Black Farmer Fund

Black Farmer Fund

Interview with Olivia Watkins; Co-Founder & Executive Director of Black Farmer Fund

Jen: How was the Black Farmer Fund Created? 

Olivia: In 2017, my co-founder Karen Washington and I came together at a farmers conference and talked about the lack of access to capital for farmers, particularly farmers of color. At the time, I was transitioning into a land stewardship role on my family’s land in North Carolina, and Karen was running her organic farm in upstate New York. We were interested in figuring out how to redistribute capital into our communities in a way that wasn’t happening. After several years of intentional listening with stakeholders and research with lawyers, it was clear that there was a direct ask from our community for a black-led funding institution that distributes culturally relevant and non-extractive capital. 

Jen: How are your investment funds catalytic in a way that is different from other funds?

Olivia: We shift power by creating opportunities for black agricultural businesses to have decision-making power within our investment activities. In 2021 our Pilot Community selected eight businesses for BFF to support. Our permanent Investment Committee has been selected and we will continue to use a community governance decision-making structure for selecting our portfolio. Our Black agricultural businesses are evaluated based on how they influence the three pillars in our investment guidelines: ecological wellbeing, economic justice, and community wealth building. 

Jen: How do you describe the kind of non-financial returns the fund offers?

Olivia: With the intention to address the racial wealth gap through intergenerational community wealth building, BFF targets black agricultural businesses selling goods and services locally (within a 200-mile radius of their business); serving Black and under-served communities through wealth redistribution and communal ownership; and/or seeking to source portions of its supply chain locally. By providing non-extractive capital and coordinating technical assistance, BFF will enable enterprises to take steps to manage environmental impacts by decreasing and mitigating carbon and water footprints, managing waste streams, and, where possible, sourcing renewable energy.

Photo Credit: Lex Barlowe

Jen: Can you describe how you use integrated capital to do your work?

Olivia: We look at our work through a multi-layered approach. At the individual level, we provide Black agricultural businesses integrated capital, business coaching and subsidization of business services, and mentor-mentee relationship facilitation. At the community level, we coordinate community workdays and bring together staff, investment committee members, and friends of Black Farmer Fund (BFF) to support with our hands on the land. Additionally, we organize skillshares where those same stakeholders exchange learnings on topics ranging from solidarity economies to beekeeping. At the systemic level, we collaborate with regional and national organizations to collectively resource our organizations, advocate for policy, strengthen each organization’s offerings, and practice community accountability.

Jen: How do you address racial justice, income inequality, and/or gender justice through your products and services?

Olivia: Black ownership along the food supply chain has been under attack and requires restorative action. Nationally, Black farmers have become severely underrepresented in farm ownership over the last century. Black farm ownership declined from 10 million acres in 1930 to 4 million acres in 2012. BFF fills a critical gap in the BIPOC farmer ecosystem – equitable access to non-extractive blended capital. BFF envisions a thriving, resilient food economy in which consumers and producers participate as community wealth builders to repair Black communities’ relationship to food and land. Achieving this vision requires that Black farmers and food business owners benefit equitably from financing, intellectual capital, technical assistance, networking, and public policies.

Jen: What do you tell people who think your fund is risky?

Olivia: Outside of our ability to provide investment dollars to Black agricultural businesses in the Northeast, success will be measured by our ability to: 1) Collaborate with BIPOC farmers and organizers in the Northeast to grow our database of Black agricultural businesses to keep informed of the landscape of need for financing, technical assistance, and market opportunities. 2) Advocate with BIPOC farmers and organizers in the Northeast to increase resources and funding from the state government for Black farmers and BIPOC farmer-serving organizations. 3) Identify potential supply chain opportunities between Black farmers and Black food system entrepreneurs. 4) Identify potential direct markets for Black agricultural businesses, prioritizing those within low-income, under-served communities. Because we address systemic risk through a multi-layered approach, the risk of not investing in our fund is those dollars being redirected to other investment opportunities that don’t approach the work with the same breadth and depth.

Investment Thesis/What is your rationale for your approach to investing? The mission of Black Farmer Fund is to nurture Black community wealth & health by investing in Black agricultural systems in the Northeast.

GeographyFrom 2019-2021, we focused our portfolio and work in New York. In 2022, we expanded our reach to the Northeast.

Year Founded: 2019

# of Investments: 8

# of Investors: 115+ (donors, funders, supporters, investors)

Funds Raised: $3.4M in 2022 with $400,000k specifically for the fund. 


What’s on Olivia’s Mind?

Book: Black Earth Wisdom by Leah Penniman

Song: Happy by Pharrell 

Podcast: Food with Mark Bittman Podcast