Small, Black Farmers — and Access to IoT — Can Feed the World

I learned early that a path to equity starts in agriculture and the soil.

My history with dirt is long and, in many ways, tied to centuries of knowledge borne both of necessity and practicality. Before she was part of the Women’s Army Corp. (WAC), my grandmother learned how to grow food from her sharecropper parents in Georgia. Decades later she shared her plant growing know-how with me. I learned that once peppers have the right soil, they grow in spite of humans. She insisted on sharing what she grew and she built community from it. In the intervening years I’ve built on that knowledge, learning about the power of permaculture and how prioritizing soil health creates resilient ecosystems.

I’ve always wondered why so few people worry about our dirt. When you look at it up close, the world within it is reason enough to be impressed. It has a power to nourish that Black people have relied upon before and after promises of 40 acres and a mule. But this substance that has produced a tradition of amazing cultural foodways and land management practices has lost its stature — partly due to reduction in Black farms and partly because of soil-depleting, monoculture practices of corporate agriculture. What we know now is that we’re not going to make it on the soil we have if we don’t implement new tools and incentives to revive it.

Technology and innovation in the field increases yields. Unsurprisingly, the Internet of Things (IoT) technology featuring “smart” and connected devices that produce the biggest farm yields is expensive and generally developed for large-scale agriculture. Additionally, government and corporate priorities are focused on the 30 percent of large growers who feed the world, versus the other 70 percent – some 500 million small hold and subsistence farmers worldwide. Food insecurity is high in the communities surrounding these 500 million farms. But it’s precisely IoT applications that can reduce global food insecurity and the environmental impacts plaguing many of these communities, by reducing greenhouse gases and creating and maintaining healthy soils.

The important question is: How is it that we’re in the 21st century, with all its uncomplicated and useful technology and dire predictions of needing to feed almost 10 billion people by 2050, and we’re not making these tools more accessible to all the people growing for and in the poorest communities? Later this year the IoT World Congress will meet and discuss this problem and the solution: “As a result of the declining agricultural workforce, adoption of internet connectivity solutions in farming practices has been triggered, to reduce the need for manual labor.”

The organization, like SEED and others, is looking at the use of IoT technology to, “ensure optimum application of resources to achieve high crop yields and reduce operational costs.” Also known as precision agriculture, it requires what has typically been expensive and elaborate agriculture technologies and specialized equipment as well as wireless connectivity, software and IT services.

It’s no wonder, though. One research firm — BI Intelligence — says adoption of IoT devices in the agriculture industry was expected to top the $75 million mark last year, growing 20 percent annually. The global smart agriculture market as a whole should triple by 2025, reaching $15.3 billion up from about $5 billion in 2016. There’s big money to be made and the small farmers, with little money compared to big AG, don’t matter much.

Stop Biting the Sand that Feeds Us

Of course, there’s more to the story. For example, we aren’t very nice to the thing that feeds us. We treat soil like dirt, “not the living complex ecosystem that it is.” Soil is one of a triumvirate of life-giving elements — the other two being sun and rain – yet human activity has contributed to a warmer, dirtier planet and the degradation of soil ecosystems.

Perhaps it’s a silver lining then that in the U.S., Black farmers have often lacked the resources to purchase harmful pesticides, and have instead relied on regenerative practices. But, less ironically useful, more than half of these farmers operate on less than 50 acres – many on the 10-acres the United States Department of Agriculture defines as very small farms. Black farmers, especially in underserved communities, should be considered part of the 500 million small hold farmers in the world who hold the keys to solving global food security and produce that 70% of the world’s food as previously mentioned. According to the World Resources Institute, these farms will not be able to produce enough food for more than nine billion people without dramatic changes in how food is produced, including focuses on soil health and water management.

Well, guess what? Even though their numbers are down to 35,000 from a high of 16 million at the turn of the 20th century, most Black farmers remember best practices hard-earned from centuries of working in some of the most inhospitable conditions. Thankfully, even after farms were stolen and even as the stigma rose up around sharecropping and agriculture, people and communities continued to engage in these practices. When they could no longer grow in fields, they found the nooks and crannies and balconies and small plots of cities. When I worked with public housing residents in 40 states, rules prevented most from growing in their developments, but raising produce became an act of both defiance and nourishment.

In some heavily food insecure neighborhoods, where one of every five people does not know where their next meal is coming from, residents experience an overlapping affliction of pollution-induced health challenges. Social and racial problems have always intersected with environmental damage and poverty, and the rise in meaningful attention to these issues in the past several months is greatly attributable to Black Lives Matter and other equity movements. Issues that were viewed in isolation are finally being seen for the weight and intransigence of their connection.

With the installation of a new administration, efforts by Black growers and farmers to gain, reclaim, and highlight their skill with the land are taking place through the lens of fighting climate change and environmental degradation. Their good soil practices are primed for the benefits being teased in the Biden administration’s “Carbon Bank” fund that aims to compensate farmers who store carbon using these regenerative agriculture practices. If they can measure the carbon they’re keeping in the soil and trade on it, they’ll be in a perfect position to increase their bottom lines. That’s why my company SEED is developing an inexpensive and automated, carbon measurement sensor. The small hold farmer of color will not again be left behind because of cost and access or lack of innovation.

Loam Sweet Loam

The benefits of healthy soil don’t just accrue to the small farms described above. More households in urban areas are growing food at their homes, yards and urban gardens. Altogether they are more productive per unit of area than are large producers. They, too, are able to support more crop diversity without relying upon the synthetic fertilizers that cause long-term harm.

As their numbers increase, we need all of these people to grow in healthy soil, because healthy soil, specifically soil organic matter, feeds more people. It does not only the yeoman’s work of retaining water and nutrients, but incredibly, it also sequesters carbon in excess of that retained by the sum of all plants and the atmosphere. Sequestration helps reduce greenhouse gases, global warming and just may be the answer to averting a point-of-no-return climate crisis. Scientists have determined this. I believe the scientists. We all should.

It may not be obvious how technology lies at the intersection between food justice and environmental justice, but most of the people lacking food are the same ones living in polluted environments and without access to systems that can mitigate both conditions. I started SEED to democratize IoT in agriculture, because focusing on the small, underserved farmer isn’t some gamble, but is a stake in a sure solution. Adding the legions of individuals and families that are participating in some form of home gardening and urban farming is imperative. “The same soil conservation measures employed in commercial-scale carbon farming” can be adapted for use in backyards. The climate mitigation potential of “carbon gardening” is considerable, given the one-in-eight U.S. households growing food today.

For farmers, we’re creating this inexpensive system to also provide a return on investment – a return that is only fair for the small farmer to join in. Critics state that the return is not enough or that the credits generated only benefit Big Ag. Of course it would be disingenuous to suggest that this is the only way to combat the issue, but we think it’s important to consider this fact: IoT applications in agriculture will contribute to an agriculture technology and robotics market projected to reach $18 billion by 2025. The individuals and farmers we’re focused on deserve access to that market. Incentivizing development and maintenance of good soil in yards, gardens and small farms is a good approach.

At SEED, we believe that millions of people managing and sustaining the world’s soil can feed 10 Billion people by 2050. In the past year, as we’ve navigated a pandemic and learned through social unrest, we’ve also seen an increased interest in people across all sectors growing their own food. We’ll help them do so in a way that improves the entire ecosystem. To the victor go the soils.

Sabrina Williams is CEO of SEED, a public benefit agtech startup. She has worked with groups across the U.S. as a community organizer and with farmers in the U.S. and Cuba to create innovative agriculture technology. With degrees in architecture, law and urban planning, she has focused on social justice, equity and community development issues in urban communities. You can follower her on Twitter here.