During the pandemic in early 2020, Rachael Stewart went to a Phoenix, Ariz., grocery store to get food for her family. She was met with empty shelves and limited options.
“I walked into the stores with nothing there," Rachael tells Yahoo Life, adding, "That moment of scarcity, it changes you."
Rachael and her husband James Stewart are both fitness trainers whose high-protein diets primarily consist of various forms of meat. Their four children eat the same diet, and the limited food supply quickly inspired the family to look for other solutions.
“We have six heads, [so] two bags of chicken don’t really work. The food shortages presented to us how the stores operate. Meat comes from just a few companies, so if a company has a problem, then everyone has a problem,” James tells Yahoo Life. “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.”
In the fall of 2020, James and Rachael purchased 10 acres of land outside of Douglas, Ariz., and officially launched Southwest Black Ranchers, the first Black-owned livestock ranch in the state. There, 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 Rachael.
Becoming ranchers wasn't initially in the cards for James and Rachael, 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, who is Black, and Rachael, who is Filipino, were excited by the possibilities of their new life on the land — but also hit with the fact that there weren’t a lot of ranchers who looked like them.
“[We] saw the real lack of representation [of] Blacks and minorities,” says James. “The system was never designed for us, it was designed to lock me out.”
The history of Black farmers in America is long and complicated. After the Civil War, freed slaves were famously and falsely promised 40 acres and a mule. The Freedmen's Bureau was established in 1865, partly to take land seized during the Civil War and provide relief to the formerly enslaved. In reality, the Bureau was met with resistance from Southerners, and much of that land was eventually returned to white landowners. Even so, by 1910, Black land ownership had peaked in the U.S., with Black farmers operating 14 percent of farms.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that Black farmers made up just 1.4 percent of all farm producers. This dramatic drop reflects a century of intimidation, and laws designed to thwart Black land ownership.
“We started off a lot more well represented, and then through the process of them pushing people off the land and the discriminatory practices, it’s just downhill,” says James. “If you have the number one industry in the world and no representation, how can you be equal?”
For many family farmers, the land and infrastructure are passed down from generation to generation. For new farmers, especially minorities, the barriers to entry can feel daunting. Nationally, the USDA has recognized the disparities in land ownership by establishing programs to assist farmers and ranchers from historically underserved communities. The Stewarts agree that these programs are designed to help, but that they also come with restrictions that discourage newcomers.
“The USDA wants to make it right and they’re doing all of these things. But if you don’t have X amount of years of experience they don’t qualify you to get land, they don’t qualify you to get livestock, infrastructure, equipment — they don’t really qualify you for anything that a person would need to get started,” says James.
According to the Stewarts, the start-up cost for their ranch hovers around $400,000. This will cover well and pond materials, fences, refrigeration systems, animals, seeds, delivery vehicles, solar panels and a greenhouse. While they don’t have all the money needed, they started with no debt and are building and adding to the ranch at their own pace. They've also started a GoFundMe for supporters of their mission.
Locally, they’ve gained knowledge and insights about ranching by talking to older farmers in the area and other "agripreneurs" — people like them who have left their other careers to create a life on the land.
“We’re so stuck in these systems and what we’ve been allowed to do or places we’ve been allowed to shine,” says James. “It’s imperative that people decide to make a change and not have fear. If we don’t input ourselves, the next 500 years will be like the last 500 years.”
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 percent as 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 Rachael.
As families make their food budgets and seek out the best ways to feed their families, the Stewarts urge them to look locally.
“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 Rachael. “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 produced by Jacquie Cosgrove