This week, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) officially announced their hiring of the new Farm Equity Advisor (FEA), a position now filled by Thea Rittenhouse. The creation of this position was one of the main pieces included in the Farmer Equity Act of 2017 (AB 1348) — legislation proposed by the farmer and farmer-advocate group, the California Farmer Justice Collaborative (CFJC).
As the threat of climate change sits at the forefront of our collective attention, sustainability has become a necessity for responsible action. The movement for farmer equity in California expands the dialogue beyond the usual environmental concerns, and ties in the intersections of socio-political and economic justice as well.
Equity in farming
Farmer equity means building justice for the farmers of color who have and continue to be systematically blocked from opportunities that their white neighbors have access to. This reality is a result of the historical implementation of racially targeted policies and practices, including the denial of access to land, credit, grant funding, and other resources for farmers of color. As a result, California’s farming system today features a disproportionate distribution of wealth between farmers from marginalized communities versus white farmers — as seen in the difference in number of farms, farm size, land ownership, market value of products sold, and government payments.*
These disparities and their effects are now being addressed via the implementation of the Farmer Equity Act. The legislation formally defines “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers” as farmers and ranchers who belong to a group that has been “subjected to racial, ethnic, or gender prejudice.” This public and legal acknowledgement is an incremental step toward rebuilding a just farming economy.
The Farm Equity Advisor’s job
Thea Rittenhouse, new Farm Equity Advisor, will play the important role of serving the needs of historically underserved farmers and ranchers. An anchor for justice, the Advisor will hold the agency accountable for centering equity in all aspects of its work. This includes building a racial equity assessment protocol within the agency to be used when establishing regulations, internal policies, and programmatic goals. The work also involves effectively coordinating with other local, state, and federal agencies to highlight opportunities that support historically underserved farmers, and modifying the agency’s outreach strategies to better reach and communicate with these communities. By 2020, the Advisor will have to present a report to California’s Governor and legislature on steps being taken within the agency and recommendations for further action.
Next steps for farm equity
The Advisor will function as a liaison between the work of the agency and the input of the on-the-ground farmer population. Listening to the needs of the farmers of color of California and their already-established organizations and networks will bring CDFA more understanding to both the hardships and solutions proposed by voices who have and continue to live through agricultural systems of inequity. This relationship building must always show up with mindful cultural competency at the forefront, and bi/multilingualism to connect. Further, the Advisor must be able to examine CDFA with a critical eye, offer solutions for establishing a more equitable agency, and then translate those solutions to the diverse California agricultural community.
The California Farmer Justice Collaborative is excited to collaborate with Thea Rittenhouse, CDFA’s Farm Equity Advisor. As a community, we must be vigilant about the progress being made in the fields of farmer justice in California. We must keep CDFA accountable to the needs of our diverse farming communities; the sustainability of our holistic food and farming system depends on it.
*Spitler, B. (2018). Growing Inclusion at the California Department of Food and Agriculture: Implementation of the Farmer Equity Act of 2017. Berkeley, CA.