An agtech entrepreneur and farmer creates a digital directory linking BIPOC farmers
Jessica Gonzalez is a farmer and beekeeper who runs Happy Organics LLC a sustainable farm and apiary out of Merced, California. She launched the enterprise in 2018 on the family farm, which she and her siblings managed after their father died of cancer that same year.
Gonzalez is also a technologist with a background in a sector called agtech, the merger of agriculture and technology. Prior to launching Happy Organics, she was a co-founder and the chief technology officer of HeavyConnect, a Salinas, California-based agtech company that makes software for farmers. Before that she majored in computer science at Mills College in San Francisco and worked as a software developer at ThoughtWorks.
Even after leaving HeavyConnect she was committed to using her tech background in agriculture. She helped streamline the workflow on the family farm turning payroll from paper to digital, for example.
Then last June she launched “Our Farmers” an online directory of farms owned by BIPOC [black indigenous people of color] farmers in the U.S. that seeks to create a community among farmers of color, and also bridge growers and those in agribusiness who seek to connect with farmers of color.
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“A lot of these farmers are first generation either in farm ownership or they might have been fieldworkers,” she said. “I am hoping to create that community in order to help each other. I see a lot of farmers who are very conscious of how they are growing their business and who their employees are just because they have been on the other side of that.”
Farming and agriculture businesses continue to be dominated by whites when it comes to ownership and leadership roles. According to the latest United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Census, whites and operated 96% of all farmland. Black farmers made up 1.4% of the U.S.’s 3.4 million farms and Asians even less so at 0.7%. The Census showed continued disparity in gender with women comprising 36% of the country’s farm producers.
The idea for “Our Farmers” came to Gonzalez soon after the Black Lives Matter movement ignited. Wanting to do something to make a difference, Gonzalez turned to two things she knows best – agriculture and innovation. She launched the searchable directory with the goal of building out a national database that would connect farmers of color with one another. The hope, Gonzalez says, is that the platform will foster knowledge exchange [on everything from pest management to maintaining soil health], and potential collaboration especially among new and beginner farmers. Farming is expensive and labor intensive and it is not out of the realm for farmers to barter whether it be services or machinery.
She began soliciting entries from farmers through her own networks and the directory also grew via word of mouth. The way it works is farmers submit their information, which includes a brief description of their farm including address. Each entry includes a Google map of location and a list of similar listings. Gonzalez also created a mobile app as a companion to the online platform for ease of use.
As of November there were nearly 100 farms listed on the directory. The number of farmers who have reached out continue to rise and they come from all over the country. Many of them happen to be women who are also new farmers or independent farmers.
Happy Organics itself has benefited from the directory. Over the summer, Ashlee Johnson a farmer based out of the Bay Area (who is listed on the Our Farmer Directory) and Gonzalez connected. In March Johnson launched Brown Girl Farms a microfarm in Hayward, just north of San Francisco.
Gonzalez sought more farmland for her beehives and specifically wanted to work with BIPOC farmers. After she and Johnson spoke they agreed on a collaboration. Gonzalez moved some of beehives to Brown Girl Farms where in exchange the bees serve as pollinators for the vegetable crops. With a combined passion to educate youth, the two share recordings and photos of the hives on the farm via Tik Tok and Instagram.
As a black and queer farmer Johnson says the directory has created a much needed community. To date, finding resources specifically for BIPOC farmers remains challenging but the new directory is part of a positive shift.
“As a black person in white spaces you really have to go looking for resources. I think there are resources out there but it’s proactiveness,” Johnson said. “It’s great to see it now and I feel like it is long overdue. As for Jessica, she’s a brown beekeeper and we are two women of color and there’s an exchange. More importantly we are supporting one another.”
Next on the horizon is creating a marketplace where farmers can sell their products and services directly to the consumer. Gonzalez plans to add a messaging/forum feature so farmers can connect directly on the app and trading/selling features for farmers to find equipment they need.
She started working with organizations with a similar mission of assisting farmers of color. She’s partnering with ALBA (Agriculture and Land Based Training Association), a program in Salinas, California, to make the mobile app more accessible to farmers that don’t speak English and may not know how to use smartphones.
Ultimately, Gonzalez says the directory is her way of giving back to the community.
“I grew up in ag so I always felt a connection to it and I felt always a need to get back to it,” she said. “My parents were field workers and they eventually started their own ag business. I see the impact of having ownership over your land and being able to produce your own things on it.”