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Black women in agriculture work to grow equitable future for their children

Posted at 2:10 PM, Mar 11, 2022

Robbin Swinger Otey, who goes by Sistaotey, is prepping her urban community garden for the growing season.

“Oh, yeah, we welcome the snow, we need the moisture, we have to get the moisture,” Sistaotey said as she shoveled snow into the dirt.

She is a Black Indigenous woman who is a professional garden coach. She’s been in the farming industry for two decades.

“I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression, and I'm a super nerd, so I started investigating holistic ways to support myself, so I was praying, and I was fasting," Sistaotey said. "But I hate to say it, but I feel like I needed a little bit more. And in my investigation, I came across gardening.”

She says gardening saved her life. Now she’s the founder and CEO of her own company, A Georgia Green Project. She educates and supports Black women and girls in agriculture.

“Women of color, I'll say we have a special resiliency," Sistaotey said. "You know, we have a special, just a lived experience that no other woman can bring. Representation matters. Sounds cliche, but it's true.”

Women of color are having an impact on the agriculture industry, but they are rarely recognized. Tammy Gray-Steele, Ph.D., is trying to change that. She’s the founder and executive director of the National Women in Agriculture Association. Her family has owned farmland since 1863.

“We had this initial 40 acres that was provided through the Emancipation Proclamation, the 40 acres and a mule,” Gray-Steele said.

Now, they own more than 2,600 acres in rural Oklahoma. Gray-Steele has held other national roles like a USDA advisory councilwoman appointed by the former Obama administration. She is determined to grow character health and income from the ground up.

“A lot of the underserved minority communities, they don't have access to locally grown foods, nor do they have access to actual income revenue, sustainable income revenue through agriculture because no one has taught them, has given them the opportunity,” Gray-Steele said.

According to Census data from 2017, only 1.4 percent of farmers in the U.S. are Black. Less than a third of that are women. Gray-Steele says that number can grow, and Black communities can be elevated if minority woman farmers are given the right attention and resources.

“Part of our mission is to save and educate our children through agriculture, providing them with equal sustainable opportunities as Caucasian children," Gray-Steele said. "We actually increase the number of minority farmers because we are literally women who birth babies and now with our degrees, we educate them.”

To make that happen, her organization is asking President Joe Biden to sign an executive order that would charter the National Women in Agriculture Association. It would give them the opportunity to receive a steady stream of funding.

“Make us the first legislatively chartered Black organization in American history,” Gray-Steele said.

She says the initiative has bipartisan support because she is confident her association can help all children to have equitable opportunities in the agriculture industry.

“Our children are used to being taught how to the athletes are either entertainers," Gray-Steele said. "Those are not sustainable careers and not all children make it. But in agriculture, they will always have a career and a way to help their community while they help themselves.”

Sistaotey says farming can help reduce stress, prevents food insecurity, it can be a source of income, and it encourages people to eat healthy which prevents diseases like diabetes. She’s spreading the good news to younger generations because she says their babies come first.

“That's why women in agriculture matter, because we're always going to put the people first... always," Sistaotey said. "Just because, you know, Imma say it's a girl thing Imma say it’s a woman thing.”