Young black farmers to Mark Bittman: We don’t need your land reform

Conflict at a New York conference, where attendees tell the food movement figurehead he doesn't speak for them.

UPDATE 10:55 a.m., EST: On Thursday night, Mark Bittman issued an apology on Twitter to attendees of the Stone Barns Young Farmers Conference, saying, in part, “my inability to effectively address the question of how I hold myself accountable to people of color justifiably made people angry and upset.” 

On Wednesday, we attended the Young Farmers Conference, held annually at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in upstate New York.  

Even though it’s a conference for ag-idealists, the proceedings are, for the most part, pretty mild and uneventful. Around 300 attendees attended discussions, panels, and workshops that were intended to be helpful to practitioners, covering issues like crop rotation and federal subsidies for hoop houses.

But the evening was rocked by conflict that, according to a few people we spoke with, felt long overdue. At the heart of it, a question with few simple answers: Do the foot soldiers of the sustainable farm movement feel like their figureheads speak for them?

“How do you hold yourself accountable to communities of color, and vulnerable communities? To the things you say that you aspire to change?”

Food journalist, author, and former New York Times columnist Mark Bittman and Ricardo Salvador, a senior scientist for food and agriculture at the Union of Concerned Scientists, delivered a keynote address that proposed nothing less than remedying America’s racist farm system. It was ambitious and rousing.

But during the question-and-answer session that followed, a Connecticut-based chef and educator named Nadine Nelson stood up and asked Bittman a multi-part question that appeared to throw him for a loop:

“How do you hold yourself accountable to communities of color, and vulnerable communities?” she asked. “To the things you say that you aspire to change?”

Bittman didn’t respond at length, saying only, “fair enough.”

That sucked the air out of the room.

“I just want to let black people know that your dismissal was hurtful. It was enraging.”

“You’re not going to answer the question?” Nelson asked.

Bittman batted her away. “I’m not sure what the question was. I don’t know what ‘hold yourself accountable’ means.”

The attendees, seated around bottles of wine and cider at communal tables, murmured nervously.

Then the exchange escalated. Nelson accused Bittman of “just pontificating,” and shouted from the back of the room, without a microphone. The room was thick with tension as Bittman and Salvador moved on to field more questions.

Ten minutes later, another attendee, apparently dissatisfied with the previous back-and-forth, took the mic. “I do not have a question,” said Dallas Robinson, a farmer based in Edenton, North Carolina. “I just want to let black people know that your dismissal was hurtful. It was enraging.”

Land reform, she said, was not the answer to systemic racism. What was needed, instead, was for white men, like Bittman, to respect the voices of people of color, and give them a seat at the table. “This shit is exhausting,” she said, in reference to Bittman’s dismissal. “And we’re not all friends. Y’all don’t listen to us.”

The room burst into applause. Bittman, on stage, was stone-faced and silent.

The interaction described starts near the 56-minute mark.

Nelson’s original question was prompted by Bittman’s assertion that the country’s most fertile farmland was long ago “grabbed” by white colonists and is still owned by their descendants. To even the playing field, Bittman proposed a sweeping land-reform policy, one that would allow the federal government to appropriate farmland and redistribute it to young farmers, as part of inheritance or transfer tax reform.

His proposal, which he said would begin to undo the damages of these racist federal policies, was echoed by Salvador, who quoted a 1968 speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that enumerated historic policies—such as the Homestead Acts, land-grant colleges, low interest rates to mechanize farms, and cash subsidies—that favored white farmers.

Bittman probably expected the room full of young farmers to be receptive. After all, access to land is one of the primary obstacle facing young farmers of any race. A survey conducted by the National Young Farmers Coalition, a Hudson, New York-based advocacy group, found that 30 percent of aspiring farmers say difficulty finding farmland prevents them from entering the field. That’s twice the amount that cited student loan debt. Indeed, without a long-term lease, or the ability to own land, many young farmers are ineligible for federal loans that allow them to invest in infrastructure or conservation practices.

In theory, Bittman’s proposal was probably intended to inspire an audience of idealists. But it backfired.

“It’s our responsibility as the host to create a welcoming and inclusive space even when the conversation veers into uncomfortable territory.”

We followed up with Robinson on Thursday. She said that her expectations for Bittman as a commentator on social justice had been low. “I got up because there were only a handful of black people in that room, and I felt that my responsibility is to make sure that in this farming and agricultural world, we know that I see us. We have to work on us, for us.”

Also on Thursday, a group of Stone Barns fellows convened a lunchtime presentation to clear the air.

“This is not okay,” said Shakirah Simley, a Stone Barns fellow, of the exchange between Bittman and Nelson. “This situation—some might call it a microaggression, or macroaggression—unfortunately is not unique, particularly for folks of color, queer folks, and non-gender-conforming folks within the good food movement. These microaggressions, the silencing, the ignoring, shaming, sweeping things under the rug—this happens in editing rooms, this happens in kitchens, this happens in fields, and this happens within non-profit organizations.” Simley stood with the other fellows, addressing the room. “We can’t replicate the systems of oppression within our movement if we want to dismantle these same systems.”

How did Stone Barns respond to all this?

“Stone Barns Center wants to be a place where everyone working toward a better food future can come together to create dialogue and change, and we want all to feel heard. It’s our responsibility as the host to create a welcoming and inclusive space even when the conversation veers into uncomfortable territory,” said Jill Isenbarger, Stone Barns CEO, in a statement to The New Food Economy. “We failed to do that during Wednesday night’s plenary, and for that, I apologized to our guests at lunch on Thursday.”

“What he has to say about farmers, the back-to-the-land movement, may not be that relevant.”

But for some, Stone Barns’ decision to invite Mark Bittman as the keynote speaker for a group of young farmers was perplexing to begin with.  

“He’s not a farmer. He’s not a back-to-the-lander. He’s a very privileged guy who has the disposable revenue to then go buy a farm in one of the most elite areas of the planet,” says Leni Sorensen, whom we spoke with about historical inequity among farmers. (Sorensen, a culinary historian, was not present at the conference.) “What he has to say about farmers, the back-to-the-land movement, may not be that relevant.”

Bittman, who initially requested we publish a comment from him in full, was unable to respond by press time, but did say he’d “probably just post” a statement he was currently working on.

When we spoke to Nelson on Thursday, she added that her interaction with Bittman points to a larger problem. “I don’t know what I wanted. I just wanted to be acknowledged. I have tried to introduce myself and share my work based on his work, and he’s dismissed me,” she says.

“I don’t want anything from you,” she adds. “But to people who feel active and accomplished, I want to understand: what does allyship really look like to them?”

CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this story misidentified Dallas Robinson using the pronoun, “they.” In fact, Robinson goes by “she/her.” The story also misidentified the Hudson, New York-based advocacy group as Young Farmers Coalition. The official name of the group is National Young Farmers Coalition. We regret these errors.

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.

Hillary Bonhomme is The Counter's former multimedia producer and reporter. Before joining the team, she produced content for several non-profit entities, including WNYC, WQXR, and Creative Capital. Outside of her work at The New Food Economy, Hillary is active as a musician and has taken the stage at National Sawdust, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, and The Jerome L. Greene Space.