At this moment, the world is screaming for change. Thousands have taken to the streets to demand: “enough is enough” in the face of unchecked brutality by the police against black communities and the systems that have sanctioned this violence for centuries. The demand for change isn’t just for the overt, Jim Crow style racism, but a mass calling to overhaul the systems that push Black people down.
If you only know one thing about our company, Happy Valley Meat Company (HVM), I hope it’s this: our whole reason for existence is to improve the lives of the people and animals that feed us. This mission comes from the fact that it’s really, really, unacceptably hard to be a farmer or a farm animal in the modern US agricultural system. We had felt comfortable believing that our work was inclusive, that we recognize the hardships implicit within the American farm system for all farmers. However, until this very week, I had never researched the history of Black farmers in America. I never stopped to consider how systemic racism affects my own corner of the working world, HVM’s very mission: farming.
We are committed to being a positive force for this long-overdue shift toward justice. So today, in an attempt to learn from our mistakes, we’re going to explore the history of Black farming and bring one aspect of systemic racism to the forefront. This isn’t meant to be the definitive text on the history of Black farmers, but rather, it’s meant to highlight a sneaky and pervasive form of racism where we never seek out experiences different from our own, no matter how close to home.
Emancipation Proclamation and the Freedmen’s Bureau (1860s)
The horrendous act of buying and selling human beings brought thousands of slaves from Africa, Mexico, and the Caribbean. These slaves provided free labor to US plantations, jump-starting the massive growth in the agricultural economy of the New World. On January 1, 1863 President Lincoln paved the way for the end of savery, proclaiming that all slaves in the south were free in the eyes of the US government. In 1865, The Freedmen’s Bureau was formed and promised easy access to farmland for Black farmers by breaking up and distributing abandoned and confiscated plantations.
The status quo, however, is not easily disrupted. After Lincoln’s assassination, President Johnson walked back the promise of 40 acres and a mule in the name of mending tensions between the White people of the North and South. The Freedmen’s Bureau worked to help former slaves find a path to become wage laborers, not independent farmers.
Sharecropping (1865 - 1932)
During this time, most farmers in the South, Black and White, didn’t have any cash. What White farmers did have was land, the genesis of all capitalist stories, the golden ticket. Black farmers who needed work found themselves on the farms of White landowners and very quickly an agricultural ladder formed. At the top of the ladder were landowning, independent farmers, followed by tenant farmers and finally, at the bottom of the ladder were sharecroppers. In theory, if you worked hard enough, you could own land and earn financial independence— the American Dream.
Tenant farmers paid landowners for access to land and received the full bounty of their crops. In contrast, sharecroppers couldn’t afford to pay landowners so the landowners took proceeds from that year’s crops and the farmer received what was left after their debts were paid.
Most farmers grew cotton as a cash crop, a crop to be sold for commercial use, not used by the farmer. Still to this day, farming is a cash-intensive business. There are considerable cash requirements to not only buy seeds to plant, but also to buy the basic necessities to live. But, payments come only after harvest, so both sharecroppers and tenant farmers alike would take on debt in the form of crop liens. In a crop lien system, someone lends you cash and holds your crop as collateral. When you harvest and sell your cotton, they get paid first. If this sounds dangerous and predatory, that’s because it is. Merchants would take the farmers crop, sell it for them, and self-report on what they were able to get for that year's crop. Often, Black farmers would start in the red, still owing from previous years, locking Black farmers into indentured servitude, thus pushing the dream of independence and land ownership further and further down the road.
To combat predation, Black farmers would band together in cooperative unions that centered around churches. The co-ops pooled together to buy seeds and supplies without relying on the local merchants that kept Black farmers in debt. The co-ops also built communities of information sharing, alerting Black farmers to best practices and bolstering independence through shared knowledge, and combined buying and selling power.
In the face of blatant racism, increased lynchings and segregation through Jim Crow Laws, Black leaders like Booker T. Washington championed autonomy and independence through the concepts of diversified farming (farming multiple crops for year-round harvest and direct sales for food), land grants and capital investment in Black farming enterprises. While not easily, and in the face of adversity, during this time, Black farmers managed to acquire a good deal of land. About 14% of the farmland in the US was black owned, a percentage commensurate with the size of the Black population.
The Great Depression and the New Deal (1933-1999)
Unequivocally, The Great Depression set Black farmers back in two major ways. The first is that more white farmers dropped down the rungs of the ladder. White farmers lost their farms and pushed out Black laborers. The second and more sustained issue is the increased involvement of the federal government in all aspects of agriculture.
The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) raised the barrier of entry for new farmers. The AAA set minimum prices for crops, which increased farmland value by up to 20%! More expensive land kept Black farmers in the vicious sharecropping cycle of indebtedness.
On top of setting minimum prices, the federal government issued loans and grants to farmers, a huge boon for White farmers, but the programs were administered by local agents who were not above their times. These programs were hugely successful at supporting White farmers in buying land and equipment. A USDA report on Black farmers in America notes:
Census figures show that between 1930 and 1935, white farm owners and tenant operators increased farmland acres in the South by 12 percent, or more than 35 million acres. But farmland acreage owned by nonwhite farmers declined by more than 2.2 million acres, from 37.8 million to 35.6 million, during the same period. White farmers with full ownership in the South increased by 13 percent or 139,646 between 1930 and 1935, and white part-owners increased by 8 percent or 15,299. Nonwhite full-owners of farmland increased by 6 percent or 9,617 between 1930 and 1935, but part-owners decreased by 13 percent or 5,571. During the same 5-year span, white tenants increased by 145,763, while nonwhite tenants decreased by 45,049. These divergent changes may have reflected differences in access to subsidies.
The resources that were supposed to be providing a safety net for farmers were blatantly denied to Black farmers, preventing and stripping them from gaining and maintaining their independence. If you know anything about farming, you know land isn’t financial freedom just for one generation— it’s the future of a family, it sets up a family for many generations and is the very basis of wealth. And if it isn’t clear by this point, the US government systematically stripped black farmers of their immediate independence, their future sustainability, and their shot at accumulating wealth and stability.
Pigford v. Glickman (1999-2010)
Now, the allegation that our own government as recently as 2010 participated in the systematic oppression of Black farmers is not actually an allegation, they have openly admitted to it. Pigford v. Glickman, a class-action lawsuit against the USDA for the discrimination described above, is the largest ever civil rights settlement (around $2 billion) to date. The suit details the absurd and almost unbelievable abuse by USDA loan officers against Black farmers. They slow-rolled loans to Black farmers until it was too late and the farmers lost their farms, they gave out smaller loans to Black farmers than to White farmers with the same merit and they foreclosed on the Black farms that they did loan to at an alarming rate. Not to mention the humiliation Black farmers were subjected to at the hands of the loan officers.
The settlement paid out farmers, but only those that filed official complaints during the right time frame. A 2019 investigation by The Counter asserts that the USDA fought tooth and nail to find any reason not to pay, from clerical errors to placing complaints in a corner until it passed the statute of limitations. We’re talking about the Obama era Department of Agriculture actions, not 1865 era actions.
It’s no surprise that only 1.7% of farms in the US are Black-owned. It’s no surprise that since 1920 the number of Black farmers has declined by 98%. Since 1910 Black farmers have lost 90% of their land, while white farmers have lost only 3%. Who would want to stay farming in the face of everything we discussed?
So, What does this all mean?
Like I said at the beginning, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive work on Black Farmers, but I do hope that this has offered a small window into the history of racism in our agricultural system and how it persists today. Modern racism exists on many levels. First, there is the overt racism - denying someone something because they have different colored skin. Then, there is systemic racism - building laws that take away someone’s ability to accumulate wealth, autonomy, and stability. And then there is the final form of racism, which I think is extremely common though sneaky and harder to talk about. The third type of racism is ignorance or lack of understanding. The fact that I’ve devoted my entire life to helping farmers, studied farming, been a part of farming communities, and generally consider myself to be knowledgeable on the subject, yet I still did not know any of this history. I never asked the questions, “What has it been like to be a Black farmer?”, “Is what makes life hard for Black farmers different from what makes life hard for White farmers?” and it’s never come up. The largest civil rights settlement in the history of our country takes place in my industry and I didn’t know about it!
In our mission to improve the lives of the people and animals that feed us, we want to include all people, and that first starts with asking how. There are many conversations ahead for us, some have started, but not enough. I encourage you to ask the same question and do some exploration in your own life, find out how BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) are treated, have been treated and how they want to be treated in your industry, community, in your corner of the world. Only by asking questions and hearing others’ perspectives can we even begin to understand what next steps to take.
2017 Ag Census: "USDA Statistics on race and farming"
NYT 1619 Podcast: "The Land of Our Fathers: Episode 5"
USDA Report: "Black Farmer History"
NPR: "Black Farmers in America"
The Guardian: "Why Have America's Black Farmers Disappeared"
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