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What the couple that started the first ever Black-owned ranch in Arizona wants you to know about meat production over the holidays

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Rachael and her husband James are both fitness trainers whose diets primarily consist of meat and protein. Their four children eat the same diet, and suring the pandemic in early 2020 they were met with empty shelves and limited options.

James told Yahoo Life. “We saw what happened with the grocery store and we kind of made the decision that opposed to trying to buy a house we should get some land.”

In the fall of 2020, James and Rachel purchased 10 acres of land outside of Douglas, Arizona, and officially launched Southwest Black Ranchers, the first black-owned protein ranch in the state. They raise cows, alpacas, goats, sheep, lamb, pigs, chicken, turkeys, and ducks and have completely reimagined how they source their food.

“We’re trying to create a system where local makes sense. To have this new black-owned ranch sourcing from the underserved community, developing a new system is just phenomenal," says Rachel.

Becoming ranchers wasn't plan for James and Rachel, who met in college and previously ran a gym in San Diego. In 2020 they moved their family to Arizona to launch a fitness company, but when the pandemic hit, gyms closed and they were forced to put their plans on hold. James is Black and Rachel is Filipino, and while they were excited at the possibilities of their new life on the land, they were also hit with the fact that there weren’t a lot of ranchers who looked like them.

In 2017, The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that Black farmers made up just 1.4% of all farm producers. This dramatic drop reflects a century of intimidation and laws designed to thwart Black land ownership.

Going into the holiday season, Americans are facing surging food prices due to inflation. In October, the price of meat, poultry, fish and eggs rose 11.9%, compared to the same time last year. In November, Southwest Black Ranchers completed their first meat sales of lamb and goat. "Honestly we had never had goat before and wow, it's so good," says Rachel.

As families make their food budgets and seek out the best ways to feed their families, the Stewart’s urge them to look local.

“Start thinking, ‘Who is a farm or rancher I could support? How could I start feeding into these food systems that are coming?’ There’s urban farms and urban gardens,” says Rachel. “And that's what we really hope to do — help put more small farmers out there and support them and their products as well.”

Video Transcript

JAMES STEWART: It's imperative that people decide to make a change. Blacks are about 1.4% of the biggest industry in the world. If you have the number one industry in the world and no representation, how could you ever be equal?

BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: Hey everyone. I'm Brittany Jones-Cooper and welcome to UNMUTED. Today I'm talking to James and Rachael Stewart who started a ranch in Arizona to increase representation in farming. During the pandemic, what was your experience with the food shortage? Take me back to that decision to move from the world of fitness into becoming ranchers.

RACHAEL STEWART: In Phoenix, we were about to launch our fitness company when the pandemic actually started. We eat a little different than the standard food guide. Meat and protein was our primary food source. We would measure our food.

He needs 6 to 7 ounces per meal of meat. And then, like, me and the kids like 3 to 4 ounces of meat. I've walked into the stores and just with nothing there and I've left like crying before. That scarcity it really just changed everything for us.

JAMES STEWART: We got six heads and two packs of chicken don't really work. The food shortages presented to us how the stores operate. The meat comes from just a few companies. So, if one company has a problem then everybody has a problem. We saw what happened with the grocery store and we, kind of, made the decision that as opposed to trying to buy a house we should get some land.

RACHAEL STEWART: It just really reshaped our mind frame into what we can do to bring solutions.

BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: And so, in October of 2020, you guys broke ground on your ranch. The first black owned protein ranch in Arizona.

JAMES STEWART: Got a couple of cows, alpaca, goats, sheep, lamb, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, these products are in demand.

RACHAEL STEWART: We're trying to create a system where local makes sense. To have this new black owned ranch sourcing from the underserved community developing a new system. This is just phenomenal.

BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: In the conversation about black farming, land is often defined as freedom. Do you relate to that?

JAMES STEWART: It's all like the real lack of representation amongst blacks, minorities, you know? We started off a lot well more represented in it. And then through the processes that they've pushing people out of land and discriminatory practices. It's just downhill, you know?

Most farms are generational, they're handed down, you know? So the lands there, the infrastructure is there. It's just a matter of passing the torch and keep moving. But everybody doesn't have that opportunity. Because if you don't have X amount of years of experience in this, they don't qualify you to get land, they don't qualify the livestock, infrastructure, equipment. They don't really qualify you for anything that a person would need to go get started. Because the system was never designed for us. It was designed to lock me out.

And the opportunity that we have right now as minorities is one that we've never seen before. If we don't input ourselves, the next 500 years will be like the last 500 years.

BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: You know, I think this conversation is so important in the black community because in doing ancestor research, I think a lot of us are discovering that our ancestors did own land. That for whatever reason it was taken away from them. So, I think this idea of owning land and passing it on to your children is just so important for the legacy conversation.

Going into Thanksgiving people are feeling the impact of the supply chain disruption. I think poultry is up 10%. What do you think people need to know about the farmers making their food?

RACHAEL STEWART: Going into the holiday season I think what people can actually, kind of, change their minds even just a little bit, looking at all of this food that's available. You don't need to hoard it. You don't need to go out and get all that you can. Start thinking, OK, who's a farmer or rancher that I could support? How could I start getting into these food systems that are coming? There's urban farms and urban gardens that are there.

How is my meat actually made? Supporting the farmer to actually make business. The farm to table and things like that. And that's what we really hope to do. Help put more small farmers out there and support them and their products as well.