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Black Farmers: Unsettled Land

By Kamille D. Whittaker

“I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.”
— Harriet Tubman

“There’s a right way and a wrong way to farm,” mutters Cornelius Key, carefully choosing the words to describe the paradox that is the African-American farmer — he is modern, yet steeped in a complicated tradition of tilling the same soil that was stained with the sweat of enslaved African Americans who, less than two centuries ago, arguably laid the foundation for the United States’ entire economic infrastructure. It is a puzzling conundrum, for in many ways, the black farm is the point of intersection for the African-American experience. Some call it ‘the last plantation’ because, like the system of slavery, many of the policies that govern the trade are still at the mercy of the federal government. Others, more optimistically, deem it the final threshold toward economic sufficiency, as land ownership, in America, often translated into power, citizenship and suffrage. Beyond America’s borders, the connection to the land is even more intrinsic, as the concept of ownership is less defined: Land is simply considered sacred.

Today, even as African-American farmers are losing land at an annual rate of 300,000 acres, the story of the African-American farmer is as much about economic survival as it is resilience in the face of marketplace and federal prejudice.

“In the past, because of unfair practices, we had bad commodity prices and we were not getting what we deserved for what we produced. Now, our input costs are rising, so even if we are getting paid relative to what we produce, there’s no noticeable gain,” says Key, agriculture specialist for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives which was established in 1967 to assist primarily African-American rural families in the formation of cooperatives and credit unions, the securing of land holdings, and the promotion of public policy favorable to family farms.

Unlike many similarly situated African-American farmers, however, Key is doing relatively well. Where the average African-American farmer was cultivating fewer than 120 acres in 1992, and half were hardly surviving on 50 acres and below, he grosses $300-350,000 annually from producing row crop and beef cattle on 658 acres of land in southern Georgia. Three hundred and sixty five acres of that are his own — an accumulation of more than two decades. “1985 was the year that I bought my first 15 acres of land with $15,000 out-of-pocket cash.” One year later, Key was able to purchase 183 more acres at $750 per acre.

“I wanted to get [a] large enough [amount] in order for my father to stop sharecropping.” His father, who is now 71 years old, stopped sharecropping in 1988 — a practice commonly thought of as exclusive to the post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow-ravaged South.

For his father, however, it was as if time stood still. “My father farmed 50 of his own acres plus 200 for some fellow. Even though he made a living and took care of my family, he never got what he deserved. He owned his own equipment, but once he harvested his crops and paid his debts, there was hardly anything left. There was no profit.” That his father was unable to build substantial wealth by owning the land in which on worked was, in fact, the impetus behind Key’s drive to accumulate and farm his own land.

“I learned everything I know about farming from my father. It’s easy to go through life never owning anything, but we have to realize that this is a zero-sum scenario,” says Key. “When you own the land, you have something that you can work hard at, be proud of and pass on to future generations.”

Key’s stance is in stark contrast to the widely held notion that African Americans, in particular, are largely sated with holding the deeds to borrowed land. Instead, there is a simmering restlessness regarding the dismal state of African-American landownership — whether it is manifested in sporadic debates about reparations or in reference to today’s highly scrutinized foreclosure rates. Indeed, homeownership is a start; and commercial real estate is even more commendable. But, the prevailing thought is that the path to generational sustainability and economic emancipation is inextricably linked to land ownership — think acreage, not square footage.


When federal law enforcement officials attempted to seize Dr. John Boyd’s farm more than a decade ago, they promptly discovered what many already knew — he can be as ornery as a mule.

“The government sent U.S. Marshals to my house at 12 o’clock midnight and said I had to leave my property; but I knew if I left, that would mean I abandoned my property and the government would have the right to take it,” recalls Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association fourth-generation farmer. He refused to help the marshals load up his equipment and snatched down the ‘for-sale’ signs — again.

“At the time, an Order of Acceleration was placed on my property giving me 30 days to come up with the $50,000 I owed, or to vacate. They had already tried to sell my equipment and put up billboard advertisements for the selling of my farm, but I wasn’t leaving because I knew I went through the proper channels to prevent the foreclosure of my farm.”

Defeated, the enforcement officials left, promising to return on the official date of sale; but not without propelling Boyd into the role of the spokesman for all African-American farmers on the verge of losing land as a result of unscrupulous lending practices by branches of U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In 1920, more than half of all African Americans lived on farms, mostly in the South. By comparison, only one quarter of white Americans lived on farms across the United States. That year, blacks made up 14 percent of all the farmers in the nation and worked 16 million acres of land. By 2003, they accounted for less than 1 percent of the nation’s farmers and cultivated approximately .003 percent of the farmland, according to the USDA. Today, battling the onslaught of globalization, changing technology, an aging workforce and even the USDA itself, black farmers number below 18,000, and they collectively till fewer than 3 million acres.

Far more often than their white counterparts, black farmers failed during periods of crushing economic pressure because the USDA forced them to the end — or out — of the line when every American farmer was desperate for subsidies to buffer them against changes in the farming business.

Between 1985 and 1994, African-American farmers — 47 percent of whom had gross sales under $2,500 — averaged just $10,188 in yearly subsidies. This was less than a third of the average support payments given to white farmers, who were grossing almost four times as much in sales, according to reports from the Black Farmers and Agriculturist Association.

For nine consecutive years, Boyd was completely denied the most important subsidy that every farmer in the United States is entitled to. According to Boyd, farmers usually apply yearly for a operational loan in December or January, so the loan would be approved in time to plant that particular year’s crop.

“Mr. James Garnett, who was the county supervisor in charge of approving the operational loans in my county, tore up my application and then threw it in the trash can right in front of me. He said, ‘You can come up here next year — but that’s up to you. You really should sell.’ He told me he knew a farmer not too far up from me that ran a dairy farm, and he would arrange for me and my family to move up there and milk his cows. According to him, that would be a ‘better arrangement’ for me. Basically, he wanted me to sell my farm and go be a tenant farmer on a white man’s farm. We exchanged some words — and it wasn’t government terminology.”

When later asked in legal proceedings if he was generally opposed to lending money to black farmers, Garnett replied “yes, because I think they’re lazy and just wait for a paycheck every week.” Garnett also admitted to denying Boyd’s loan application year-after-year on frivolous grounds, which progressively worsened Boyd’s financial situation.

Boyd had a rock solid case for discrimination — and he wasn’t alone. In 1999, the USDA, reached a $2.3 billion settlement agreement and consent decree resolving a class action lawsuit filed by black farmers who were denied credit by the USDA during the Reagan Administration, when the civil rights arm of the agency was eliminated. Known as the Pigford case, the settlement sought to make amends for a long history of admitted and overt racial discrimination within the agency and the mostly white county committees that showed prejudice against black farmers in loan decisions. The USDA admitted to ‘bureaucratic delay’ — but not racism.

While 96,000 farmers were eligible, and 23,000 filed claims, only 13,000 farmers received a portion of the settlement, estimated to be $50,000 each. The rest were told their claims were submitted too late.

Notwithstanding the loss of a way of life and a means to survival, the $50,000 payout was hardly enough compensation. Today’s market prices reveal the price of a new tractor as $125,000; a new planter — $40,000; a cotton picker — $20,000; and a single bag of better technology cotton seed totals $300.

Recently, lawmakers and activists have successfully lobbied to reopen the case, on the grounds that insufficient effort was made to reach and compensate all afflicted farmers.

“There is an act of congress pending that will address 74,000 ‘late’ claims. If the Farm Bill passes both the House and the Senate, then the USDA must extend their statute. It doesn’t guarantee [the plaintiffs] the $50,000, but it allows them be heard,” says Boyd.

Although the discrimination settlement allowed him to avoid foreclosure on his farm, Boyd aggressively lobbied Congress for seven years to draft the current Farm Bill. “Everyone told me that it couldn’t get done, but we have to get involved in the political systems. We have to put lobbyists in the halls of congress because when the bill passes, it’s going to cost a fortune to ensure that those persons are eligible to receive their money. It will be a slow process.”

This time, Boyd says they will approach the process a little differently. “In the original case, we made mistakes with our legal team by waving the right to discovery, so if the individual farmers needed to request documents and information, the government was not obligated to furnish anything.” And, of course, they didn’t.

Also, Boyd and the National Black Farmers Association will push for more accurately targeted direct mailing campaigns that will reach farmers in the most rural areas. Other changes include infusing talk of land ownership and farming into the national African-American economic and political platform.

But the biggest lesson, Boyd reveals, will come in being more aggressive about the way black farmers do business. And he is calling out names.


Farming as Big Business

“I’ve been in negotiations with John Deere for going on two years now, and we haven’t been able to forge a successful, mutually beneficial partnership.” John Boyd’s appeals to Deere & Co. and all other major suppliers of requisite farming equipment and machinery are basic: if African Americans represent roughly 10 percent of the population, they should also produce 10 percent of the food base and get 10 percent of the shelving space. In terms of vertical integration, it follows that African Americans should also have some claim to the farming equipment that John Deere has a monopoly on.

“They haven’t done enough to work within our community in terms of having black-owned dealerships and partnerships, relative to how much we support their businesses, as a matter of fact, they seem downright insensitive to the suggestion,” argues the president of the National Black Farmers Association, who, after nearly losing his farm due to federal discrimination, has tirelessly petitioned the government and all relevant parties for a redress of counterintuitive policies toward African-American farmers.

These certainly aren’t your grandparents’ farming tactics.

Increasingly, American agriculture has become an “agribusiness,” a term created to reflect the big, corporate nature of many farm enterprises in the modern United States.

Agribusiness includes a variety of farm businesses and structures, from small, one-family corporations to huge conglomerates or multinational firms that own large tracts of land or that produce goods and materials used by farmers. The advent of agribusiness in the late 20th century has meant fewer but much larger farms. Sometimes owned by absentee stockholders, these corporate farms use more machinery and far fewer farm hands.

According to Georgia State representative Lynmore James (D-Montezuma), the road to acquiring capital in order to become a part of the agribusiness movement is becoming less arduous. In light of the Pigford settlement and renewed scrutiny on federal and private discrimination, banks and federal departments are cleaning up their act.

“The credit situation has lightened up,” says James. “Banks have freed up a whole lot of money, so if farmers have the equity, they may be able to secure better funding. In the past, matters were difficult because African Americans found it hard to get capital to operate and for them to expand,” he continues. “Doors have been closed in our face and the average farmers who were born and reared on the farm don’t have the expertise or wherewithal to go and knock down doors that need to be knocked down. I was even turned down for a loan because I advanced too fast on borrowed capital,” reveals James, a farmer, who became a Georgia state assemblyman chiefly to advocate on behalf of the constituents in his predominantly rural district.

“When I ran 16 years ago, the primary issues were healthcare, education, and economic development. On the state side, I’ve been able to pass legislation for tax relief for livestock, but the real work has to be done on the national and organizational side.” In terms of competing, James sees a more collective approach to farming as a key strategy.

“Because of the expensive costs of equipment, farmers must diversify and form cooperatives where farmers can share equipment.”

That’s where Jerry Pennick — director of the land assistance fund of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives — comes in.

“Right now, we are at a holding pattern where about 22,000 black farmers are farming 2.5 to 3 million acres of land. But that’s a small percentage; I would say less than 1 percent of total farms here in America. The good thing is that we are not losing farms at the rate that we were in the last century,” says Pennick.

He stops short of giving credit to the Pigford case settlement – the proposed cure-all for lost farmland due to federal discrimination policies.

“The Pigford case has been settled, and although it was intended to address past wrongs, it didn’t address the plight of current farmers. Overall, the settlement focused too much on getting money out instead of changing the culture USDA. I would like to see, in addition to an attempt to change the culture, that people are held responsible. We want to make sure that the ones that were discriminating in past are fired; that there is adequate funding for the 1890 Land Grant and a more than adequate funding and support for organizations like ours.”

Pennick’s Federation works with individual farms in terms of helping them secure alternative financing: whether it’s from forming cooperative resources and credit unions, to seeking assistance from the government.

“There shouldn’t be any stigma surrounding getting subsidies from the government. White farmers are also heavily dependent on government — it’s the key to survival. The government absolutely has a role to play in the nation’s food production,” contends Pennick.

Given the relatively recent history of discrimination, farmers are increasingly looking outside of banks and the government in order to fund their annual operational expenses. Boyd calls it “thinking outside of the box.”

“We have to find creative ways to get annual money coming in and to keep the land and the family. There are programs where you can plant pine trees and receive $15-$20,000 annually. Some farmers have conservation easements or water ways on their property — you can receive a subsidy for that.”

Farmers should even capitalize on the organic food rave and delve into niche farming, as deciding what crop to grow is directly connected to market demand, readiness and presentation. “The key to farming is access to markets when harvest time arrives. If my tomatoes are ripe I need to be able to move those markets. It’s a very time sensitive process and the contract must be made at least a year in advance,” explains Boyd.

Another largely untapped way to keep land in the hands of African Americans is becoming a private investor, “If you can buy a 60 [or] 70K Cadillac, you ought to consider purchasing a cheaper car and instead buying a plot of land that is going to continue to maintain and often times increase its property value.”

But here is where it gets tricky. Having land with too many “uninterested” investors can spell trouble in situations where property taxes  can skyrocket. The impulse for the far removed investors, who don’t have a connection to the land, will almost always be to sell. And even if the land is owned solely by the family, maintaining a farm involves intensive labor that many aren’t prepared to take on.

For example, in a landmark tobacco buyout where there were 9,000 black farmers eligible to receive money from the state of Georgia, 40 percent of those farmers did not receive their just due. The reason, according to Boyd, is that there was no power of attorney to distribute the land.

“Not having a basic will is a drastic mistake; but an even bigger mistake is not specifying who will be the executor of the estate. In this case dividing the land up equitably between 15 heirs is problematic because the property becomes useless. Among the 15 descendants there are bound to be disputes about boundaries and about who is paying the property taxes. These disputes are often held up in court while the land is lost in the meantime.” Boyd suggests that one person should be the administrator and then he’ll divide the land.

Representative James has already begun trying to sidestep such a fate to his family land.

“I am in the process of estate planning. I have three sons and a wife, and when I’m gone, I don’t want everything I have to go to government lawyers and taxes. I want to make sure that what I have is left to my children; and what they decide to do with it is entirely up to them, but at least it will remain in the family.” James plans to develop a portion of his land into an equestrian community, and the other portion will be reserved for cattle.

However, James is just one in contrast to a multitude of farmers who stand to not only lose their land but their legacy, as well. Pennick is crestfallen about what he sees as the apathy toward the 15-20 million acres of “idle land” — available land that is not being used as farmland.

“Sometimes, I get discouraged because I see people driving around in 100 acres of land with these cars, or 5 acres of land with these gold chains around their necks — not realizing that farming and land ownership is indeed the bedrock of black sustainability in America.”


Published in Atlanta Tribune: The Magazine, June 2008

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