In June, the US Farmer Inclusion Team welcomed Patrick Brown as our new Director of Farmer Inclusion. As a fourth-generation farmer, farm manager of his family’s farm, and active advocate for sustainable and profitable farming among Black farmers, Patrick is a jack of all trades and excited to continue his work through Nature For Justice.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Patrick in person on his family’s farm where we took a tour of the farm and discussed farm operations and plans. We talked about what’s being planted, the markets the farm serves, the history and importance of Black Americans in agriculture, and his plans for the future.
I arrived on site with my field clothes and closed-toed shoes, ready for a walking tour of The Brown Family Farm’s 160 acres of produce, hemp, and cover crops, located in Patrick’s backyard. After being welcomed by Patrick, we began our tour with a brief introduction of the family farm’s fifth generation of farmers, his nephews Justice and Isaiah White.
Patrick’s oldest nephew, Justice, has been designated as the Farm Manager, while his second nephew, Isaiah, is the farm’s Maintenance Technician and Equipment Operator.
Patrick manages the farm operations, handling administrative duties, crop reports, conservation, and public speaking while still enjoying planting, harvesting, and operating the farm’s heavy equipment. We discussed passing the torch from generation to generation and Patrick explained how it’s easier when the last generation is present to walk it through with the next. The values have been installed, but it takes some guidance to build confidence and consistency.
Tapping into the Market
After a lesson on the succession planting1 done in the high tunnel, our first stop is the rows of produce that stretch directly behind his house. To maximize crop diversity on his family’s property, eight rows of each crop are planted before planting the next. Here, an extensive list of squash, sweet corn, leafy greens, radish, and much more is grown and certified by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture as Good Agricultural Practices Harmonized Plus.
Every plot of produce is grown intentionally and separately to sell to five market hubs: Working Landscapes and Byway Food Hub, Freshpoint Sysco, Happy Dirt, Farmer Foodshare, and 4P Foods.
These hubs purchase produce from the farm directly and then market the produce to organizations, education institutions, food hubs, and restaurants at a wholesale price point. Patrick explains that this method of dividing plots of land per market helps in keeping a record of what needs to be planted and harvested for its corresponding market.
As we cross the rows of squash and reflect on the amount of labor involved in planting, harvesting, packaging, and transporting these goods, Patrick explains why having laborers is such a barrier for smallholder and BIPOC farmers. First, all labor must be paid months before the farm sees revenues from the (literal) fruits of that labor.
At the same time, as America sees the results of decades of wage stagnation in the current labor shortage, labor is ever scarcer. If a farm is willing to go through the expensive paperwork of hiring H-2A visa workers, they are responsible for providing housing and transportation in addition to compensation.
These are expenses smallholder farmers are not often able to provide upfront making the visa program another federal program with systemic barriers for smallholder farmers. This leaves Black, Indigenous, and other farm managers of color to depend on small staff, families, volunteers, and the support of other smallholder farmers for labor and resources.
For decades, circulating resources and knowledge among Black farmers has been a priority and passion for Patrick. We spoke about opportunities to build climate resilience, generational wealth, and independence from government assistance from both an individual and organizational standpoint. As an individual, Patrick works with other local Black farmers to share equipment and no-till practices he uses on the farm. This includes the use of roller crimpers to flatten cover crops before planting seeds underneath the “crimped” plant. This practice provides cover for the sprouting seeds and adds organic matter back to the soil.
As an organization, N4J leverages diverse funds to support the implementation and financial sustainability of regenerative practices for North Carolina farmers with wrap-around technical assistance and diverse sources of financial assistance.
Hemp, the New Tobacco
Making our way to the west end of the farm and the end of our farm tour, Patrick’s excitement and pride grew as he showed me the first signs of hemp sprouting underneath the layer of crimped cover crops and the new growth on the established reduced-tilled hemp. We discussed the many profitable markets for hemp, an alternative to plastic materials with textile and medicinal uses.
He urges other farmers to invest in the specialty crop, despite the lack of government subsidies. With the lack of federal subsidies, Patrick understands the risk that comes with growing uninsured crops and is happy to be the pilot that shows Black farmers how it can be done sustainably.
As we moved our tour off the farm and onto the plantation property his family was previously enslaved on and now owns, I feel inspired by Patrick’s determination to protect the legacy of his family farm as well as other Black-owned family farms across North Carolina.
1Succession planting is growing different crops in the same space one right after the other in the same season or planting the same crop in different parts of the garden in succession at different times. Succession planting results in a succession of harvests – a long continuous harvest season (Harvest to Table).
2H-2A agricultural guest workers (H-2A workers) are in the United States as part of a visa program for short-term agricultural labor contracts, lasting only up to 10 months (The National Agricultural Law Center).