Black farmers fight to keep their land and cultivate the next generation

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John Boyd Jr., a fourth-generation farmer, grew up near his 1,000-acre farm in southern Virginia, where he now grows soybeans, wheat, and cattle.

Boyd, of Baskerville, Va., Is also the founder of the nonprofit National Black Farmers Association, which educates and advocates for the civil rights of black farmers, land retention and access to public and private loans, among other initiatives.

Boyd and his father farmed together for 30 years, and his grandparents were sharecroppers after slavery was abolished in 1865.

“I know there were slaves and sharecroppers who helped build these barns here,” Boyd told ABC News. “You can see the logs were hand carved by wooden axes.… Just looking at it reminds me of history, where I’m from and where we need to go in this country.”

As part of his efforts with the NBFA, Boyd worked to attract more black people interested in agriculture, as well as protect their rights and land, even going so far as to drive a mule-drawn cart and a tractor in Washington, DC, to lobby Congress.

“The most powerful tool you can own, only secondary to Jesus Christ, is land ownership,” he said.

To be a farmer in the United States is to be part of an aging but crucial industry. Black farmers, in particular, saw their numbers drop from nearly a million at the turn of the 20th century to just about 50,000 today, according to the US Department of Agriculture. While the reasons are complex, they ultimately come down to the economy, migration – mostly to urban areas in the north – and discrimination and racism, according to the Duke Sanford World Food Policy Center.

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In 2017, black farmers were older than the overall U.S. farmer population, according to the 2017 Agricultural Census, which found their farms to be smaller and their farm sales value to be less than 1% of the U.S. total. Due to more comprehensive data collection, the census found that the number of black producers was 5% higher than in 2012, but the number of farms operated by blacks decreased by 3%. In total, 57% of farms operated by blacks had government sales and payments of less than $ 5,000 per year, according to the census, while 7% had sales and payments of $ 50,000 or more compared to 25% of all farms.

A rich agricultural history

Blacks have a rich history in agriculture before slavery. Leah Penniman, co-director of Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, New York, said the Mende and Wolofs of West Africa were expert rice farmers kidnapped from their homes and taken to the Carolinas.

“Our ancestral grandmothers had the courageous courage to braid seeds in their hair,” Penniman told ABC News, adding that they were transported in slave ships with seeds of okra, cowpea, melon. egusi, sorghum, millet and eggplant.

Hundreds of years later, when the slaves were granted freedom, they were also promised no more than 40 acres of Confederate land along the Atlantic coast, a plan of the federal government which has become widely known by the phrase “40 acres and a mule.”

The government’s promise was broken soon after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, when his successor, Andrew Johnson, rescinded the order and the land was returned to its original owners.

“If ’40 acres and a mule ‘had been a promise kept, it [land] would be worth almost $ 7 trillion today, ”said Penniman.

Many former slaves became sharecroppers, often renting land from their former owners.

“It didn’t stop just when we were released,” Boyd said. “Where were we free to go? We had no money. We had no resources. So a lot of black people stayed on these farms like my ancestors.… This is how the black people got it. land in the first place. “

“It’s a question of fairness”

Boyd said the challenge for black farmers is to conserve land and believes the federal government has not adequately supported farmers of color.

“The Last Plantation,” as the USDA calls it, is “the very agency that’s supposed to give me a hand, [and it is] the very agency that bankrupted black farmers. “

Boyd said that even until the 1980s he would see the word “nigger” on USDA requests and that at his region’s USDA office the only day they would see black farmers was Wednesday. .

“We named it Black Wednesday,” he said.

The USDA said in a statement to ABC News that it included the word “nigger” on the app referenced by Boyd until at least 1988 and that it used the terms “Black” or “African American.” since then. He also said that the “scenario” Boyd recalled regarding Wednesdays “is reprehensible, but we have no information to support that claim.”

“It is clear that for much of USDA’s history, black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian American and other minority farmers have faced discrimination – sometimes overtly and sometimes through entrenched rules and policies – which have kept them from reaching as much as their counterparts who do not face these documented acts of discrimination, ”the USDA said in its statement. “We are committed to building a different USDA, one that is committed to equality and justice, celebrates diversity and includes all customers. “

Boyd said that since 1995, “half a trillion dollars – with a ‘T’ – has been paid to large farmers in this country in the form of simple grants” by the USDA.

“It doesn’t include farm property loans, farm equipment loans, any of those things, and little or none has gone to black farmers,” he said.

In 1999, the USDA settled the Pigford v. Glickman and ultimately paid over $ 1 billion to black farmers, who claimed they were unfairly denied loans and other government assistance.

“It’s a matter of fairness,” Boyd said. “It’s a matter of dignity and respect.”

Rising tide signs

For black farmers, the tide is showing signs of a reversal. In March, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act, a nearly $ 2 trillion law that allocated $ 5 billion to farmers of color. Georgian Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, co-sponsored the bill, which aims to bring further relief to Americans affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has both highlighted and exacerbated long-standing health and economic disparities,” Warnock told ABC News.

Lestor Bonner, a Vietnam War veteran and fifth generation farm owner, said that in 1893 his great-grandfather bought the farm he now works on. He said there were only 136 acres left and needed $ 20,000 to avoid foreclosure. The relief money, he said, could help jumpstart his business after a difficult year weathering the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bonner said he thought he would have the money now “so I can have a harvest in the ground this year,” he told ABC News.

Under the American Rescue Plan Act, the USDA had implemented a loan cancellation program that would have helped Bonner pay off his outstanding loans, as well as pay for supplies and equipment for the help to continue cultivating. But this month, a Wisconsin federal judge ordered the government agency to stop forgiving loans, saying the program unconstitutionally uses race as a factor in determining who is eligible.

Penniman says his organization’s mission is to help black farmers conserve their land, as well as to introduce potential young black farmers to the occupation (the average age of black farmers is over 60).

“We have between 1 and 2,000 people who take these courses every year on the farm to learn everything from tending the soil to planting a seed,” she said.

Penniman said many important farming techniques, including many organic farming practices, such as raised beds, composting and cover crops “come out of an Afro-indigenous tradition.”

Boyd, for his part, said he was “proud and excited to see young people” taking an interest in land ownership and agriculture.

“There is a new generation of black farmers. I love this victory,” he said. “So I welcome them to the fight and welcome them as farmers and stewards of the land and contributors to agriculture and the fruit base in this country. This is the object of my fight. ”

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