Black farmers today are rare — but it wasn’t always this way. In 1920, Black-owned farms made up 14 percent of the industry. However, decades of racial violence, discrimination and a shift away from an overall agrarian society have caused that number to dwindle to under 2 percent today. Now, advocates for the marginalized group are questioning whether President Joe Biden’s administration can accomplish something those in the past haven’t.
Though Biden’s administration has listed combatting inequality and climate change as priorities — both of which affect Black farmers — not everyone is convinced the new commander-in-chief will be a departure form business as usual.
Shirley Sherrod is the former Georgia state director of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture during President Barack Obama’s tenure. She was forced to resign by then in 2010 after some of her remarks were taken out of context to paint her as anti-white by Andrew Breitbart. Upon realizing the error, the administration offered Sherrod her job back, but she did not accept. She still continues her mission to help Black farmers as a co-founder of the New Communities land trust.
“We’ve waited year after year after year. We’ve fought for changes,” Sherrod, who thinks it’s past time to deliver, told The New York Times. “Now this agency, and this country, really needs to figure out how to do the right thing by Black people.”
Though Biden’s nominee for agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack (who held the position under Obama) played a key role in her ousting, Sherrod told The 19th she holds no grudges. She just wants Vilsack to actually do something to assist Black farmers this time.
“I have no ill will towards him, none at all,” Sherrod said. “When I say, ‘I forgive you,’ I mean it. I can’t dwell on that because there are things we need to accomplish. … Vilsack is certainly qualified. He knows the agency. He should be ready to get on the ground to make real change this time around. And we need to hold him to it. Black people need to see some real change.”
It is a topic that weighs heavily on Sedrick Rowe’s mind. A former college football player-turned-organic farmer in Albany, Georgia, Rowe is the founder of Rowe Organic Farms and chapter president of the Southern Georgia Young Farmers Coalition. Rowe told the Times he hopes to see a revival of Black Americans in farming.
“It weighs on my mind,” Rowe said in reference to the racism that caused many of his predecessors to lose their land. “Growing our own food feels like the first step in getting more African-American people back into farming.”
Biden’s administration has vowed to make agriculture a key part of its agenda to tackle climate change. It has also promised to address the historical discrimination contributed to the number of Black farmers dropping drastically from 925,000 in 1920 to its current 35,000.
As noted by Sherrod and other critics, the Department of Agriculture has been one of the main culprits. Intentionally denying Black farmers loans and other aid, the department helped fuel a mass exodus of Black farmers north in search of a better life. It is something Matt Herrick, a spokesman from the department, said they will work to change.
“The reality is that there are inherent legacy barriers and practices that have prevented Black farmers, and other socially disadvantaged producers, from getting access to programs at the Department of Agriculture,” Herrick said. “We’re going to do everything we can — the secretary is committed to that — to removing those barriers.”
The Justice For Black Farmers Act is also something optimists point to as a cause for hope. Proposed by U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, the goal of the bill is “to address the history of discrimination against Black farmers and ranchers, to require reforms within the Department of Agriculture to prevent future discrimination and for other purposes.” It seeks to give land grants through the USDA that allow Black farmers to reclaim up to 160 acres each at no charge.
Advocates hope strides can finally be made towards justice and equality for the many Black farmers who had their legacies ripped away; as well as those who are struggling to maintain the land they’ve held onto.
According to Texas A&M University Professor Thomas W. Mitchell, Black farmers have lost an estimated $350 billion dollars of economic wealth to pass down to their children. “These are the economic consequences of this massive and precipitous land loss that was significantly the result of systemic racial discrimination,” Mitchell said.
One idea being floated by Biden’s administration is implementing a federal program to address climate change that uses soil as a “carbon bank” — a policy which would offer credits to farmers who can trap carbon in soil and reduce emissions into the atmosphere.
Though scientists are unsure of the feasibility of the idea, Rowe thinks if it works it could be “a good start” and would be beneficial to Black farmers like him. “You take care of your soil, the soil takes care of you,” Rowe said.
Others, however, are still skeptical about the reality of actual progress to help Black farmers – particularly because Vilsack has already served as agriculture secretary.
“There’s a very systemic problem of civil rights at the USDA, and Tom Vilsack is not the one to take on the issue and fix it,” Lawrence Lucas, a former USDA official and leader of Justice for Black Farmers, said. “He was there eight years and didn’t fix it. So what makes us think he will fix it now?”