Farming in U.S. Black communities has experienced an unexpected revival in the past decade, just at the moment Black farmers in the United States were written off as extinct after enduring decades of racism from U.S. institutions and backlash from within Black communities that associated agriculture with forced labor.
For decades indeed, Black farmers faced barriers to farming imposed by racist institutions and practices. Members of the Ku Klux Klan used to burn down Black farmers' lands and homes, while the USDA would simply deny Black farmers any financial assistance.
A 1982 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights even predicted the complete extinction of Black farming by the end of the century. There were about 30,000 of Black farmers that year, representing 2 percent of all U.S. farmers. This was a drastic drop from 1920, when Black farmers accounted for about 14 percent of the total number of U.S. farmers and owned about 15 million acres of land.
In 1997, the systematic discrimination was finally acknowledged when 400 Black farmers won the class-action lawsuit Pigford v. Glickman. The USDA was ordered to give thousands of Black farmers payments up to US$50,000 for discrimination claims between 1981 and 1996. In 2010, President Barack Obama's administration ordered a US$1.25 billion settlement in addition to the sentence, known as Pigford II, to fund any additional unfiled claims.
Thanks to a change of federal policies and better collaboration between the USDA and Black farming associations, the 2012 census showed a surge in the number of Black farmers with 44,000 of them —a rise of about 15 percent compared with one decade earlier. Yet Black farm operators still tend to be older, with smaller farms and lower sales.
Black farming associations believe that there is actually a greater number of active Black farmers, but because of the history of institutionalized racism, they are still reluctant to be part of the census.
The USDA is more supportive of the country's Black farmers, but other challenges remain before Black communities can achieve their empowerment via food sovereignty.
According to anthropologist and filmmaker Gail P. Myers, who has been conducting field research and interviews with Black farmers since 1997, racism “is still well alive.”
It is harder for Black farmers to sell their products, said Myers, who also worked as an activist at Farms to Grow, Inc., an Oakland-based nonprofit organization dedicated to working with Black farmers and under-served sustainable farmers around the country.
Farms to Grow developed the Freedom Farmers Market so Black farmers would have a safe space to sell their products and connect with the Black community.
The organization runs programs meant to promote farming within Black communities as a key to empowerment, a challenge for a population that has associated the practice of farming with forced labor because of the legacy of centuries of slavery.
“When the students have a taste of what they grow or what other farmers grow, it changes their taste orientation and eventually their expectation of what food should taste like,” Myers told teleSUR. “They become intrigued by the notion that humans are similar beings to plants — we need and are made up of carbon, lipids, and phosphorous. Then we can easily help the youth to make the connection to a healthy ecosystem, food, and human societies.”
This work is important because “land makes sovereignty real,” explained Myers. “Land gives people not only hope but healthy living conditions, clean food, air, water and a chance to live out life as a true being having an encouraging human experience.”
Food is more than consumption, production and distribution, said Myers, whose 100-year-old Aunt Rose often shared stories about growing up on an Alabama farm presided over by Gail’s great-great-grandfather, Hezekiah Patterson. These stories play a central role in Myers' film.
Hence the main challenge at Farms to Grow is to create new narratives about Black farmers and public space, in a bid to reintegrate the Black food experience back into the larger community forum, via initiatives like the Freedom Farmers Market.
“When we gather at the market and bring all of our Black selves there, without the shame of being in a white-coded space, we circle back to the remembrances the within the current context we as Black folks are able to express community with our food selves and food and farming narratives, our whole selves,” she said.
“Freedom and liberation are all tied to land. For human societies that do not have a land to express their sense of identity connected to the ways of food, including preserving, conserving, harvesting and living within a oneness with the local agro-ecosystem, they tend to be lost and without a foundation,” she concluded.