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Southwest Black Ranchers looking to grow

Posted at 7:34 PM, Dec 02, 2021

COCHISE COUNTY, AZ — In Cochise County near the Mexico border, ranching is a way of life.

But what's different about one of the newest- just outside of Douglas--is who and why they have taken it on.

James and Rachel Stewart say food and job insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic, lead them to make some life-changing decisions.

"I felt like it was pretty life-shattering going into the grocery store and just seeing nothing, zero. I mean, I shed some tears after experiencing that," Rachael said.

"There's inflation, a food shortage, there's jobs, the job situation, it's not really pretty out there. So I'm not going to sit up here and know what I'm facing and not react," James said.

So the couple sold his 1972 Chevy Caprice to get the cash to buy 10 acres of desert.

Then packed up their Phoenix-area home, and their four children, ages 9 to 13, and made the land their home.

That was in October 2020.

"Since then it's just really evolved into something a lot greater," Rachael said.

The ranch has grown to more than 200 animals including goats, lambs, chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs, even alpacas.

There's no shortage of food for their family, now the Southwest Black Ranchers are focused on producing commercially.

"Making natural food, the star," Rachael said. "Making the small producer, the star and actually, really starting to change people's perception on where they get their food from."

But they say it's not a simple process.

"When we came out here, we had no mentors, we started to see what was available to [the] public to see if there was any Black farms, ranches, and we couldn't find anything," James said.

James is Black, Rachael is of Filipino and Mexican descent. They believe theirs is the only Black-owned protein ranch in Arizona.

According to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture, there are 3.4 million farm and ranch producers, it's estimated about 49,000 are Black.

In Arizona, there are 19,086 farm and ranch owners, of those 54 are Black.

They also say access to capital has been a struggle.

The USDA has loan programs that focus on startups and small family operations but require at least three years of experience managing a farm.

It's an obstacle that limits their ability to expand.

"I tell her all the time, we don't drive cars, we drive bulldozers, we make our own paths...we need to we need to figure it out, we need to go do it on our own," James said.

For the Stewarts, that means building a network of small, minority, and underserved farmers and ranchers to help not just with funding but mentorship.

"We want to anybody who comes out here now, won't ever go through what I went through that just get to start where I'm at today," James said.

While they work on building the network, they're making their way with private sales, grants, a GoFundMe, and support from people who believe in what they're doing.

"Our Mexican partners have been just phenomenal. We've gotten a lot of support from some nonprofits up in Phoenix," Rachael said.

Their ultimate goal is to provide an attainable alternative for the next generation.

"I want to see a world where my kids are in charge of this and they take over and they see their peers, doing the same thing where there's young farmers, these young ranchers," James said.