A Partnership Between Target And Black-Owned Family Farms Brings Sustainable Cotton Products To Consumers

Food & Drink

In honor of Black History Month, Target is featuring clothing items created by Black business-owners and designers, including items made with a significant percentage of cotton grown on Black-owned family farms.

Only 1.4% of U.S. farm owners are Black. That disproportionately small community represents families who managed to overcome historic racial barriers in order to participate in this important business sector.

Very few Black farmers were able to acquire land through the Homestead Act of 1862 because protections under the 14th Amendment didn’t begin until the end of that decade. Even after that change many other societal barriers remained. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has acknowledged its own history of discriminatory policies towards Black and Indigenous farmers and is seeking to actively serve those underserved populations. For instance, in the U.S.D.A..’s recent Partners for Climate-Smart Commodities grant program, eight of the funded projects specifically include participation by Black farmer organizations. They are also featuring stories celebrating Black farmers on one of their web pages.

The national retailer’s partnership with Black-owned farms is a part of a larger commitment to source $2 billion worth of products from Black-owned businesses by 2025. Like many environmentally and socially conscious corporations, Target has an enterprise-wide corporate responsibility strategy. Theirs is called “Target Forward.” This pilot program to buy cotton from Black farmers delivers on the Target Forward strategy by expanding diversity within Target’s supply chain. It also supports farmers who employ sustainable growing practices – something that aligns with Target’s environmental goals.

I interviewed two of the participating farmers who grow cotton in Alabama and Georgia. One named Willie Scott is a third-generation cotton, peanut and corn grower whose grandfather had started implementing soil conservation strategies like contour tilling in the 1940s.

When Willie took over the farm in 2013 he took soil care to an even higher level by using a strip-till system (Strip-till and no-till are ways that farmers can dramatically reduce erosion, use less fuel, build soil health and sequester carbon). Scott has had to overcome a hesitance to accept this farming method on the part of some of the owners of his rented fields. There is a video on-line in which Scott tells his story.

Alongside Mr. Scott is Kyle Bridgeforth, a fifth-generation farmer whose family, and farming operation, can be traced back to its first generation after the Emancipation Proclamation. Farming started immediately and land was acquired in 1877, which was later sold to purchase highly productive land in the early 1900s. The Bridgeforth farm is also managed with strip-tillage, and it also employs a sophisticated “subsurface drip irrigation system” and soil moisture monitoring equipment which enables them to conserve a great deal of water that would have evaporated if applied on the soil surface. The drip lines also can also be used to “spoon feed” fertilizers to match the crop’s dynamic needs throughout the season – maximizing yield and minimizing water pollution.

Scott and Bridgeforth also grow cover crops which are good for building soil health, suppressing weeds, and saving on fertilizer inputs. The cotton/peanut crop rotation they use was actually pioneered by the famous Black agronomist George Washington Carver and Bridgeforth’s great grandfather worked directly with that scientist in the 1940s. When asked how it was that that their Black families overcame obstacles, these farmers cited resources such as Black farmer cooperatives as well as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (H.B.C.U.s). Importantly, there had to be someone in each new generation that “loved farming enough” to be willing to take on the challenges and risks that business entails.

Both of these farms participate in a major national organization called the Cotton Trust Protocol (CTP), which quantifies the sustainability of cotton production for more than 1000 U.S. growers and then guarantees the traceability of that fiber as it moves through the somewhat complicated value chain from farm to things like finished clothing. Target is also one of the many downstream members of CTP.

A communications representative for CTP, confirmed that the organization ascribes to the widely accepted definition of sustainability as the optimization of three pillars – people, planet and profit. It is not about dictating the details of farm management but rather a mechanism for tracking “measurable sustainability outcomes” like efficient use of land, water, fuel, and fertilizer. Each individual farmer works out how best to do that given his/her soil, climate and marketing constraints. Sustainability weds productivity and quality with desirable environmental and social profiles. Farmers like Willie and Kyle report detailed outcome data from their operations down to the sub-field level which CTP can then benchmark relative other farms. The metric values generated on the Scott and Bridgeforth farms reflect the beneficial outcomes from the way they care for their owned and rented land. The data is used to track progress since “sustainability is a journey, not a destination.” CTP is also leader of one of the Climate-Smart Commodity grant projects and it specifically includes engagement with historically underserved farmers.

Ethan Barr is a 10-year Target employee whose career has been focused on textiles. Looking for some means of action after listening to an episode of the 1619 podcast and following the murder of George Floyd, he set out to determine how Target could serve as an ally and make progress on its diversity, equity, inclusion, REACH and sustainability goals by intentionally sourcing cotton grown by Black farmers.

He sought contracts through is “cross functional team” and identified these and other farms as potential suppliers. He then had to work out the other steps required to generate finished clothing for stores. The goal was to make the connection between the Black farms and Target’s mainstream customer-base.

The farmers report that this partnership has been positive, not just because of the crop purchase commitment, but also because it has helped them to expand their community network with other progressive Black farmers. Kyle also felt honored to find out that his family’s farm is featured on the Target in-store display for Black History Month as well as on the hang-tag of some of the featured t-shirts (see pictures below spotted at a local Target store).

For Black History Month 2023, it is fitting to recognize the fact that there are some resilient Black farming families that are engaged in state-of-the-art sustainable agriculture and tied into broader public and private support systems.

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