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Impact

Strengthening African American Farming Communities in North Carolina

Combating climate change and racial inequities with Earth science tools

Objective

Identify equity and environmental justice challenges faced by African American farmers in North Carolina.

Approach

Partner with four farming community organizations and engage with African American farmers to identify challenges, specifically climate-related inequities among the community. Educate farmers on NASA’s Earth science tools that are freely available to them.

Impact

Provide NASA with solutions to fill the gap between their Earth science tools and users. More private-sector farmers will be able to use the tools and increase crop growth and capital.

The Challenges African American Farmers Face

America’s private-sector farms are dwindling with African American farming declining at a higher rate as corporations buy U.S. farmland. Currently, less than 2% of private-sector farmers are African American – a number that has declined by 80% over the century. In 1910, 14% of all farmers were African American. While multiple factors have exacerbated the decline—such as historical discrimination and denied land access and capital— communities, activist groups, and organizations are working to reverse this problem.

Increasingly, climate change poses a significant threat to African American farmers. Changes in the weather, terrain, and manmade pollutants require farmers to adapt their land to grow crops. A 2022 model from Wing et al. estimated a 40% flood increase in areas where one-fifth of the population is Black. Farming communities along the East Coast have also experienced challenges due to tropical storms and saltwater intrusion. Extraordinary weather often changes the soil’s nutrients, which affects crop growth and a farmer’s capital. Most farmers do not have the infrastructure to quickly adapt to extreme climates.

Understanding the Specific Needs of North Carolina’s African American Farmers

To help address problems African American farmers face in NC, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sought the help of RTI to conduct an analysis surveying current tools farmers are utilizing.

Previously, NASA designed a series of Earth data science tools with the help of farmers; however, little is known about the challenges farmers face when using these tools, and it is believed that many farmers do not know such tools exist. Furthermore, some farmers in rural areas do not have internet to access the tools. Understanding these challenges faced by a minority farming group give NASA valuable insights into adapting their Earth science tools to better support all private-sector farming communities.

NASA products that benefit farmers

  • Crop-CASMA
    • Shows soil moisture and crop conditions.
  • SERVIR Drought & Crop Watch Tools
    • Shows current and future drought conditions.
  • DSAT (Drought Severity Evaluation Tool)
    • Calculates standardized precipitation index values.
  • ECOSTRESS instrument and European Space Agency Sentinel-2
    • Monitors crop health and predicts when crops will be ready to harvest.
  • Remote sensing technologies
    • Show track fluctuation in drought conditions and guides decisions on irrigation.
  • NASA Harvest
    • Used to understand agricultural land use and sustainability.

Source: NASA at Your Table: The Space Agency’s Surprising Role in Agriculture

Partnering with African American Farming Community Organizations and Conducting a Survey

The project activities involved partnering with local organizations that are already connected within the community and performing  –a landscape analysis that involved listening sessions with African American farmers to understand the inequities and environmental injustices they face.

RTI gathered useful insights into farming challenges through a brief 12-question survey distributed to farmers, resulting in approximately 30 responses. The survey addressed climate change, farming location, farming technology, and environmental injustices and inequities. The survey was not limited to the size of a farm or land ownership.

RTI also partnered with four community organizations:

RTI staff met monthly with these organizations to review findings from the literature, discuss ways to integrate equity in the research, learn about the functionality of NASA’s tools, develop the survey questions, and discuss the development of listening sessions. The community partners provided guidance on the overall strategy for the farmer outreach approach and made sure that our engagement with this community was grounded in the acknowledgement that the historical and current injustices experienced by this community impair their ability to fight climate change.

The community partnerships, listening sessions, and surveys allowed RTI to identify challenges within the farming community and educate local farmers on the tools available to them from NASA. Addressing these challenges, along with a literature review and environmental scan of North Carolina, gives NASA an approach for enhancing their data products. 

RTI’s deliverables will allow NASA to improve their systems and address gaps between the products and user experience with the goal of enhancing the products for all private-sector farmers. We recommended that NASA focus on tools that are relevant to specialty crops and livestock and easy to use with a high level of granularity. The partnership with community organizations allowed us to begin building a network with African American farmers, small business owners, and others in the agricultural community that would benefit from outreach efforts and research projects in the future. This landscape analysis is the first of many steps towards creating solutions for environmental justice and equity among African American farmers.

Learn more about environmental science and environmental justice.