A Washington nonprofit is forming a cooperative for Black, Indigenous and other farmers of color.

“You have to start from ground zero, building a farming community of people of color,” said Mercy Kariuki-McGee, founder of the Haki Farmers Collective in Olympia.

Nearly 49,000 farmers in the U.S. identified as Black in the 2017 Census of Agriculture, a 5% increase from 46,582 in 2012. They represent 1.4% of all farmers.

The collective is named “Haki,” which means “justice” in Swahili, a widely spoken language in Africa.

The Haki collective wants to enhance farming traditions and develop a new generation of farmers of color.

“That knowledge does exist, and farmers are going back to that,” she said, pointing to organic and regenerative agriculture methods.

Kariuki-McGee and her daughter, Elisa McGee, started the organization in 2020 as part of the protests over George Floyd’s death in May 2020. Kariuki-McGee and her family have been involved in helping the city of Olympia develop public safety and community outreach procedures.

Kariuki-McGee was struck by the presence of a garden and free kitchen in the middle of protests in Seattle, used as a “healing” space filled with messages of hope and unity. She wanted to develop a similar garden in the Olympia-Tacoma area.

The Haki collective will use part of a community garden donated by the nonprofit organization Garden-Raised Bounty, or GRuB.

The collective is also receiving a larger piece of farmland from the South Sound Community FarmLand Trust to develop a BIPOC — for Black, Indigenous and People of Color — Farm.

The collective will produce food for families and the local market, Kariuki-McGee said.

The organization will “partner with learning institutions and other community organizations that advocate for career pathways in agriculture and other environmental related fields for black and brown students and communities of color,” she said.

The farm would be used to teach agriculture in partnership with Washington State University and North Thurston Public Schools Black Students Union.

“How are we going to be perceived? Are we going to be accepted?” she asked. “How will people (perceive) a whole busload of young Black farmers coming into their white community?”

The collective is exploring ways to develop curriculum and outreach to communities of color to increase land ownership and farming knowledge.

Farmers have the power to begin the shift toward greater acceptance, Kariuki-McGee said.

“You’re empowering people by giving them access to food, the knowledge where that food comes from and allowing them to come into that space,” she said.

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