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Farming While Black

By Shereá Denise

In the Fall of 2020, while perusing Because of Them We Can’s Black Excellence Weekly RoundUp email, I stumbled upon an article about Black farmers on Instagram. While reading the article, I thought back to visiting my grandfather’s home and the Farmer’s Almanac that hung on the wall beside the phone in his kitchen. You see, I am the granddaughter, great-granddaughter, and great-great-granddaughter of farmers from two communities in Randolph County, North Carolina. My grandfather and his siblings farmed tobacco, vegetables, and other crops while also raising hogs, chickens, and cattle. My grandfather was one of thirteen children. His father - who was also a farmer - had left each of his children acres of land, land that he was only able to rightfully purchase with the assistance of white farmers in his community who noticed how the cost of land inevitably increased when a Black farmer was attempting to purchase it.


As I began to follow the various Black farmers mentioned in the Because of Them We Can article, I also began to follow multiple groups that are working towards justice and equality for farmers of color. One such group is F.A.R.M.S. (Family Agriculture Resource Management Services). While exploring the F.A.R.M.S. Instagram page, I found that the historical issues that negatively impacted the farmers in my family had never truly gone away and that the actions taken by the federal government during the 2020 COVID pandemic had exacerbated many of those issues. This made me further consider my historical connection to farming and the environment, as well as their historical connection to America’s oldest tradition… racism.


In “How Racism Has Shaped the American Farming Landscape,” Megan Horst wrote that “[f]arming in the United States is enmeshed with both racism and capitalism in a way that has had a profound impact on who owns, accesses, and benefits from farmland… Perhaps not surprisingly to those familiar with structural racism in the food system, we found that white Americans are most likely to own land and benefit from the wealth it generates. From 2012 to 2014, white people comprised over 97 percent of non-farming landowners, 96 percent of owner-operators, and 86 percent of tenant operators. They also generated 98 percent of all farm-related income from land ownership and 97 percent of the income that comes from operating farms. On the other hand, farmers of color (Black, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander, and those reporting more than one race) comprised less than 3 percent of non-farming landowners and less than 4 percent of owner-operators. They were more likely to be tenants than owners; they also owned less land and smaller farms, and generated less wealth from farming than their white counterparts. Meanwhile, Latinx farmers comprised about 2 percent of non-farming landowners and about 6 percent of owner-operators and tenant operators, well below their 17 percent representation in the U.S. population. They also comprised over 80 percent of farm laborers, a notoriously under-compensated, difficult, and vulnerable position in U.S. farming. In other words, despite greater diversity in the U.S. population overall and seeming progress in other areas of racial equity, farming in this country appears to be as segregated as it was a century ago. Inequity is part of American farming history, with few exceptions.” 


This data did not surprise me. While some of my Black ancestors were landowners, most of them were not. To my knowledge, little to none of my Indigenous ancestors were landowners past owning the acres of land where their homes were built. The landowners in my family resided in more rural counties and had large families, making it easier to farm the land and to pass the land to their children and grandchildren, which kept (most of) the land within the family. From what I understand, the non-landowners in my family who were involved in any aspect of the agriculture industry seemed to work for others either on the land or in mills making products from the crops.


Despite not being surprised by the data, I was shocked to learn that “ the decades after the Civil War, when freed slaves and their descendants accumulated 19 million acres of land. In 1910, 14 percent of all farm owner-operators were Black or African Americans. By 2012, however, they comprised only 1.5 percent.” To me, this means that the country did not only see a rise in political involvement by Black people during the Reconstruction Era (1865 - 1877), but also an increase in land ownership by formerly enslaved people. I want to ask what happened to the progress that was made during this era, but I already know… white supremacy.


As I continued my research, I learned even more about the historical mistreatment of farmers of color and how COVID worsened things for those who dared to farm while Black. WUNC reports that, “[f]or over a century, Black farmers have faced challenges in securing federal and local funding to aid their farms in times of need and during crises. COVID-19 has been no different. From lack of access to information about coronavirus relief provisions for farmers to difficulty finding spaces to safely vend during the crisis, the pandemic has made obstacles even more stark.” 


The Baltimore Sun provided some necessary historical context when they reported about the struggles of many Black farmers, stating that “[t]he same land enslaved people from Africa were forced to work to the benefit of a generation of wealthy white landowners is now out of reach for most Black families, thanks to decades of systemic racism and discriminatory practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others. Black farmers lost an astonishing 90% of their land over the years, and today fewer than 50,000 African American farmers, out of a total 3.4 million farmers, remain in business.”


In light of this, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that President Joe Biden’s stimulus package provides $5 billion to farmers of color, “along with a recognition by the government of its role in creating an inequitable system... The funding is meant to address the obstacles faced by African American, Indigenous, Hispanic and other farmers of color during the pandemic, as well as make up for years of discriminatory practices that decimated the Black farming community.” The passing of the stimulus package has helped to shed light on the fact that farmers of color “have lost 90 percent of their land over the past century because of systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt.”


The systemic discrimination and cycle of debt referenced by the Baltimore Sun has been discussed among members of the Black farming community for decades. “Black farmers have long complained, and government reports have also shown, that the USDA shut them out of loans or significantly delayed approval. In 2001, the Civil Rights Commission found Black farmers waited four times as long for farm loans as white farmers. A 2002 report found Black farmers received $21.2 million in farm subsidies and white farmers receive $8.9 billion. Private banks would also refuse to lend money to Black farmers, and retailers would not readily sell them necessary equipment.”


Of course Lindsey Graham had to be the one to reduce the relief package to nothing more than “racial reparations.” I refuse to get on my soapbox about his statements. Suffice to say, if the relief package was intended to be reparations, Black folks would be entitled to much more.


Instead of discussing Lindsey’s shenanigans, I would much rather talk about John Boyd, Jr., “a fourth-generation black farmer, businessman and civil rights activist… [He is also] the founder and president of the non-profit National Black Farmers Association.” I learned about Mr. Boyd and his work advocating for Black farmers after he was interviewed on MSNBC. John Boyd, Jr. experienced the delay in loans and financial support that many other Black farmers have spoken about. His website tells the story of how delays, unresponsiveness, and the refusal by various agencies and banks to provide him with loans caused his finances to spiral out of control, led to the loss of his poultry contract, and resulted in him having to declare bankruptcy. Mr. Boyd’s lived experience is what fuels his fight for other farmers and his efforts have been vital in bringing national attention to the mistreatment of farmers of color generally and Black farmers specifically. The work that Mr. Boyd is doing is something more than inspirational. It is going to be life-changing for many.


Though my ancestors are not here to see this moment, I know that their stories are among the many seeds planted to lay the foundation for more open and honest conversations about the racist practices and race-based mistreatment experienced by Black Farmers for the last 140-plus years. My hope is that - now that awareness has been raised - action can be taken to at least attempt to right the devastating missteps and unimaginable wrongs suffered by Black famers for simply having the audacity to farm while Black.


Learn more about the issues faced by Black Farmers by listening to Episode 5 and Episode 6 of the 1619 Podcast.

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