This guest blog is published in partnership with Illinois Stewardship Alliance (ISA). ISA works to find, connect, train and amplify the leadership of farmers and eaters who use their choices and their voices to shape a more just and regenerative local food and farm system in Illinois. Its statewide community unites to educate policymakers and form a powerful voice that has a seat at every table where decisions are made.
Illinois celebrated its first official Black Farmers Week at the state capitol this session, with House Agriculture Committee Chair (and CROP member) Representative Sonya Harper leading a coalition of nearly 80 Black farmers and growers and grassroots organizations for the inaugural Illinois Black Farmers and Growers Lobby Day on April 26th.
For the past eight years, Representative Harper has led the way in introducing policy supporting Illinois Black farmers and addressing some of their needs and barriers, including access to land and capital, heirs property issues, and historical discrimination in federal and state farm programs. This session, Representative Harper introduced the following bills:
- WIN! HR 164 Black Farmers Week Resolution: Declares April 23 through April 29 as Black Farmers Week in the State of Illinois. Encourages the people of Illinois and their representatives in government to learn about the history of Black farming communities and the contributions made by African Americans to agriculture in the United States. This resolution was adopted by the Illinois House thanks in part to the stories shared and advocacy from Black farmers at the Black Farmers and Growers Lobby Day.
- WIN! HJR 6 Heirs’ Property Task Force: Creates an Heirs’ Property Task Force to examine prospective methods to address heirs’ property in Illinois. Heirs’ property is the leading cause of involuntary land loss among African Americans. Landowners provide economic stability within their communities through payment of property taxes and support for local business. This resolution was adopted by the Illinois House thanks in part to the stories shared and advocacy from Black farmers at the Black Farmers and Growers Lobby Day.
- HB 3556 Black Farmers Restoration Program: Creates a land conservancy program to provide land to socially disadvantaged and limited resource farmers, as well as an apprenticeship program for young people to gain skills in agriculture. With this program, historically underserved communities will have new and better opportunities to enter the playing field with established farm and food operations that are vying for public contracts, and will bring public dollars back into the communities that need it most.
- HB 3557 Local Farm and Food Products: Helps to prioritize farmers who have historically been left out of consideration for public contracts. It sets a goal that at least 20% of all food and food products purchased by state agencies and state-owned facilities be local farm or food products produced by socially disadvantaged farmers, and requires agencies to track the purchase of farm fresh produce and food products
- HB 2557 Farmer Equity / Innovation Act: Creates the Farmer Equity and Innovation Center at the University of Illinois Extension. This will ensure the economic viability of small-scale and moderate-scale diversified farms and ranches.
- HB 2523 Socially Disadvantaged Farmer Grants: Appropriates $5 million from the General Revenue Fund to the Department of Agriculture for the purpose of making grants to socially-disadvantaged farmers for startup capital and for costs associated with farming operations and equipment.
For many of the participants of the lobby day, this was the first time their voices have had a presence in the state capitol. After seeing how many people made the long trek to Springfield to voice their support, one farmer noted, “I didn’t think anyone understood what was on the table, but when people show up like this, it shows they care about the issue and about who they are impacting.”
At the lobby day’s kickoff breakfast, Representative Harper welcomed the advocates and introduced speakers including Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton, Director of Agriculture Jerry Costello, Speaker of the House Emanuel “Chris” Welch, and Legislative Black Caucus members Senator Doris Turner, Senator Mattie Hunter, Representative Cyril Nichols, and Representative Lakesia Collins.
Lawmakers praised farmers for coming to use their voices and shared their commitment to support farmers of color.
“As ag is the largest job-producing industry in the state, it has become the least diverse industry,” Rep. Harper said. “For the past eight years, I have been proud to champion healthy food access, farmer equity, and cannabis equity. We can never do too much to ensure folks have access to healthy food, no matter what district you live in.”
Leaders from numerous organizations stood at the podium to share their story and support for the suite of equity bills, including:
- Akin Carter, co-founder of the Black Oaks Center
- Bweza Itaagi, Grow Greater Englewood
- LaQuandra Fair, Growing Home Inc.
- JR Flemming, Cannabis Equity Coalition and Hemp for Hoods
- Amanda Goins, a student at Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences
- Pastor Scott Onque, Faith in Place
Throughout the day, farmers and advocates met with state legislators about their work and talked about how the legislature could support the future of Black farmers and growers in Illinois.
One story especially illustrates the power of organizing: A group of farmers from the south suburbs stopped by Senator David Koehler’s office and shared their stories with his legislative aide, Aaron Tebrinke.
After meeting the group, Aaron said, “I have a good feeling about this, follow me.” He led the group to the doors of the Senate Chamber. Moments later, Senator Koehler appeared to talk to the farmers and advocates directly. Carmen Holmes, a Black farmer from Harvey and ISA member, took the lead in sharing her story and explaining the bills they were advocating for. After asking a few questions, Senator Koehler turned to Aaron and said, “Sign me on to co-sponsor all of these bills.”
The success and enthusiastic support for the Black Farmers and Growers Lobby Day shows that when advocates, community members, and legislators organize together and show up in numbers to make their voices heard, policy will be more impactful and real community change will become possible.
Representative Harper, advocates, and farmers have since continued to organize together and have started a coalition to continue advocating on behalf of Black farmers and growers in Illinois.
This was the first ever Black Farmers and Growers Lobby Day, but it will certainly not be the last. As the group celebrated cosponsors and new connections, they also dreamed up future plans for the next visit to Springfield and maintaining these relationships and coalition.
If you are a state legislator interested in working on Black farmer issues in your state, reach out to us at [email protected]—we’re happy to help!