When George Floyd died on Memorial Day at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, the protests and public calls for change came from all industries, including agriculture.

A May 29 statement from the Minnesota Farmers Union addressed the incident directly and began with "You've no doubt heard about the killing of George Floyd." MFU President Gary Wertish said there was no debate whether the organization needed to publicly condemn the circumstance.

"We can't ignore it," said Wertish.

After the National Farmers Union released a similar statement against police brutality, the organization heard from critics who questioned why an agricultural group would comment on a non-ag issue.

President Gary Wertish of Minnesota Farmers' Union talks to reporters about legislative activity during the 2017 session. Don Davis / Forum News Service
President Gary Wertish of Minnesota Farmers' Union talks to reporters about legislative activity during the 2017 session. Don Davis / Forum News Service
"Some of the replies to the national-level statement was 'you're in agriculture, stay in your own lane,'" said Wertish. "It is in our lane, so we can't just turn a blind eye and pretend it doesn't affect us, because it does, and it's been going on too long."

Wertish said you don't have to look hard to see the prevalence of racism in the history of American agriculture. Systematic racism in the U.S. put farmers of color at a significant disadvantage to operate land. In the U.S., 96% of farmers are now white, according to USDA's Census of Agriculture.

Close to home

The Land Stewardship released a statement on George Floyd's death the day after it occurred. Brian DeVore, communications manager for LSP, said the killing took place less than three blocks from LSP offices in Minneapolis.

DeVore
DeVore
"We have a lot of members, allied groups and staff who live and work right in that community," said DeVore. "So it really struck close to home."

The organization also issued a statement in 2016 after Philando Castile was killed by police in the Twin Cities.

"This was just much more immediate for us, since it was right in our neighborhood that this occurred," he said. "We were seeing the impacts immediately."

LSP's mission is focused on farmers but DeVore said overall, it's to develop healthy communities for everyone through sustainability. Racism and violence have no place in a society based on sustainability.

DeVore said over the last three years LSP has been doing racial justice cohorts, which have LSP members go to a series of workshops and meet with allied groups of color.

Wertish said at the national and state level, the Farmers Union is always looking at its policy to see what needs a change. But an event like the death of George Floyd intensified that.

"It makes you look deep inside, if there's something we can do better or communities we are able to reach out more to," he said.

Disparities in meat plants

Both Wertish and DeVore highlighted the meat packing workforce, now vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks, as a recent example of racial disparities in agriculture. Predominately racial minorities and immigrants are working in the plants that have become hotbeds for the virus in rural areas across the country.

Wertish said the packing industry was set up to be efficient, and to get the largest amount of animals through plants in the quickest way possible.

"But the workers are just as important as the farmers raising the animals," said Wertish. "To have a just system, everybody has to have a role, and everybody is important. The color of your skin shouldn't matter where you fit in that."

According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, more than 40% of meatpackers are Latino and 25% are African American.

"You go to any of these plants, or watch any news on what's going on at packing plants, it's really hard to avoid — these are people of color," said DeVore. "And COVID-19 is hitting them proportionally at much higher levels."

AFBF statement

National ag groups also have called for change. American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall, in a statement, said his organization will be reviewing its policies at looking at ways to address racism.

“Our hearts go out to the family of George Floyd and others who have suffered as a result of racial injustice. We strongly oppose racial discrimination and believe just treatment by law enforcement is essential to maintain public trust and to uphold our Constitution. We also believe we have a responsibility across our society to honestly examine, identify and address racism," he said. “That includes looking within our own organizations. At AFBF, we are doing just that. We are forming a cross-functional working group to determine how we, as staff of the American Farm Bureau, can be a positive influence against racism. Part of the strength of our communities and nation is our ability to pull together in times of crisis. We must do so now.”