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Black History Month is an opportunity to remember the significant contributions pioneering Black agriculturists made to our past in production, science and engineering.

It’s also a time to recognize the contributions of Black Pennsylvanians today and cultivate a brighter, more equitable future.

Born into slavery but destined to revolutionize agriculture, George Washington Carver earned a master’s degree in agricultural science from Iowa State University. He taught the world about soil health, crop rotation and the many uses for sweet potatoes and peanuts.

Henry Blair, born free in 1807, was the second African American to be issued a United States patent. With no formal education, he patented two inventions — a corn planter and a cotton planter, greatly improving farm efficiency.

Frederick McKinley Jones invented the refrigerated truck in 1940, extending the shelf life of agriculture products and increasing profits for farmers.

These are just a few of the Black Americans who left their mark on the industry that feeds us. But what’s happening today?

Every day, Black Pennsylvanians are making a difference in communities across the state through agriculture.

In our capital city, the Harrisburg Urban Gardeners, who I had the honor of visiting last summer, are passionately growing gardens on vacant plots across the city as they work to address the food apartheid created by systemic discrimination, which deprives their community of fresh, nutritious food. You won’t find fresh food in the corner stores that they rely on, so they’ve created gardens and mentorship programs where families can grow food to nourish themselves and directly address the issues that compound upon each other.

To the west, the Black Urban Gardeners (BUGS) and Farmers of Pittsburgh are working to eradicate food deserts while teaching young children to garden. Raqueeb Bey, BUGS member, told me they’re “not just growing food, they’re growing minds.” And she is right. Their approach is a model to be replicated, and one of the reasons for the Pennsylvania Farm Bill’s Urban Ag, Ag and Youth, and Farm to School programs. We need a new generation of agriculturists in Pennsylvania, and we’ll grow that by exposing the youngest Pennsylvanians to agriculture.

And to the east, in Philadelphia, Black students at Delaware Valley University are building a platform for minorities in agriculture by starting the first chapter of Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, & Related Sciences (MANRRS). I had the honor of meeting Darian Poles, member of the inaugural DelVal MANRRS chapter, through a racial equity listening session the department held last fall focused on ag education. Darian shared this:

“I want people to know it’s normal and OK to be Black and get into this field. I haven’t met a lot of people in agriculture who look like me. I had an internship in Florida last semester at a large cattle ranch where I met another African American who was a day worker. That was the first time in my life that I met somebody who looked just like me and was doing a job I want to do. I think it is important to have mentors that look like you and went through the same obstacles as you because you can relate to them on a certain level.”

His words have stuck with me. How do we make Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry — an industry that we’ve recognized as ZIP code neutral in the commonwealth — more diverse?

Anyone who wants to be a part of something meaningful should have the opportunity. Whether you live in a city and want to grow in a city, live in a city and want to produce on rural acres, or vice versa.

Let me be clear: Anyone who wants to be in Pennsylvania agriculture should feel welcome. As I stated last summer, to feed the future we must feed equality.

My statement of solidarity following the throes of civil unrest after the death of George Floyd last year was only the first step. It opened my eyes to the tensions and reminded us that we must be proactive to build an inclusive society.

So we started by looking in the mirror at the department. We set forth with an internal review, asking ourselves if we are being as inclusive as we should be.

Led by employees of the department, the Project JUST (Justice, Unity, Solidarity and Tolerance) Committee was born. It acknowledges all the ways we are different — including race, ethnicity, national origin, age, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity. Our differences are a strength because they allow for more perspectives, richer ideas and better decisions.

The mission of the Project JUST Committee is to achieve and maintain a working environment that addresses discrimination and endorses respect, professionalism, diversity and inclusion, and where there is equality of opportunity.

In Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and all across the commonwealth, Black Pennsylvanians are doing their part to improve access to agriculture in their communities. But it shouldn’t be their responsibility solely to reverse the injustices and impacts of systemic racism on their communities. It’s on all of us to do our part.

Project JUST is our first step on a long journey as we work to signal, both internally and externally, that agriculture is for everyone, just as food is needed by everyone.

I encourage everyone in this essential industry to also take a first step. Learn, grow, mentor and be engaged to cultivate a more equitable agriculture community with us.

The resiliency of our future industry will be strengthened by the hands of people not based on the color of their skin but rather their passion for agriculture.

Pennsylvania has opportunity for farmers of every race and creed to make a life, make a living, and maybe even make history.

Russell Redding is Pennsylvania’s secretary of agriculture.

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