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Black Farmers Struggle For Finance And Support In West Virginia

"We are used and then left out"

McDowell County, WV: Jason Tartt, second from right, pictured with American Agripreneurship Youth Association trainees.

After he decided to end his career as Vice President as a Department of Defense contractor managing billion-dollar projects, Army Veteran, Bluefield High School graduate, and star athlete Jason Tartt settled on settling down in his childhood community: Vallscreek, West Virginia.

There, high up Canebrake Mountain in western McDowell County and deep in West Virginia coal country,Tartt finds the small, close-knit, and predominantly Black community a peaceful and fertile place to raise his own family and grow businesses. His story is a far cry from the poverty porn—stories highlighting the area’s struggle with low wages and drugs caused by corporate and state neglect—that larger, outside media depends on McDowell to produce.

After his mother was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, Tartt decided to try his hand at organic farming to provide his family, including his veteran disabled father, with healthy food.

Fast forward 12 years and Tartt’s T & T Organics has production in five commercial high tunnels across several tracts of cropland, and a fruit orchard installed on a mountainside. Since 2016, Tartt has partnered with volunteers to create several entities focused on renewing agriculture, and providing work training in the area toward reinvigorating a mountain farming economy. These projects also include a focus on an increase in work and trade-economic infrastructure, ag-education, and recovery to work programs:

  • M cDowell County Farms ag Cooperative, focused on Black and veteran farmers
  • Economic Development Greater East, a non-profit focused on building the 21st Century economy in the region, where food is foundational, land is conserved, and people are valued. Tartt’s farm is the centerpiece as a demonstration site for scalable maple, honey, compost, high tunnel, poultry, and other productions. As part of this demo site, Tartt signed a partnership with Berwind Natural Resources to put 335 acres of land into sustainable ag development.
  • Mountain Farm Community Grocery, a nonprofit grocery in Kimball, WV
  • SEEDH--an ag and creative cooperative focused on aggregation
  • and American Agripreneurship Youth Association, another nonprofit focused on youth ag biz training.

In addition to producing hundreds of thousands of pounds of food, Tartt took on a second full-time volunteer project: training nine “agripreneurs,'' in partnership with EDGE and Coalfield Development Inc. in 2020 for nine months. His next group of five EDGE trainees began August 2021.

From his country and community service profile to business and management experience, Tartt would seem a natural match for political and capital support. However, ag, economic development, and political backing for T&T Organics’ projects has been mostly elusive. Exceptions to this include the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service out of Beckley and WVDHHR, who both have provided support. In the case of both agencies, they have helped Tartt and his team work through learning the ins and outs of agency guidelines and federal expectations.

As far as partners go, WV-based Coalfield Development, Inc. has served as a training partner. Th e Appalachian Beekeeping Collective out of Hinton, WV has provided technical assistance. AceNet out of Southeast Ohio has lent expertise. WV State University has been working to develop a pipeline of students from Tartt’s projects to HBCUs and higher ed. And, recent publicity for Mountain Farm Community Grocery has led to some new relationships--one with the ag lending group Steward, who assisted the project with drawdown funds in the form of a loan against a Rural Business Development grant when no other door Tartt and company knocked on could or would assist.

By contrast, Tartt and company have completed five applications to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) ranging from a technical analysis of maple syrup and product capacity in McDowell and neighboring capacity to pastured poultry to support for Mountain Farm Community Grocery and extensive economic infrastructure. Tartt noted, “For example, in 2019, we were given a grant from ARC to get our training and grocery site in Kimball off the ground, only to have the interim director rescind the offer in summer 2020-- citing both no money and the money being used elsewhere for similar projects.”

“What are the reasons we get passed over when we are told our projects and applications are top-notch?” Tartt wondered.

He also pointed out that his community has a lot of social capital and support among its members, yet he feels left behind if you are not on the scene and circuit in the larger White nonprofit, government, and foundation community.

“We have had people trot down here, mine our ideas, then run back to their offices elsewhere and write in a person or funding to support some grant that centers elsewhere. So we were used and then left out,” Tartt said this has happened with concepts on maple production, veteran ag, mobile markets, freeze-dried production, and aggregation. Tartt’s team cannot always pin the motivation for this down to race, but when they look around at other similar groups’ success and state profiles in WV, they are left questioning what else it could be.

Tartt also has experienced being cut out rather than embraced when offering his expertise to existing entities or new projects being developed. For example, in 2018, he and his colleagues developed an entire mountain farming curriculum for a McDowell K-8 school to train young people and their parents. The staff was very excited, and the project was set to go with Tartt working entirely volunteer.

But a new principal came in and cut off the project immediately.

Likewise, prior, in 2017 Tartt and supporters planned to develop their Mountain Farm grocery concept in Downtown Bluefield, with a restaurant, production facilities, and training, when the city manager cornered him with other city staff and hammered away at how Tartt should not do this project there.

“Lip service gets paid to racial unity down here because McDowell County and Mercer County nonprofits and state and city agencies receive federal funding, and that funding comes with stipulations of equity. The city manager complained openly about folks receiving charity money. I was not offering charity but economic development. It seems that money may flow in West Virginia to Black folks in particular if you offer a handout, but not if you offer a hand up.”

What has happened to Tartt and company in West Virginia also happens nationwide. In order to gain support and access to capital, Black farmers and Black nonprofits must jump through more hoops and display proof of capacity not expected of White farmers or White-dominated nonprofits.

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Resources:Politico’s investigation of one program revealed that the USDA ‘granted loans to only 37 percent of Black applicants… but accepted 71 percent of applications from white farmers.’”Black farmers left out of USDA: https://www.politico.com/news/2021/07/05/black-farmers-left-out-usda-497876

And, nonprofits led by people of color granted less money with more strings: https://racetolead.org/nonprofits-led-by-people-of-color-win-less-grant-money-with-more-strings-study/.

In Tartt’s own words: “We have the expertise, we have the capacity, we have proven the model. It is clear to me that if we farmers are growing food and community in a place like Vallscreek... If we were White, we’d be on the national news and receiving national support already, considering how much media and funding attention is focused on McDowell. ”

Listen to Tartt tell his part of his own story in his own words as part of the EDGE Bumps in the Road podcast: https://anchor.fm/bumpsintheroad/episodes/EDGE-Co-founder-Jason-Tartt-Discusses-Farming-in-the-Coalfields-and-Mountain-Farming-e15di9e

Watch Tartt talk about the economic potential of McDowell County:

YouTube: https://youtu.be/nFMbb6Vhho8

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