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The Black American Farmer—An Endangered Species By Mae Catherine Godhigh

Mae Catherine Godhigh pic 1“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, president of the National Black Farmer’s Association. He added, “We are an endangered species.”

Did you know that in 1920, Illinois had 892 farmers? Black farmers owned fourteen per cent of the nation’s farmland. Today, they make up two percent of the total farming population of the United States. So what happened?

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. Most of their applications for financing were denied and tossed into the trash. Some officers would degrade the black farmer by spitting on the application and telling them they would not receive any financial aid. 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 home and land ownership determines 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 equated to  “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. This litigation resulted in the largest civil rights settlement in the history of the United States. Each claimant received 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.

The questions remain, what can we do in the minority community to keep the art of farming alive? The answer is as close as our back or front yards. How about those neglected city vacant lots? With a little TLC, they can be flipped into luscious and organic gardens. Detroit has adopted the method of urban farming. What is really cool about these gardens is the fact these locations are more than simply growing food. These urban gardens have become classrooms. They provide a perfect setting to learn and to spend quality time in a natural setting. These urban gardens feed communities and boost the spirit of entrepreneurship.

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 yesterdays and today’s black farmers. We remember their struggle and plight and the need for them to rise again.

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