John Lee, USDA/NRCS Natural Resources Specialist with the National Water Management Center, during the ‘AgTech Revolution’ Q&A session.

The National Black Growers Council (NBGC) held its annual meeting in Atlanta to discuss technology advancements in agriculture. The December 2019 event became an opportunity for me to meet influential African-American row crop farmers and supporters from across the nation. NBGC board member and third-generation farmer Kenneth Ray Sneed summed up the meeting best:
“I feel like this event is taking us from ‘The Flintstones’ way of farming to now ‘The Jetsons,’” said Sneed, who has been farming with his brothers for nearly 40 years. “It’s time for us to start thinking of how we can efficiently bridge technology and farming.” Ag tech groups like AgLaunch and AgVoice gave panel discussions about new avenues 21st-century farmers can take with technology to become more cost-effective with their agribusinesses. AgLaunch connects tech-savvy entrepreneurs and startups with actual growers to keep up with today’s digital-demanding consumers, while AgVoice helps farmers capture in-field data through hands-free, mobile technology.
Really neat stuff. New economic opportunities for today’s agriculturalists, especially in the Black Belt Region where technology is oftentimes behind the times for rural communities. The annual meeting also introduced the possibilities with hemp — one of the strongest natural fibers in the world and known to have more than 50,000 different uses. It’s a big business opportunity that panelist Jackson Garth, president and CEO of Verde Leaf, cautioned interested farmers about. “There are a lot of sharks in the hemp industry,” said Garth. “A lot of new farmers think there’s a lot of money to make easily in hemp, but you have to think: ‘Who’s buying it, and who will I sell my product to?’ Black farmers need to work together to ensure we’re not wasting our time or getting screwed over.”

Fort Valley State University student Janay Green (center) responding to a meeting attendee’s question about the benefits of hydroponic towers to attract young farmers to agriculture.

The sound advice on hemp was followed by a few innovative ag millennials’ views on getting more young folk into farming. Their ideas were inspiring and connected to my work with students in higher education and in the Black Belt. Fort Valley State University student and 4-H member Janay Green urged conference attendees to consider the possibilities with new technology like hydroponic towers. “We have 4-H students come to Sylvester’s Village Community Garden, and they see how hydroponic towers work,” said Green. “They’re now associating farming with fun. They see the process of growing fruits and vegetables, and they get excited. Technology is something I see youth enjoy.”
Millennial farmer and NBGC board member Christi Bland also challenged veteran farmers to open their agribusiness doors to youth more often. “There’s a disconnect with older generations thinking millennials are lazy,” said Bland, who also works on her family’s farmland. “I don’t think that’s the case. We’re just incorporating technology into the way we work to make operations run more efficiently. I believe if you give us more exposure and let us see how you’re able to capitalize on farming using technology more kids will become interested.”
NBGC is big on promoting and supporting multigenerational producers like Bland both home and abroad. The council’s board includes 12 farmers who operate farms in 11 Southern states from Virginia to Texas — the Black Belt Region where my research is concentrated. Together, NBGC’s board farms roughly 60,000 acres in row crops. “It’s not easy for our millennial farmers and our other key panelists to take time out of their schedules to talk about new developments and challenges in agriculture,” said Phillip Haynie III, NBGC board chairman. “I encourage our young farmers to continue to advocate for agriculture. Their engagement on social media is impactful. They’re helping us educate others about the importance technology to traditional farming.”

An intense conversation about farm entity, legal structure during the NBGC’s annual meeting kept me on the edge of my seat.