For Black Farmers, Is Justice Finally on the Way?

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In 1920, 14.7% of American farmers were Black. A century later, only 1.4% are — and they earn less money, receive less government support, and occupy smaller farms on average than do their white counterparts. Of the many ailments afflicting rural America in 2020, these racial disparities are some of the most enduring and under-discussed. Is that about to change?

Last month, Senator Cory Booker introduced legislation intended to support Black farmers and encourage more African Americans to enter agriculture. It envisions a new system of land grants, better oversight of government farm aid and remedies for decades of discriminatory policies. More ambitiously, it also attempts to reimagine the farm work of the future. “This can really help with farm innovation, the farming of tomorrow,” Booker told me in a phone call. “Whether it’s organic farmers, or new creative ways of growing food in this country.”

He’ll have his work cut out for him. The disparities in the U.S. agricultural economy were centuries in the making. After the Civil War, General William T. Sherman’s famous bequest, often remembered as “40 acres and a mule,” was quickly overturned by President Andrew Johnson. The Southern Homestead Act was passed in 1866 with the goal of passing land to freed slaves and others, but few of the region’s impoverished Blacks could take advantage of it.

Despite these obstacles, determined Black farmers had made considerable progress by the early 20th century. Between 1890 and 1910, the number of Black farm owners in the South nearly doubled, from 113,580 to 207,815. Unfortunately, that turned out to be the high water mark. From 1910 to 1997, Black Americans lost about 90% of their farmland. They weren’t alone; thanks to federal policies that boosted large farms (“get big or get out”), small-farm owners of all races lost land during this period. But Black farmers lost far more: Had they left agriculture at the same rate as whites, there would be at least a quarter-million more Black farmers around today.

Several factors account for the harsh toll. First, because only 23% of Black Americans have wills, their estates often become “heirs’ property,” meaning that fractional interests in their real-estate assets are passed down to multiple relatives. Over time, the ownership interests increase, and the estate becomes vulnerable to developers and speculators who can use legal loopholes to acquire it.

Another factor has been disparities in government assistance, dating back decades. In 1965, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report on farm programs in which it noted, regarding the (now defunct) Farmers Home Administration: “Poor whites receive FHA assistance to acquire or expand their farms, to stock and equip them, to improve their housing or financial position. This is rarely ever the case for negroes.”

Such inequities were widespread. “Because of certain practices, like giving loans out when it was too late to get the kinds of resources you needed to harvest crops, they were ultimately cheated out of their land,” Booker said, referring to Black farmers. “It has hurt African Americans dramatically in this country.” As recently as 2019, the Government Accountability Office determined that “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers” received “proportionately fewer loans and farm credit overall” than did those who were better off. It cited discrimination as one potential factor.

Booker’s Justice for Black Farmers Act offers a bold template for remediating such abuses. Among other steps, it establishes an independent Civil Rights Oversight Board at the Department of Agriculture and boosts funding for a program that assists in the resolution of property-succession issues. If enacted, both initiatives would make a real difference to Black farmers and their families.

But Booker doesn’t just want to remedy the past. He wants to ensure that African Americans play a role in farming’s future. Since 2014, locally and regionally produced food has been the fastest growing sector of U.S. agriculture. Some is organic, much is grown using sustainable methods, and almost all is marketed through channels such as farmers’ markets and community cooperatives. Thanks to the pandemic, and a growing interest in sustainable food generally, those locally focused producers are poised to make significant gains in the years ahead.

Booker’s bill could place Black farmers at the vanguard of this revolution. It authorizes the USDA to spend up to $8 billion a year acquiring land and granting it in 160-acre plots to Black farmers. (There is precedent: The 1862 Homestead Act gave away 270 million acres in 160-acre increments, mostly to white settlers.) In return, the grantees must undergo training focused on “regenerating the soil, ecosystem, and local community.” To help such small farms compete, the bill increases funding to existing programs that promote locally focused agriculture, such as farmers’ markets and the producers who supply them.

It’s an expansive vision, and one that won’t be easy to enact. Nonetheless, Booker has reasons to be optimistic. During the 2020 campaign, President-elect Joe Biden appealed directly to Black farmers, promising to address racial inequities in agriculture, and he’s likely to follow through at the USDA. Meanwhile, the House Agriculture Committee just elected its first-ever Black chairman, Representative David Scott, who has already expressed support for Booker’s idea.

Passing the bill would be a major victory for racial justice. It also just might herald big changes ahead for rural America. “I think there is a potential for a real food revolution to come about,” Booker told me, “and have farmers lead it.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale."

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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