Biden is Courting Black Farmers, but They’re Paving Their Own Road to Justice
When Randolph Carr III left his job in New York City’s public defender’s office, his commitment to reform within the criminal justice system shifted to helping to reform the nation’s food systems.
“It occurred to me that there were unanswered questions about the people who were not only on the ground growing our food, but also about systemic changes within food and agriculture that can actually support the kind of world we wanted to see,” said Carr.
Carr began working towards that world. Now acting Executive Director of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, Carr is one of many Black Americans who’ve redirected their careers to fight for food and land justice in the United States.
“This is one of the most important issues of our time, and the renewed emergence of interest in farming among Black people is essential,” Carr told FoodPrint.
What is Land Justice and Why is it Needed?
In the United States, land is power, so much so that white Americans — by way of direct racism or systemic racism within corporations — have spent decades stripping Black landowners of their farmland. This largely occurred in the South, where formerly enslaved people were able to purchase their land after slavery to move towards economic stability and self-sufficiency. Despite this attempt at upward mobility, Black landowners have lost 12 million acres of farmland over the past century, The Atlantic journalist Vann Newkirk III found. Most of this loss occurred from the 1950s onward, resulting in the dispossession of 98 percent of Black agricultural landowners in America.
“Racism and injustice is evident in every single aspect of American life, but one of the most under acknowledged, yet profoundly dangerous ways it shows up is through our nation’s exploitative food systems,” said Soul Fire Farm program director Naima Penniman. Soul Fire Farm promotes equity in farming by developing farming activists of color, distributing organic food to eradicate food apartheid (systemic lack of access to healthy food), and reclaiming agency in the food system.
“This exploitation of Black farmers has impacted communities economically, but also from a health perspective. Our communities don’t have access to food for us and by us, and it’s because of constant discrimination and injustice.”
Why Black Landownership is Surfacing as a Topic for This Election
The needs of Black farmers, from landownership to food sovereignty in communities, have reached discussions within the presidential campaign. Vice President Biden has courted rural Black voters, leading roundtable discussions and working with Black elected leaders to address discrimination in agriculture. Though this is a small portion of the electoral vote, Biden’s focus on these needs — the first of a presidential candidate in some time — has been an encouraging sign to Black farmers advocates like RAFI-USA Farmers of Color Network program manager and farmer liaison Tahz Walker.
“We’ve needed there to be more outreach done for programs that affect farmers of color, and socially disadvantaged farmers,” said Walker.
Biden has been vocal about going beyond outreach for Black farmers, and, should he win the 2020 presidential election, has promised to advance equity in rural America with a specific focus on farmers of color. His campaign has expressed a commitment to establish a racial equity research committee; advancing a farm land purchase assistance program to allow farmers of color to purchase and keep land; implementing new guidelines to protect heirs’ property; establishing a farmland trust for low income communities; supporting community supported agriculture (CSA) and supporting local production for farmers’ markets; holding the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) accountable by demanding transparency and fairness at the organization (and, notably, reinstating a foreclosure moratorium for those whose complaints in the backlog of USDA civil rights complaints remain unsettled); and expanding protections for farm workers, particularly immigrant and undocumented workers.
Walker has worked with Black and indigenous farmers across all sizes of farms, which encouraged him to look at issues from a systemic and regional perspective, and outside of whoever is in office. Walker has spent years thinking about how to build effective, lasting systems that counter some of the land grabs that defined the last century, some of which — such as building trust between Black farmers and the USDA — are in Biden’s presidential commitments.
“Being in relationship with elder farmers, specifically in North Carolina with Black and indigenous farmers who took me under their wing and taught me how to drive a tractor and how to butcher hogs, was so essential to my growth and understanding of these issues,” said Walker. “I learned a lot of generational knowledge which really pushed me to really look at how to be a part of helping to reconnect some of the younger farmers of color to folks with legacy farms and elder farmers. That is kind of part of a larger kind of a quilt work that used to be more viable.”
The Power of Community and Intergenerational Learning
Walker noted that the push towards more corporate or conventional agricultural systems has encouraged discrimination. Historically, Black farmers were forced into debt, and their land was seized through terror and intimidation, causing generational trauma. Today, an increasingly unstable farming industry has prevented Black landowners from receiving farming resources from their local governments. These issues have persisted for centuries, and community agricultural knowledge was lost alongside farmland; reviving that knowledge is a key step towards address inequity in farming.
“The work I’m doing now with the Farmers of Color Network is really an outgrowth of my own personal story, which is valuing the intelligence of farming communities of color.”
This election, similar to the one that preceded it, will be decisive for the livelihoods of Black Americans, but it’s not all that matters to Black farmers. For many Black farmers, the calls for agriculture reform and support of Black land ownership extends far beyond campaign promises. In 2015, Carr went to the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners (BUGS) Conference, a pivotal experience for him. Through relationships developed at the conference, the Alliance formed, coinciding with a major presidential election. The results of the 2016 election made Carr recognize that Black sovereignty in food and farming needed to outlast whoever was in power at a given time.
“Similar to the call for the need to build systems, we must have a collective defense,” said Carr. “We need the type of power that outlasts us and our particular reach, whether we’re limited by geography or organizationally, or we just don’t have the political power.”
“Our relationship with the land should not be solely associated with the hardship inflicted upon us."
Much of this Black farming movement and its goals rely on a renewed interest in farming. Despite the inherent Blackness rooted in American farming, for years, farming wasn’t considered a viable career option for upward mobility. However, renewed calls for racial justice sparked by public displays of police brutality have reconnected younger generations with Black agriculture traditions.
At Soul Fire Farm, for example, the organization’s week-long training course is largely filled with attendees who are between the ages of 20 and 40. Though COVID-19 has altered programming and some on-site activities, Soul Fire Farm has seen increased interest from young, up-and-coming farmers looking to get involved with Black farming, since the murder of George Floyd, and increased examples of food insecurity as a result of COVID-19. The young people who work or volunteer with the program learn farming skills through the farm’s Black and Brown leaders. In an immersion program, young people learn how to work with perennial fruits, make and use compost, and harvest and preserve crops. The farm works to reverse the negative relationship of people of color and the land brought on by slavery and colonialism by connecting young farmers with their land history prior to white influence.
“Our relationship with the land should not be solely associated with the hardship inflicted upon us,” said Penniman. “Part of uprooting racism in farming is making sure that there’s liberation in being on the land and caring for our community through what we grow and experience as a team.”
Walker hopes new systems of farming and community engagement continue around the country.
“I think the question of agriculture for the folks who are emerging in this time where you see this growing interest is, what kinds of systems can we build and how is food fundamental to building out those new spaces?” said Walker.
In recent years, younger Black farmers have contacted organization’s like Carr’s and Walker’s looking for guidance on how to build farming communities and retain land for future generations. Walker has seen positive results from collective ownership, particularly for Black Americans who don’t have as much capital. Recently, even reparations loans — compensatory payment to the American descendants of slaves — have begun to emerge, such as a program by Keep Growing Detroit, which collaborates with the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network to purchase and secure land for Black farmers. Some of these are Black or people of color-owned organizations or funds that rely on the support of non-Black farmers, such as the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, restaurant owner Adrian Lipscombe’s 40 Acres & A Mule, and the Black Land and Power Fund.
“I’ve seen some models where there’s been folks of color who are organizing with white allies where they are in relationship with each other and helping to kind of build analysis together,” said Walker. “They’re able to reach out to their networks and try to pull in resources that will look more like a traditional fund, which helps to keep things organized.”
The Need for Non-Black Support
White allyship plays a complicated role in agricultural justice. Scarred by the behavior of white Americans dating back to periods of enslavement in the United States, some Black farmers have no interest in working with white communities. However, non-Black support of Black farmers and Black food has become an essential component of upward mobility. Crystal Tayler is the director of entertainment and city planning of North Carolina’s Black August in the Park, an organization that started as an annual event that aims to connect people of African descent to assert their value and engage in social and cultural change.
“We were desperately intentional to show black people give black people the space, teach them, make them aware of all that stuff that’s going on around us,” said Tayler of the event’s inception.
In 2018, organizers decided to include farmers in the event after noticing that Black farmers were not fairly represented at farmers’ markets in the area, as a way to address the health disparities that exist within Black communities.
“When you go to non-Black farmers’ markets, you don’t see anyone Black there unless they’re cleaning up. You don’t see Black farmers; you don’t see the representation of them. And then when you’re in Black communities driving around, you see the food desert. It’s important that we center Black farmers because health disparities are rising among Black people that contribute to them not having the access to proper health care, to proper food accessibility, and the systems that have been created to help continue the barriers for black people to be healthy and to thrive.”
Bringing Black farmers into the fold has helped raise awareness around these issues and has encouraged Black sovereignty in the community. This year, Tayler noticed an even larger uptick in the August event. After the death of George Floyd, white patrons began coming to Black owned markets and events like August in the Park, increasing revenue for vendors. Tayler was thankful for the turnout, but noted the drop in people returning after the initial shock of Floyd’s death began to wear off of white consciousness.
“The momentum has to keep going within other communities outside of Black people,” said Tayler. “We need white people to continuously support black businesses. We need white people to continuously stand up for the farmers’ markets, because the whole privilege belongs to white people and people who don’t look like us. If they want to support Black businesses and Black farmers, you have to support them with your dollars, and not just when someone is killed on camera.”
Carr and Walker also noticed an increased momentum and interest in Black farming amid ongoing racial justice protests. While they’re both thrilled for continued increased interest, they both want to ensure that effective structures are put in place.
“I would steer people away from stepping into something where that structure isn’t there yet,” said Walker. “It can be a long road to build an analysis and a new kind structure. And you will not be kind of compensated for that kind or structure, and you may also not be the person who’s the recipient.
Alternative Institutions and Reparations
Carr also warned of corporate support.
“We do have to acknowledge Black producers and Black growers, and we also have to ask where are they selling to,” said Carr. “The other kind of block or limit is the sort of predominance of corporate agriculture. Most Black farmers are quite small. The average Black farmer in isolation wouldn’t be able to sustain a contract with a major university or a major network like hospitals or even the large contracts just generally with cities for schools. While those programs are progressive, we have to build up alternative institutions. So that’s our support of community cooperatives, community buying clubs, direct engagement with the small farmer, the creation of smaller markets. Those kinds of things are important.”
"It’s important to remember that joy and wealth creation can come from farming, especially if you can own it.”
As national farm organizations continue fighting for increased Black ownership of farmlands, the fight for full reparations continues. Soul Fire Farms has outlined a guide towards reparations in land, citing the need for sovereignty for Black and indigenous farmers, and calling for reparations of land and resources so that communities of color can grow nourishing food and distribute it in their communities. Their map highlights stolen land, and illuminates the range of definitions for reparations in marginalized communities.
“Justice doesn’t happen without reparations, and that must continue to be a focus of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx farmers,” said Penniman.
Walker added that the trauma of discrimination continues to be a deep burden, but that true sovereignty and economic equality can address these issues — not to mention, the sheer joy of farming.
“There obviously is a lot of agricultural trauma, because of discrimination for Black people in communities of color,” Walker. “But it’s important to remember that joy and wealth creation can come from farming, especially if you can own it.”
Top photo by Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA.