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A Legacy of Exclusion: The Black American Farmer By Mae Catherine Godhigh

“Farming is the oldest occupation in the history of black people, and it’s going to be the first to go extinct,” said John Boyd, a fourth-generation black farmer and president of the National Black Farmer’s Association. He added, “We are an endangered species.”

Last month, I took a trip down south. As we traveled through the states of Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, I watched white farmers fertilizing land and planting seeds. Mile after mile served as a blatant reminder; the exclusion of the black farmers in 2021.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its discriminatory history have been an ongoing struggle for black farmers. The USDA has been their worst enemy. Black farmers suffered obvious bias in the offices of the loan officers. Between 1983 and 1997, thousands of black farmer’s loans were rejected solely because of their skin color. These deep-rooted discriminatory practices resulted in severe economic outcomes for farmers of color.

Denying loans was how the government obtained the black farmer’s land. On the other hand, white farmers were easily and automatically approved. The rejection of financing for black farmers put them in jeopardy and consequent foreclosure. Because homes and land ownership determine a family’s wealth, the loss of land among black families had distinct relevance. It was their lives. It was their heritage. It was their legacies. Denying them resources to operate and maintain their land equaled “landless” and “homeless” for the black families.

In 1997, Timothy Pigford a Black farmer from North Carolina sued the USDA. The lawsuit cited years of racial discrimination towards him and other black farmers. The case proved that the farmers were indeed victims of discriminatory practices by the USDA. Mr. Pigford and other claimants won their case and a one-time payment of $50,000.00. Many considered the settlement a step forward towards repairing generations of damage and theft encountered by black farmers.

Others believed it arrived too little, too late. It is a sad commentary, but many black farmers involved with the lawsuit eventually lost their land and their farms. During the time it took to move the case forward, many of them died before they could taste any reparations. You won’t read about this in your American History books.

Before we host a funeral for the black farmer, allow me to let you in on a little-known portion of President Joe Biden’s massive stimulus relief package. It would pay $10.4 billion dollars to disadvantaged farmers, including black farmers benefiting them in a way that some experts say no law enactment has since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. $5 billion is allocated to go to farmers of color, who have lost 90% of their land over the past century because of systemic discrimination and a cycle of bottomless debt. This relief would provide grants, training, education and other forms of assistance aimed at acquiring land.

It is encouraging to see urban gardens and farmers returning to the inner-city, especially in the areas of “food deserts.” These urban gardens continue to feed communities and boost the spirit of entrepreneurship. However, more is needed along the lines of education and mentoring our youth about the importance of farming.

The calling for farming the land remains today. It is a voice that calls us to return to the knowledge and appreciation of our land. It is in our roots—it is a calling that reminds us of yesterday’s and today’s black farmers. We remember their struggle and plight and the need for them to rise again. It is up to a united people and informed people to end the indictment and exclusion of the black farmer.

To learn more about the black farmers, visit the National Black Farmer’s Association.