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USDA awards $3.25M grant aimed at empowering Black farmers in Prince George’s County

Gale Livingstone said she hopes the USDA grant won by Prince George's County helps correct historical wrongs directed at Black farmers by enabling more farmers like herself to thrive. (7News){p}{/p}
Gale Livingstone said she hopes the USDA grant won by Prince George's County helps correct historical wrongs directed at Black farmers by enabling more farmers like herself to thrive. (7News)

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Even though Black History Month is coming to an end, Black farmers in Prince George's County are doing what they can to continue making their mark despite their historical challenges.

Gale Livingstone has found success in her career field, which happens to be a sprawling field in Upper Marlboro, Md.

Livingstone is the owner and operator of Deep Roots Farm, where on a daily basis she beats the sun when she wakes up and tends to her chickens, crops and land. She has planted the seeds for her summer crops even as she continues harvesting her winter crops, including lush greens like spinach, kale and mustard greens.

"One of the reasons that I farm is so I can feed the community," Livingstone said. "In our community --- [a] community of color ---- there tends to be a systemic number of individuals with health issues. A lot of those health issues are directly related to the food we consume or don't consume."

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And now, she is hoping a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant will enable her to feed even more people from her community.

Prince George's County recently won a $3.25 million grant from the USDA geared toward sustainable farming practices and helping minority farmers get funding. This grant will last three years, with a year-long process to get money to farmers.

"What we need to be concerned about with this funding is to make sure smaller farms, minority farmers, are truly getting the financial support they need," Livingstone said. "Having this funding source available, I think, is going to give a boost to those small group of individuals who are just trying to get started and they don't have the financial resources, they don't have the experience to qualify for the loans. Having those funds will give them a solid base to get their operations up and running."

Livingstone said "it is virtually impossible" for small farmers to get started without some form of financial help.

The grant will provide up to $50,000 for current farmers and $100,000 for people who are not yet farmers but want to start one focused on climate-centric practices. At least $2.25 million of the grant will go directly to farmers, with the remaining money used to help the county set up its program.

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Kim Rush Lynch is the Prince George's County Soil Conservation District Urban Agricultural Conservation Planner, and she said the money could plant the seeds of change for so many Black and minority farmers looking to increase their footprint in the county and state.

"We want to continue supporting those farmers, but we also want to be able to attract new farmers and new farmers from historically underserved populations get into the field," Rush Lynch said. "They need land and they need initial funding and infrastructure. It's expensive to put in fencing. If you need a well, it's very expensive. There are USDA programs that assist with that, but with everything, there's a timeframe, and sometimes logistics don't always match up with our farmers."

For Livingstone, this grant is about more than the money.

She said it could go a long way to right the historical wrongs directed at Black farmers, who have been on the receiving end of bad harvests due to policies directed toward them.

According to the American Economic Association Papers and Proceedings, Black farmers have lost at least 90% of their land since 1910, which is about $326 billion worth, due to discriminatory lending practices and forced sale of land.

Census data shows this led to the number of Black farmers across the country dropping from 746,715 in the year 1900 to 18,451 in 1997.

"There were times in this country when the majority of people growing food were people of color," Livingstone said. "The number of farms that were lost to families of color is astronomical. Right now, we're making baby steps trying to reclaim land that was stolen, that was lost due to unfair practices in lending and financial support by various agencies, but it's a matter of: how fast can we reclaim that if the support system is not there?"

Prince George's County leaders are trying to help more Black farmers sprout with this grant money. Currently, there are 277 Black farmers in the entire state of Maryland. Of those, 86 are in Prince George's County.

However, this process goes well beyond the farm.

Livingstone said if she is better able to grow more crops, she is better able to meet her customers where they are, culinarily speaking.

"There are some traditional crops that folks grow, I'll say ethnic crops that we grow, for our community that you don't find a lot of conventional farmers growing: the collard greens, the mustard greens, the turnip greens, the okra, the long beans, the bitter melon, a lot of those crops that are very ethnic-based. They're not as, in some people's minds, financially stable because they don't yield [a] higher return or higher dollar value. But there's a diverse group of people living in Prince George's County. I think one of the biggest things is getting the word out, letting folks know, 'Hey, you can buy these items here locally and it's going to be a lot better because it's being grown right here in your backyard,'" Livingstone said.

The process continues from the farm to the market.

Ashley Drakeford is the market organizer and coordinator of The Capital Market, a blossoming farmer's market that runs from June to October in Capitol Heights and Suitland. She said grants like this will help her and other markets address the problem of food deserts, which are communities with limited access to healthy food at affordable prices.

"One of the reasons we started The Capital Market was specifically for that reason. Because neighbors had an issue really having access to fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables," Drakeford said. "Prince George's County has always been an agricultural county, but a lot of people don't know that. Being able to have a market in Suitland and Capitol Heights, and have people understand directly where their food is coming from ---not 100 miles, not 500 miles, not strawberries coming from across the country. That direct link to be able to say, 'I know my farmer in my backyard and I can touch them,' and just understand more about how they're growing their food is very impactful for our community."

"It's a diverse group of farmers. We work with farmers who are Haitian, farmers that are maybe Jamaican or West African. They are growing produce or other items the grocery store doesn't sell," added Drakeford.

To further help matters, Drakeford said the market partners with Maryland Market Money, which allows residents to utilize federal food benefits, like SNAP, at The Capital Market.

She said she believes the grant money will indirectly help the market.

"This grant is going to mean a lot for our farmers we work with, but also the people in our community purchasing their fresh fruits and vegetables," Drakeford said. "They have to go outside of the county to be able to really reach the market. A lot of the reason they're growing food is to serve their community, to serve people that look like them, to serve communities that may not have access. Being able to bring that back into Prince George's County, this grant is helping these farmers to really connect with the community and neighborhoods they want to connect with."

Beyond empowering and feeding Black communities, the grant is designed to improve climate-conscious farming practices in Prince George's County.

Livingstone said it is essential to have money available so she and other farmers can farm in a way that is good for the environment, combats climate change and ensure the harvest is always strong.

"It addresses a couple of issues: one, growing food in a sustainable manner where you're not only growing food to get the yield, but also to regenerate the soil, to conserve the environment, and to also make sure we're working in tandem with nature, not just taking from the soil and putting back," Livingstone said. "This bed, this bed, and this bed is done. So, we basically mow everything down and cover the bed with landscape fabric. Between the sun, and time, it will decompose all of the green matter for us in preparation for the next planting."

This grant money could also help experiment with practices that have not been widely adopted.

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"This is an opportunity for farmers in our county to be on the leading edge of some of those practices, pilot them, test them out and provide meaningful feedback," Rush Lynch said. "Primarily, the funding will go directly to farmers. There will be some funding to help with staffing to implement the overall program. There's also money that's going to be put aside for a climate-smart commodity label for farmers around the county. That's something they can use to help market their products."

The county runs the Urban Farm Incubator, which is an 11-acre parcel at Watkins Regional Park that helps support farmers who want to take a beginner farmer training program before they buy or lease a larger parcel of land.

Livingstone said she hopes programs like this, in conjunction with the USDA grant, help more farmers like herself bloom in the near future.

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"I think in this country, specifically, agriculture in the community of color is not something that people think is very lucrative. It's not one of those glamorous jobs. You don't have a lot of young people in high school saying, 'I want to get into agriculture, I want to farm,' or anything agriculture-related because they don't really understand. It's not just the farming component. It's the field of soil science. There's plant regenerative science. There are all of these components you can study in agriculture, but we don't really have individuals really bolstering those areas," Livingstone said. "I'm hoping, one of the things we're trying to do here, is set up a training program so that we can start training and sharing the knowledge of experiences we gained with other farmers of color and individuals that want to get into farming. We want to give them a space they can come and practice. We need to have somewhere, where we can do this work and feel comfortable in their environment and learn while you're working."

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