Two Biden Priorities, Local weather and Inequality, Meet on Black-Owned Farms


Sedrick Rowe was a runback for Fort Valley State University in Georgia when he came across an unexpected oasis: an organic farm on the grounds of the historically black school.

Today he grows organic peanuts on two tiny plots in southwest Georgia, one of the few African American farmers in a state that has lost more than 98 percent of its black farmers in the past century.

“It burdens me,” he said of the history of discrimination and violence that drove so many of his predecessors off their farms. “Growing your own food is the first step in getting more African Americans back into farming.”

Two of the Biden government’s top priorities – tackling racial inequality and tackling climate change – converge in the lives of farmers like Mr Rowe.

The government has promised to make agriculture a cornerstone of its ambitious climate change agenda, and has urged farmers to use farming methods that can trap the earth-warming carbon dioxide in the soil and outside the atmosphere. At the same time, President Biden is committed to tackling a legacy of discrimination that has driven generations of Black Americans from their farms and to taking steps to improve access to land, loans and other aid for black and other minority farmers, including “Climate Smart.” “. Production.

African American farms now account for less than 2 percent of all farms in the country, compared to 14 percent in 1920 due to decades of racial violence and unfair lending and land ownership policies.

Mr Biden’s pledges follow a year in which calls for racial justice erupted across America and a deadly pandemic exposed profound health disparities. Mr Biden is also trying to undo former President Donald J. Trump’s environmental law clarification.

Land trusts and other local groups, many in the south, have long tried to get more black Americans back into agriculture. Mr. Rowe bought 30 acres of farmland outside of Albany, Ga. After training with a land trust called New Communities, one of the few in the country that tried to make a living by managing the land for more African American farmers.

Many of these trusts have also put sustainability at the heart of their work with local farmers, capitalizing on the legacy of black scientists like George Washington Carver. His work on cover crops, planted to provide nutrients to the soil, aimed to reverse the damage that cotton growing had done with a harvest in the south on the backs of enslaved people.

Between planting and harvesting, Mr. Rowe seeks a PhD. look in soil health for ways to store nutrients, reduce pesticides and lock up more carbon in the soil.

“There is so much knowledge both of what was modified by our African ancestors and what was created in the South,” said M. Jahi Chappell, head of the Southeastern African-American Farmers Organic Network, a group of black farmers who are ecologically committed – Sustainable agriculture. But for a long time he said: “The voices of the African American farmers have not really been heard.”

It is a troubled story to overcome.

For a short time after emancipation, free black communities spread in the rural south, growing all kinds of agricultural goods: pecans, peanuts, pork. By 1920 there were 925,000 black farmers, a quarter of whom were able to secure their own land.

The Jim Crow era saw a violent backlash from white landowners, and black farmers and tenants were the targets of intimidation, bombings and other attacks. The discrimination and racist violence spurred many black farmers to flee north as part of the great migration, often to cities.

Differences in access to credit and relief supplies, as well as well-documented discrimination in the Ministry of Agriculture, also drove black farmers off their land. Even as the civil rights era began to bring black Americans under law, the rural exodus accelerated as white citizens’ councils in the south, fearful of a surge in black voters, specifically targeted black farmers to get them out of their communities expel.

“We waited year after year. We fought for change, ”said Shirley Sherrod, a former Georgian State Director for Rural Development at the Department of Agriculture and co-founder of New Communities, the Land Trust. “Now this agency and this country really have to figure out how blacks can do the right thing.”

According to the latest agricultural census, there are fewer than 35,000 black farmers left today. (And some experts say the number is even lower.) Black farmers’ land is an estimated 90 percent down from its early 20th century peak, according to the Land Loss and Reparations Project, although white-owned acreage is only $ 2 percent has shrunk.

Black peasants who have lost their land have lost more than the property itself; They’ve also lost the ability to use it on things like collateral for loans, such as sending kids to college. An initial estimate of the macroeconomic damage to Black Americans from historic land loss, calculated by researchers such as Thomas W. Mitchell, Professor of Law at Texas A&M University, is $ 350 billion.

“These are the economic consequences of this massive and steep loss of land, largely due to systemic racial discrimination,” he said.

Efforts to date to correct the loss have been small. As of the 1990s, a number of settlements have paid a total of approximately $ 2 billion to a handful of farmers who could demonstrate direct discrimination.

Black farmers continue to face discrimination. In 2015, according to the researchers Nathan Rosenberg and Bryce, black farmers only received microloans of around $ 11 million for smallholders, or less than 0.2 percent of the around 5 loans managed or guaranteed by the Department of Agriculture that year, US $ 7 billion Wilson Stucki.

The most recent 2017 agricultural census found that black farms are typically disproportionately smaller, with only 7 percent of those farms having incomes greater than $ 50,000, compared with 25 percent of all farms.

Efforts to address past injustices are gaining momentum.

Senate bill sponsored by Democrats Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand would allow black farmers to reclaim up to 160 acres apiece through federal land grants. The House Agriculture Committee will welcome its first black chairman, Georgia Congressman David Scott, to invite black farmers to share testimony about racial discrimination in federal aid. And this week, a series of climate-related executive actions prompted the agency to investigate ways to promote “climate-friendly” farming practices while creating new sources of income for rural Americans.

Still, Tom Vilsack, who if confirmed will head the Department of Agriculture and return to a position held under former President Barack Obama, has criticized his anti-discrimination record at the agency from some groups. During his previous tenure at the department, critics said, the agency advertised misleading data depicting a renaissance in black farming, even as black farmers continued to struggle to get federal support or attention for civil rights claims.

“There is a very systemic civil rights issue at the USDA and Tom Vilsack is not the one to take it up and fix it,” said Lawrence Lucas, a former agency official who heads Justice for Black Farmers. “He was there for eight years and didn’t fix it. What makes us think he’s going to fix it now? “

At the end of last month, Mr. Vilsack met with civil rights groups to offer help and “a seat at the table” to the black farmers. And the Biden government has appointed Jewel H. Bronaugh, Virginia Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner, to serve as Mr. Vilsack’s deputy. If this were confirmed, Dr. Bronaugh becomes the first woman of color to serve as USDA assistant secretary.

In an interview, Matt Herrick, the agency’s top spokesman, recognized a legacy of discrimination in federal agricultural policy.

“The reality is that there are inherent barriers and practices that have prevented black farmers and other socially disadvantaged producers from gaining access to programs at the Department of Agriculture,” Herrick said. “We will do everything we can to remove these barriers – the secretary is obliged to do so.”

These concerns threaten to overshadow the introduction of the Biden government’s agricultural policy, which puts farmers at the forefront of the fight against climate change.

An early idea of ​​the Biden transition team is a federal soil “carbon bank” that provides loans to farmers for carbon that they sequester in the soil through sustainable cultivation methods. The plan calls for $ 1 billion to buy carbon credits from farmers at the rate of $ 20 per tonne of carbon they capture in the soil. The Biden transition team claimed it could cut annual greenhouse gas emissions by 50 megatons, the equivalent of emissions from more than 10 million cars driven each year.

Scientists warn that there is uncertainty about the ability of farmers to sequester carbon in their soil. Still, such a policy could, in theory, benefit farmers like Mr Rowe. Recent studies have shown that organic farming in particular can help keep carbon in the soil.

Mr. Rowe practices organic farming on his modest 30 hectares are also an economic imperative: Its harvest is several times the price of standard peanuts on the market. This helps him survive in a business landscape dominated by predominantly white farmers who benefit from huge economies of scale and subsidies.

“It’s a good start,” said Mr. Rowe of Mr. Biden’s plan. “You take care of your soil, the soil takes care of you.”