A Comeback for the Black American Farmer?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because farming needs a new spring — and multicultural minds could lead it.
By Nick Fouriezos
The last vestiges of winter linger in this six-plot urban garden in Baltimore, where compressed soda bottles, Styrofoam, ketchup packets and candy-bar wrappers lie next to long-uprooted sweet potato husks. The barren farm looks like nature’s embodiment of seasonal affective disorder, and economic depression is particularly felt in this locally infamous Belair-Edison neighborhood, which became a guinea pig for failed government relocation programs in the early ’90s and has been stuck in a morass ever since. And yet, despite that seeming gloom, this small farm is a success story.
See, when Denzel Mitchell started Five Seeds Farm in the spring of 2008, he couldn’t have known it would spread quickly from this backyard plot to other vacant lots across the city. The community farming experiment bloomed, and by the fall of 2011, Mitchell purchased a larger farm in Sparks, Maryland, 25 miles north; today it produces fruit, vegetables, herbs and honey on five acres. Come springtime, the bounty of both farms will serve varied markets from Baltimore to Washington. “We are reviving the idea that farming is essential, artistic and exciting,” Mitchell writes on the Five Seeds website. “We champion the idea that true food security is achieved when you control your own food.”
We are reviving the idea that farming is essential, artistic and exciting.
Denzel Mitchell, owner, Five Seeds Farm
That message has taken root in the African-American farming community, which has grown in the past decade despite studies that once projected its demise. The number of Black farmers has increased by 15 percent since 2002, up to more than 44,000 nationally, while the overall farming population has dropped during that same period. Sure, Black farmers still make up less than 2 percent of the industry and access to credit remains a challenge, experts say. During the Obama presidency the U.S. Department of Agriculture developed a stronger relationship with small-scale farmers, and while the easing of regulations under the Trump administration primarily will help large farms, the benefits could trickle down. As public support grows for organic foods, local produce and sustainability, agriculture leaders see an opening for future growth. John Boyd Jr., a fourth-generation Virginia farmer and a contender for agriculture secretary under Obama before the post went to Tom Vilsack in 2008, says urban farms help tap into “a renewed interest from young people as to where their food is coming from.”
Minority-led farms have sprouted from New York City to Philadelphia, from Stone Mountain in Georgia to the hills and molehills of Mississippi, a national phenomenon writer Victoria Massie recognized last year by suggesting 35 Black-owned farms that Americans could buy from instead of Whole Foods. Maryland has been especially attractive, both in the fertile fields of the Eastern Shore, home to the Black Dirt Farm Collective, and in Baltimore, site of Tha Flower Factory, among others. Lavette Blue, who with her husband has farmed the Greener Garden in Northeast Baltimore for three decades, says 75 percent of the students in the local small-scale farming classes are African-American. “It’s picking up steam,” adds Staycie Francisco with the Farm Alliance of Baltimore. Recently elected U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who is the first Marylander in decades to sit on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, tells OZY that the next federal farm bill will consider “legislation to provide incentives for more young people to go into farming.” Van Hollen also points to work done by the historically Black University of Maryland Eastern Shore; its Small Farm Program provides funds and literature to help limited-resource and socially disadvantaged farmers.
It’s a far cry from the hostile environment Black farmers faced in the past. W.E.B. DuBois estimated Black ownership of land increased from three million acres in 1875 to 12 million in 1900, and the U.S. census of 1910 was the peak for nonwhite farmland in the South, covering almost 13 million acres. The 6,382 Black farmers in Maryland that year remains a historic high. But the emergence of Jim Crow–era laws, tax structures that benefited large farmers over small ones and discriminatory lending at the USDA led to a 1982 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report predicting Black farmers would become extinct by 2000. While that dire prediction didn’t come true, Boyd came face-to-face with those biases when he applied for a loan in the late ’80s. As he later detailed in a civil-rights complaint, he watched the loan officer toss his application in the trash. “I felt like less than a man, because I didn’t see a way out,” Boyd says, and without the funding almost all farms rely on, he later was forced to declare bankruptcy.
While change has been incremental, it’s certainly quickened in recent years. Led by Boyd, the National Black Farmers Association won class-action lawsuits against the USDA for discriminatory practices as recently as 2013, and the organization’s national conference in November drew more than 1,000 farmers. Back in Maryland, much of the land available for city farming is in disinvested neighborhoods, locals say, where costs are low, and the need for fresh food is highest. (Of course, so is crime, and Francisco worries that farms are often seen as placeholders for future housing projects.) As awareness of the negative health effects of food deserts grows, Francisco says young locals increasingly are asking for a change in the offerings “around the corner from them.”
It’s also about shifting the historic narrative — white lands tilled by Black hands — into something more positive, says Eric Jackson, founder of the Black Yield Institute, a Baltimore-based food-justice and social-action organization. “While critiquing,” he says, “[it’s] also being proud of the fact that our ancestors helped build this food system, even with our free labor.”