By Carolyn Twesten, Weaver Street Market Produce Merchandiser
In 1910, 14% of all U.S. farmers were Black. According to the 2017 U.S. Agricultural Census, less than 1.3% of the 3.4 million farmers in the United States today are Black, and Black-owned farmland accounted for only 0.4% of total U.S. farmland.
Why is there such a huge disparity in the number of Black and White farmers? The answer lies in the history of systemic racism within the United States.
Jim Crow Era
Following the Civil War, Black Americans quickly began acquiring land. By 1910, out of over 800 million acres of total farmland in the U.S., Black farmers owned 2% of that at 17 million acres. This is a stark contrast to the 4 million acres of Black-owned farmland today, only 0.4% of total farmland in the U.S. The majority of these farms were located in the Southeastern United States, and as Jim Crow legislation took hold in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Black landowners became the target of violence in the form of intimidation, bombings, and lynching. This violence and discrimination led to many Blacks fleeing the South to northern cities during the Great Migration, with Whites taking control of formerly Black-owned property.
Get Big or Get Out
While many of the New Deal’s agricultural acts of the 1930s were to benefit farmers and rural America, many of the funds went to bigger operations who were mechanizing and buying up more land. Later, the push to “Get Big or Get Out” in the 1950s resulted in a need for more governmental assistance via Department of Agriculture (USDA) loans for new equipment. Many small Black farmers were simply forced out of business by the pressures of the movement to industrialize farming, but the ones who held on in an attempt to scale up became victims of rampant discrimination by the USDA. USDA offices throughout the South withheld loan funding, denied crop allotments, and ensured that USDA committees continued to be dominated by Whites. As a result, the number of Black farmers declined 37% from 1930 to 1950 while the overall number of farmers declined by 14%.
Heirs’ property is property that is passed to one’s descendants without a will or estate planning and is particularly common among poor rural families. The results of this are a property with multiple co-owners without a clear title to the land. This is especially important when it comes to applying for USDA assistance, as obtaining a Farm Number via the Farm Service Agency requires a clear land title. Additionally, the inheritors of the property in some cases may not be aware that they have inherited property, or their whereabouts may not be known. This muddiness creates the opportunity for legal battles or mismanagement in the form of lack of payment of property taxes, often leading to land loss due to partition or tax sale. Black farmland ownership, which peaked in 1910 at 17 million acres, has decreased to less than 4 million acres today. Estimates are that as much as 60% of Black-owned land is heirs’ property and therefore owners are unable to take full advantage of the land and are also at risk of losing the land.
Working Towards Change
The road that has led us here has been long and fraught with violence and discrimination, and progress to improve the fate of Black farmers in the U.S. has been slow. However, legislation has begun to be passed that could make for positive changes. The 2002 Farm Bill “empower[ed] the secretary of agriculture to appoint underrepresented farmers to local Farm Service Agency committees”, preventing further discrimination in local FSA branches. In 2008, the Farm Bill created the USDA Office of Advocacy and Outreach, creating technical assistance for “socially disadvantaged” farmers as well as allocating funds for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmer loans.
Fair Access for Farmers and Ranchers Act of 2018
The Fair Access for Farmers and Ranchers Act of 2018 passed by Congress makes certain farmers operating on land that is heirs’ property (e.g., property received from an owner who died without a will) eligible to receive a farm number and participate in USDA programs. The bill also requires USDA to collect and report on data related to farmland ownership, tenure, transition, and entry of beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
What is Weaver Street Market doing?
Weaver Street Market is committed to diversifying our vendor and product base to make the co-op a more inclusive place to shop and work. We are actively training our staff in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and are seeking out “game-changing” BIPOC producers in every product category. Check out our growing list of Gamechanger producers here: https://www.weaverstreetmarket.coop/category/gamechangers/
This past fall we partnered with First Fruits Farm by providing a grant for $11,000 for the purchase of a refrigeration unit for storing fresh produce and poultry. First Fruits Farm is a Black-owned farm in Louisburg, NC that donates 100% of the food they grow to local hunger relief agencies. Learn more here.
Weaver Street Market is also collaborating with organizations that are working to create change in their industry through training programs like the Cheese Culture Coalition. We will be donating $5 from each Virtual Cheese Tasting ticket sale to the coalition. The mission of the Cheese Culture Coalition is to promote equity and inclusion within the cheese industry by empowering BIPOC communities through education.
What can you do?
Support your local Black farmers and businesses or consider donating to a local Black Farmer training program, like Sankofa Farms! Check out the Black Farmers Market, which rotates weekly in season between locations in Raleigh and Durham, or subscribe for a food box from Tall Grass NC.
Want to read more about Black land loss?
Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights
By Pete Daniel
The Butz Stops Here: Why the Food Movement Needs to Rethink Agricultural History
Nathan Rosenberg, Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic; University of Arkansas School of Law
Bryce Stucki, U.S. Census Bureau
Land Loss Trends Among Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers in the Black Belt Region
Monica A. Rainge, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/ Land Assistance Fund
To read more about how Black Co-ops began, click here.