After a Run for Ag Commissioner, Donovan Watson Wants Systemic Change for North Carolina’s Black Farmers | Civil Eats

What is the most significant barrier currently facing Black farmers in North Carolina?

We’ve got [as many as] 49,000 farms in North Carolina [now]. We’ve lost 52,000 in the last 10-12 years. And it starts with the costs to farm in North Carolina. That is the biggest barrier for Black people specifically: access to capital. I think it’s important to put tools and resources into the hands of North Carolinians who want to make a living through agriculture, whether it be passive or direct income. The other issue is that people don’t really know where to start. That’s where I see my [role], helping out where I can on the consumer services side of things and educating would-be farmers on the world of agribusiness.

What made you decide to run for North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture? Take us through the months leading up to that.

It was the end of 2019, and Granddad had been in the hospital all year. I was just trying to get through the season. Then, I found out that the powers that be were attempting to undermine the state farmers’ market in Raleigh. They wanted to raise the [prices of the] leases of the wholesalers there, deny leases to other wholesalers, and essentially create a lot of uncertainty for those farmers. The state farmers’ market in Raleigh is one of about 20 profitable, self-sustaining [wholesale] markets in the entire country. Why would we jeopardize it?

I saw it becoming more commercialized to attract tourists and going farther away from its true purpose: getting fresh food to North Carolinians. I was taken aback by what the administration had planned. Then, my grandfather passed in late October. Thinking of all he’d done throughout his lifetime [ignited] this drive, this energy to put myself out there. I was approaching my off-season and would have three to four months free, so everything seemed to align for me to run.

Part of your campaign platform was to foster diversity in farming. Can you speak on how you planned to achieve that?

I think it definitely starts with education and just being exposed to possibilities that not every child gets exposed to. Agriculture, in general, might not seem like the sexiest thing. But when you modernize the field and make things more inclusive, you get an infusion of creativity. I had actually planned to visit 100 schools each year during my four-year term, to just be out there, engaging with the kids, showing them certain experiments and things they can do . . . planting those seeds goes a long way. On the other end, you have the regulations being enacted that become barriers to diversity. They reinforce the same narrative. For example, if one person gets a lease at the state farmers’ market and one doesn’t, and it’s based on a vague process, that doesn’t work for the benefit of everyone.

Would you run again?

What struck me most was that our democratic process chose a hobby farmer [in the primaries]. In North Carolina, agriculture is king. And it just didn’t make sense for somebody who says that they only do agriculture as a hobby to be in that role. We’ve got less than 2,000 African American farmers in North Carolina, and the numbers don’t look good. It’s bleak, actually. When people ask if I will run again, I tell them that I hope the issues I ran on are solved within this four-year term. I didn’t run just to run; I ran to solve these issues.

You aren’t going to answer the question, huh?

Right now, I’m doing all I can as a private citizen. Also, I definitely wanted to mention that the Commissioner of Agriculture is elected [rather than appointed] in only 12 states, and most of those are in the southeastern U.S.

That says something about the historical framework that is still in place, and who is investing in keeping them there. What is your advice to people looking to be a part of changing the current state of affairs?

People should educate themselves and remember that they have the power to vote. They also have the power to speak out and ask questions. We need to keep having these conversations and expose these issues so that we can cross-reference and see where we can come together.

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