Writing in the New York Times, Hiroko Tabuchi and Nadja Popovich profile Sedrick Rowe, a farmer growing organic peanuts in southwest Georgia. Georgia, of course, is known for peanut farming; the US even elected a Georgia peanut farmer as president. What makes Rowe’s two plots—a modest 30 acres—noteworthy, however, is that he is a Black farmer in a state that once had tens of thousands of Black farmers but now has very few.
Over the past century, Georgia has lost 98 percent of its Black farmers. And Georgia is not alone; in 1920, Black Americans owned 14 percent of all farms in the United States—there were 925,000 Black farmers. By 2017, that number had fallen below 35,000. The biggest reasons for the decline have been white supremacist violence, lending, and land ownership policies that have served to systemically undermine Black farmers.
“It weighs on my mind,” Rowe tells Tabuchi and Popovich. “Growing our own food feels like the first step in getting more African American people back into farming.”
Thomas Walton Mitchell, a Texas A&M law professor who has long researched land tenure laws and was named a MacArthur Foundation fellow last year, estimates that the value of lost Black farmland wealth totals $350 billion. In the 1990s, Black farmers sued the federal government, garnering a modest $2.3 billion settlement that was limited to covering a very small part of the losses from discriminatory practices at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the 1980s and 1990s. Needless to say, the gains from the Pigford case could hardly compensate for the much greater losses that Black farmers have suffered.
Now, a growing movement is building for land justice, especially in the South. For example, Rowe, in developing his farm, got help from the New Communities Land Trust, which provided him with technical assistance and training. New Communities, the first community land trust in the US, began in 1969. New Communities was forced, by a combination of drought and USDA discriminatory lending practices, to foreclose in 1985; however, it gained new life due to a $12 million award it received as part of the Pigford case and has been operating for the past decade.
This summer, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the HEAL Food Alliance (HEAL stands for Health, Environment, Agriculture and Labor) published a policy brief outlining their vision for a thriving Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) farming sector. Farming, the authors observe, can be a “powerful path to build community wealth and resilience to challenges such as water pollution, droughts and floods, and lack of access to healthy food.”
Yet, they add, BIPOC farming groups face obstacles, including “difficulty securing capital, credit, land, infrastructure, and information.” Philanthropy has often served to reinforce these problems. An open letter by HEAL and its allies this summer noted that, “Over the years, it has become a common practice of foundations to resource white-led organizations to do service work in BIPOC communities, or to fund a white-led organization with an established funder relationship to subgrant to an under-resourced BIPOC-led organization.”
The result, the letter writers add, is that “BIPOC organizations are asked to partner for bottom dollar while the white-led groups get the majority of resources.” The three foundations named in the letter (Kellogg, Rockefeller, and Walmart Foundation) met with letter signers in August and made some small concessions, but the dispute continues, prompting the initial group to publish a follow-up letter in December.