Minority farmers are important part of Virginia agriculture
Díaz Tompkins takes pride that his grandparents and parents are Native American, Spanish and African. It’s a “cultural palette of history and customs,” said Chesterfield County’s Tompkins, who won the 2020 Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers Collegiate Discussion Meet and attends Southside Virginia Community College.
Tompkins represents an upward trend in farm diversity, reflected in data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture. The number of Black farmers is up 5% since 2012. Virginia is ranked 10th nationwide, with 1,767 Black producers. The number of Hispanic farmers is up 8% nationally, and the census found 845 Latino producers in Virginia.
The Census of Agriculture has been surveying the race and ethnic origin of principal farm operators since 2007. It tracks the number of American Indian, Asian, Black, Hawaiian, Latino, women and veteran farmers managing U.S. farms.
Generations carry on
Cecil E. Shell, a Lunenburg County Farm Bureau member and one of the Black farmers counted in the census, was born and raised on the land where his dad farmed and ran a sawmill. Shell now grows dark fire-cured tobacco, timber, soybeans, wheat and vegetables in Kenbridge with his son, Cecil Jr.
“He raises grain, and we work the tobacco together,” Shell said. His son will continue the family’s agricultural tradition, securing diverse representation in the next generation of Virginia’s farming community.
Shell said there are few Black farmers in the area, which he attributes to economy of scale.
“It takes more acreage to survive unless you have some type of specialty crop,” he said. The Shells eliminated flue-cured tobacco production two years ago, as profit margins narrowed. “If a young farmer wanted to raise flue-cured tobacco, they need enough land, but they won’t survive with 10 acres, and might not make as much off 20 acres as we did 30 years ago. And price support has not gone up with the cost of producing the crop.”
Faltering commodity prices, equipment costs and a lack of federal support to mitigate price fluctuations make it hard for farmers to get by, especially without the benefit of generational wealth.
“I wish more people would understand what farmers have to go through,” Shell said. “But we’ll keep on trying.”
A family affair
Dora and Leopoldo Beltran, previously migrant farmworkers from Mexico, are associated with the bounty of produce grown in Westmoreland County. They operate 60-acre Penn Farm in Colonial Beach, where their family grows fruits and vegetables and sells them at farmers markets in Virginia and Maryland through Norma’s Produce.
“We try to grow as many different varieties of veggies as we can, from asparagus to zucchini,” Dora Beltran said.
The previous owner of Penn Farm retired 15 years ago, and the Beltrans took over.
“He gave us the chance to rent and work for ourselves,” Dora Beltran said. “Now we own part of the farm, and we rent from the owner's family. We learned a lot along the way.”
The Beltrans are grateful for their opportunities, and they give back. They donated more than 1,000 vegetable boxes through local partnerships this year.
Young farmer faces the future
For Tompkins, agriculture is a teacher.
Previous generations of his family raised cattle and farmed in El Salvador before moving to the U.S.
“My grandmother had lots of land, horses and crops to take care of everyone,” Tompkins said. “My grandfather would plant a large harvest, and he allowed 4-H to use some of his land to grow crops that would later be entered into county fair competitions.”
Tompkins said he has worked and volunteered at farms across Virginia, and cattle farms in the Virgin Islands. He has grown his own maize to make tortillas, and won competitions for collards, peppers, tomatoes, mints and sweet potatoes. Tompkins also has experience raising poultry and growing berries.
“Working on the farm, having a farm and using farm assets to promote positive change is in my DNA—from my grandparents who would plant and sell at big markets, to my uncles who plant and drive the big rigs to markets across Central America for U.S. exports,” he said.