By: Denali Selent
When we stop to think about the dilemmas looming over the farming industry, most of us could readily rattle off a list of issues. For example, livestock agriculture is contributing significantly to climate change, water supplies in the growing regions of the southwest United States are increasingly threatened by drought, the dominance of genetically modified seeds may threaten native species- the list goes on. However, a widespread social justice issue within farming has been materializing for over a century that remains widely concealed: the disappearance of the Black farmer.
While nearly 13.5 percent of the U.S. population is Black, only about 1.3 percent of our nation’s farmers are Black. The percentage peaked over a hundred years ago and has fallen drastically since then.
The principal factor in this decline has been an enduring system of institutional racism and oppressive legislation that has barred Black farmers from obtaining and keeping farmland. Immediately after the Civil War, President Lincoln and Chief Justice Salmon Chase planned to redistribute abandoned Confederate land to freed slaves in a plan that is commonly coined “40 acres and a mule”. The plan, however, was short-lived. Andrew Jackson quickly revoked the land upon taking office, and so began a long history of land-grabbing from Black farmers beginning in the Reconstruction era. Additionally, many Black farmers, who were able to obtain land, faced unjust litigation challenges if the property was “heir property”. Heir property was especially vulnerable to being forcibly sold, and the practice is the “leading cause of Black involuntary land loss”. Furthermore, high land prices, banking discrimination in seeking loans, and the oppressive sharecropping and tenant farming institutions of the Reconstruction era all have played significant roles in the dwindling population of Black farmers. Unfortunately, the list goes on, and the systems that have pushed Blacks out of the farming industry are multidimensional and expansive.
Looking beyond the historical hurdles that have contributed to the decline of the Black farmer, it’s also critical to consider the trauma associated with agriculture. The brutal institution of slavery cast a dark shadow over what once was a culture rooted in knowledge of and connection to the land. In many ways, this shadow still looms and can manifest itself as an impulsive rejection of the idea of agriculture among the Black community. One recent study investigated the anti-farming stigma shared by many Blacks. While being interviewed for the study, one participant shared his view on the topic: “You can’t get beyond the first level of farming when you think about the drudgery, the pain, the history of it”.
This dark history will forever leave its imprint on the Black community and farming industry. However, movements calling for the resurgence of the Black farmer are popping up around the nation, providing glimmers of hope. One individual at the forefront of the movement is Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm in Upstate, NY. Soul Fire Farm is on a mission of “uprooting racism and seeding sovereignty in the food system”. The majority of the farm’s yield is shared with individuals facing food insecurity, and the farm also hosts numerous educational and community-building events. Additionally, environmental justice is also at the forefront of Soul Fire’s mission, and they employ numerous agricultural practices that reflect this. The work done at Soul Fire and similar farms are not only transforming their personal communities, but laying the foundation for a more just, equitable, and inclusive farming future.
If you’re interested in learning more, here are a few great resources to get started!
- The Soul Fire Farm website is full of great resources!
- “How Food, Farming, and Health Disparities Are Interconnected”, the Doctor’s Farmacy with Mark Hyman podcast episode
- Farming While Black book written by Leah Penniman
- “‘Make Farmers Black Again’: African Americans Fight Discrimination To Own Farmland”, NPR podcast
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.