

“While I'm still dreaming of that dream, I am working my way to help farmers so that they can become vendors, they can have their own equity and ownership,” said Berry.

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast. He covers a wide range of farmers and agribusinesses throughout Minnesota and surrounding states. He can be reached at nfish@agweek.com

He reports out of Rochester, MN, where he lives with his wife, Kara, and their polite cat, Zena. He grew up in La Crosse, WI, and enjoys the talent from his home state like the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers and Grammy award-winning musicians Justin Vernon and Al Jarreau.
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