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Route 1 is growing opportunities for BIPOC farmers

A man in  red shirt looks in the direction that the woman next to him is pointing. Another woman looks on. They are standing in a farm field.
Route 1 Founder and President Marcus Carpenter talks with farmers on the organization's land in Hamel, Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of Route 1)

A new social enterprise aims to diversify Minnesota farming.

Founder and President Marcus Carpenter says Route 1 helps BIPOC farmers establish themselves while also providing access to fresh produce in Twin Cities food deserts. 

“Our focus is all about increasing food access, specifically within communities of color. We have five demographics of farmers that we support – African American farmers, Western African immigrants, Latino farmers, Asian farmers, and Indigenous farmers,” said Carpenter. “Our work is really all about, how do we support these folks that are growing amazing food? And how do we help them get this culturally relevant, fresh food into our communities?”

Route 1’s farm, located in Hamel, Minnesota, offers an array of programs that provide resources and opportunities for communities of color to both grow and access quality fresh food. Route 1’s Emerging Farmers Program offers farmers the resources and space to grow their produce. The Emerging Farmers Market Program supports farmers in taking that next step to get their produce in front of buyers. 

In addition, Carpenter says Route 1’s youth-centered program, Seeds to Success, introduces young people to careers in agriculture. 

“Maybe a young person doesn't want to be a farmer, but maybe they want to be a software engineer that works for Cargill, or they want to be a finance person that works for John Deere, or something like that,” explained Carpenter. “There's all these aligned industries that support agriculture that are highly underrepresented at this point in time. So we want to expose our kids to those opportunities.” 

Carpenter says the loss of connection to land affects more than the diversity of farmers. He says it’s not just about jobs, but about health and cultural wisdom, as well.

“Everything that we do at Route 1, it starts with education. Obviously, we want to grow food. We want to grow good food. And we want to support farmers. But we believe that if we can continue to pass along the lessons of agriculture to the next generation, that's how we break some of these generational curses; and then some of these generational ailments that affect people of color. That's really what this thing is all about – health equity,” said Carpenter. “I think the farther that we've gotten from understanding where our food comes from, and what the story of those seeds are, the more unhealthy that we've gotten as a society.”

Carpenter says the farm utilizes the income made at farmers markets nearby to support communities in need.

“The folks that live in Hamel and Corcoran and Medina, as a population, they're generally a little bit more affluent than other parts of our area. That farmers’ market is specifically designed so farmers can charge fair market prices for their produce, and gives them the ability to be able to grow their business,” explained Carpenter. “But we also have a location that's headquartered in South Hopkins, and it's located right in the middle of a food desert. And so what we're doing is we're bringing fresh produce, right down in the middle of our community. Within that particular market, we're able to accept all the SNAP benefits, market bucks, EBT.” 

A Black woman in a sunhat and wearing gardening gloves holding a bucket talks with a Black man in a red shirt. They are standing in a farm field. A third woman, with her hands in her pockets, observes.
Route 1 farmers speak with Founder Marcus Carpenter. (Photo courtesy of Route 1)

Route 1 is also utilizing vertical farming in what are called “freight farms,” to help farmers of color overcome the barrier of land ownership. A freight farm is essentially a shipping container outfitted with lights and a watering system to grow food. 

“Oftentimes communities of color don't have an opportunity to get out to a farm simply because of the fact that there's not a lot of farmers of color that actually own land. Not only here in Minnesota, but across the country. And so one of the things that we do is we work to bring the farm to the people,” said Carpenter. “Within this freight farm, you're able to grow over 300 pounds of fresh produce per week. And so we're able to drop these freight farms down in our barrios and our hoods; anywhere we want really. And that gives us the ability to have the community take part in this experience of saying, hey, if we can't necessarily get our hands in the ground to learn about farming and extract some of those lessons that agriculture gives, maybe we can recreate it in a vertical farming setting and still be able to pass along some of those lessons.”

Carpenter says the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as other metro areas in Minnesota, have all expressed interest in partnering with organizations like Route 1 to bring farming into urban areas. 

Carpenter says Route 1 was inspired by the legacy of his family farm in Tyronza, Arkansas, and his grandparents. 

“My great grandmother passed away in the 60s. She and my great grandfather bought their first parcel land back in 1914, and they grew that to 180 acres by the time my great grandfather passed in 1936. It's been in our family ever since,” said Carpenter. “And so for me, my cousins, my aunts and uncles… We've always spent time down at the farm, getting our hands in the soil connecting with the earth, at some point. It's really a place for us to be able to find respite and to connect.” 

Carpenter says Route 1 is also about remembering and honoring communities of color’s contribution to the land. He says they’re doing it by keeping those legacies alive.

“We really talk about what it means for people of color to be connected spiritually, to be grounded, to be able to work the soil in different aspects, whether it be farming, or horticulture or some other type of trade that involves connecting with the ground,” said Carpenter. “There's a cultural history that we have as people of color of being growers, being farmers, and being those who have stewarded the soil for generations. If you think specifically about African Americans, and our journey to this land, we were the original farmers – after the Indigenous, of course. We were the original farmers as it relates to the American economy; and jumpstarting the economy with tobacco and cotton and those massive, economical crops. And we have the ability to be very proud of that history,” said Carpenter.

Route 1 is accepting volunteers, as well as donations. And starting in June, Route 1 will be back at the South Hopkins farmers market selling fresh produce.

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