by: Hannah Whitley
Since mid-August of 2017, my life has revolved around being a graduate student. My daily schedule is typically dictated by three-hour seminars, meetings with my advisor, research assistantship team, activist and student organizations. During the spring of 2020, I planned to share findings from my recently defended Master’s thesis at several sustainable food and urban agriculture conferences. The participatory action research project I coordinated, The Female Farmer Photovoice Project, was slated for exhibition at four events in three different states. There were even talks of creating “Exhibition 2.0” with several farmers, gardeners, activists, and agricultural educators who took part in the project the prior year. My activist research was gaining momentum, and I felt confident in my identity as a budding scholar of gender and agriculture.
In mid-March of 2020, however, all plans were halted, and my confidence quickly shifted, ironically, not because of the rapidly growing COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, my paternal grandmother, Cheryl Whitley, with whom I was very close, was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis, given a few weeks to live, and was placed in at-home hospice.
Within two days of learning of my grandma’s diagnosis, I was back at my family’s cattle ranch in my rural southwestern Oregon hometown, a 20-minute drive from the Pacific Ocean. Piles of books needed for my ongoing virtual graduate seminars, upcoming PhD qualifying exam, and research assistantship were strewn about the floor of my childhood bedroom. I tried to make a living in a house with seven family members my “new normal.” In addition to helping care for my niece, Jessa (6 months), and nephew, Josiah (two-and-a-half years), I began to help with my grandma’s end-of-life care. I tried to grieve and keep up with the laundry, dishes, cleaning, and cooking for nine people amid a global pandemic while simultaneously taking three graduate classes in a different time zone. The next four weeks were the most stressful of my life and passed very quickly. My grandma soon died in her sleep on the morning of April 26.
Since mid-March, I have been far removed from academic life, both psychologically and physically, as I chose to stay with my family in Oregon until my graduate coursework begins again in August. As a result, I have become out-of-touch with my academic colleagues and former research participants – many of whom I consider to be good friends. I am slowly bringing myself back to work and have begun positing the practical needs, potential solutions, and policy recommendations wanted by historically underserved urban agriculturalists during this lethal pandemic and historic revolution. My insight comes largely from observations of email listserv exchanges and social media accounts from Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) farms, gardens, education coalitions, and service providers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
COVID-19 has and continues to cause significant impacts across the entirety of the U.S. food and agriculture system, and urban farmers and growers have not been left unaffected. Lack of access to and tenure on land, limited access to and control over capital and resources, restricted knowledge of technical and business skills, and isolation are realities of particular concern for historically underserved urban farmers and growers during the pandemic.
Finding viable production plots, locating scarce financial and natural resources, navigating institutional bureaucracy, accessing culturally appropriate mentors, and connecting with other marginalized urban agriculturalists were challenging endeavors before the novel coronavirus. Access to resources and community was facilitated through systems of neighborhood, philanthropic, non-governmental, governmental, university, and faith community support. Now, in the wake of slashed budgets, an uncertain economic future, mandatory social distancing, and shelter-in-place measures, urban farmers and growers are faced with short- and long-term disruptions to their farms, gardens, and food systems. Support organizations must continue to offer their education and networking programs in digital form, as access to already scarce resources and human connections are needed during this uncertain time.
Policymakers, philanthropic organizations, and grassroots movements must continue to develop and advocate for policy solutions to include urban agriculture in any pandemic-related emergency legislative packages. The USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program intends to provide $545 million in direct payments to nearly 36,000 farmers and ranchers who have suffered a five percent or greater price decline due to COVID-19. There is a payment limit of $250,000 per applicant, but applicants who are corporations may qualify for more money.
The USDA must reach out directly to historically underserved farmers and growers to inform them of available funding and offer support in the application process. Moreover, the USDA needs to carve out designations for BIPOC farmers, who have historically been unable to access these funds. The program is being administered through local offices of the Farm Services Agency (FSA), which is the wing of the USDA that handles loans and credits. Many BIPOC farmers and growers distrust their local FSA offices after decades of discriminatory loan practices; some farmers from underserved communities simply do not have a relationship with the FSA office due to language barriers, limited transportation, and other obstacles. The fact that applications for the program go through local FSA offices is a barrier in itself.
Furthermore, the challenges the COVID-19 outbreak is posing to BIPOC communities exemplify the need for collective food sovereignty. Leah Pennamin, a Black farmer, food sovereignty advocate, Co-Director and Farm Manager of Soul Fire Farm, writes that “Before, during, and after the outbreak, food apartheid disproportionately impacts BIPOC communities who also face higher vulnerability to COVID-19.” This pandemic is presenting more challenges to food access for vulnerable communities – both rural and urban. Though gender and agriculture researchers face immediate limitations for face-to-face social science research, future scholarship must situate urban agriculture, COVID-19, and the movement for Black lives within contemporary calls for a focus on the intersectional issues which lie at the core of social justice in agriculture.
Pennamin, Leah. (2020). “Love notes – Defending Black life, seeding hope, and decomposing racism.” Retreived June 28, 2020 from https://www.soulfirefarm.org/love-notes-defending-black-life-seeding-hope-and-decomposing-racism/.
“Connecting With The Land” (Header Image) © Dana Harris-Yates 2019 | The Female Farmer Photovoice Project, IFAA Member horticulture educator for our children, young adults, and elders.
“Flower Lady Under the Flower Tree” © NaTisha Washington 2019 | The Female Farmer Photovoice Project, Ms. Savage is a long-term gardener in Homewood and this is her lot’s beautiful Magnolia tree.
“Resiliency of the Human Spirit” © Celeste Taylor 2019 | The Female Farmer Photovoice Project
Hannah Whitley (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education at Penn State. Her Master’s work explores how socially constructed identities complicate barriers and opportunities for agriculturalists and connect to broader institutional inequities that perpetuate these problems. To learn more about Hannah’s thesis, visit www.thefemalefarmerphotovoiceproject.org.