New Season for Black Owned Farmers

New season for Black-owned farms

Landowners are critical to pair of Biden’s priorities

Sedrick Rowe on his farm outside Albany, Georgia. The Biden administration is enlisting the agriculture industry in its ambitious plan to fight global warming at the same time it is pledging to help Black farmers. Matthew Odom/The New York Times 2020

By Hiroko Tabuchi and Nadja Popovich The New York Times
Sedrick Rowe was a running back for Georgia’s Fort Valley State University when he stumbled on an unexpected oasis: an organic farm on the grounds of the historically Black school.

He now grows organic peanuts on two tiny plots in southwest Georgia, one of the few African American farmers in a state that has lost more than 98% of its Black farmers over the past century.

“It weighs on my mind,” he said of the history of discrimination, and violence, that drove so many of his predecessors from their farms. “Growing our own food feels like the first step in getting more African American people back into farming.”
Two of the Biden administration’s biggest priorities — addressing racial inequality and fighting climate change — are converging in the lives of farmers like Rowe.
The administration has promised to make agriculture a cornerstone of its ambitious climate agenda, looking to farmers to take up farming methods that could keep planet-warming carbon dioxide locked in the soil and out of the atmosphere. At the same time, President Joe Biden has pledged to tackle a legacy of discrimination that has driven generations of Black Americans from their farms, with steps to improve Black and other minority farmers’ access to land, loans and other assistance.

Farms run by African Americans make up less than 2% of all of the nation’s farms, down from 14% in 1920, because of decades of racial violence and unfair lending and land ownership policies.

Biden’s promises come on the heels of a year in which demands for racial justice have erupted across America, and a pandemic has exposed stark disparities in health. Biden is also seeking to reverse former President Donald Trump’s unraveling of environmental regulations.

Land trusts and other local groups, many in the South, have long sought to bring more Black Americans back to farming. Rowe acquired 30 acres of farmland outside Albany, Georgia, after training at a land trust called New Communities, one of a handful around the country that have sought to help more African American farmers.

In between planting and harvesting, Rowe is pursuing a doctorate in soil health, researching ways to retain nutrients, cut down on pesticides and sequester more carbon in the soil.

“There’s so much knowledge out there, both what’s been modified from our African forbearers and what’s been created in the South,” said M. Jahi Chappell, who heads the Southeastern African American Farmers Organic Network, a group of Black farmers engaging in ecologically sustainable agriculture. But for a long time, he said, “The voices of African American farmers haven’t really been heard.”
For a brief time after emancipation, free Black communities spread across the rural South, cultivating all manner of agricultural goods: pecans, peanuts, pork. By 1920, there were 925,000 Black farmers, a fourth of whom were able to secure their own land.

The Jim Crow era brought a violent backlash from white landowners, and Black farmers and sharecroppers became the target of intimidation, bombings and other attacks. The discrimination and racist violence spurred many Black farmers to flee North, often to cities, as part of the Great Migration.

Disparities in access to loans and aid, and well-documented discrimination at the Department of Agriculture, also drove Black farmers from their land. Even as the civil rights era started to bring Black Americans equal rights under the law, the rural exodus accelerated as white citizens’ councils in the South, wary of a surge in Black voters, explicitly targeted Black farmers for expulsion from their communities.

“We’ve waited year after year after year. We’ve fought for changes,” said Shirley Sherrod, a former Georgia state director for rural development at the Department of Agriculture and a co-founder of New Communities, the land trust. “Now this agency, and this country, really needs to figure out how to do the right thing by Black people.”

Today, fewer than 35,000 Black farmers remain, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture. (And some experts say the number is even lower.) Land owned by Black farmers has fallen by an estimated 90% from the early 20th-century peak, according to the Land Loss and Reparations Project, even as white-owned acreage shrank just 2%.

Black farmers who lost their landholdings lost more than the property itself. They also lost the ability to use it for things like collateral for loans to, for instance, send children to college. An initial estimate of the overall economic harm to Black Americans from the historical loss of rural landholdings, calculated by researchers including Thomas W. Mitchell, a professor of law at Texas A&M University, is $350 billion.

Black farmers continue to face discrimination. As recently as 2015, Black farmers obtained only about $11 million in microloans designed for small farmers in 2015, or less than 0.2% of the roughly $5.7 billion in loans administered or guaranteed by the Agriculture Department that year, according to researchers Nathan Rosenberg and Bryce Wilson Stucki.

The most recent Census of Agriculture, from 2017, found that Black-operated farms tend to be disproportionately smaller, and just 7% of those farms had incomes of more than $50,000, compared with 25% of all farms.

Tom Vilsack, who if confirmed will head the Department of Agriculture and return to a position he held under former President Barack Obama, has drawn criticism from some groups for his record on addressing discrimination at the agency. During his previous stint at the department, critics say, the agency promoted misleading data to depict a renaissance in Black farming, even as Black farmers continued to struggle to get federal assistance or attention for civil rights claims.
Those concerns threaten to overshadow the Biden administration’s rollout of agriculture policies that put farmers at the forefront of the fight against climate change.

One early idea from the Biden transition team is a federal soil “carbon bank” that would offer credits to farmers for carbon they sequester in the soil through sustainable farming methods.

The plan would allocate $1 billion to purchase carbon credits from farmers at $20 per ton of carbon they trap in the soil. The Biden transition team claimed it could reduce annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 50 megatons, equivalent to the emissions from more than 10 million cars driven for a year.

Scientists caution that uncertainties remain about the ability of farmers to sequester carbon in their soil. Still, such a policy could, in theory, benefit farmers like Rowe. Recent studies have shown that organic farming, in particular, may help hold carbon in the soil.

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