The corporate takeover of our food and farming system has led to poor health, polluted waterways, degraded soils, hollowed out rural economies and communities and a host of other ills.
It’s time to re-diversify, re-democratize and re-localize the U.S. food system—the place to start is by addressing the origins of corporate control, which include slavery, racism and land theft.
Leah Penniman, author of “Farming While Black,” puts it this way:
“Beginning with the genocidal land theft from Indigenous people, continuing with the kidnapping of our ancestors from the shores of West Africa for forced agricultural labor, morphing into convict leasing, expanding to the migrant guest worker program, and maturing into its current state where farm management is among the whitest professions, farm labor is predominantly Brown and exploited, and people of color disproportionately live in food apartheid neighborhoods and suffer from diet-related illness, this system is built on stolen land and stolen labor, and needs a redesign.”
Imagine how much different agriculture in the U.S. would look if the 3.9 million people emancipated from slavery between April 16, 1862 and June 19, 1865, had actually received the land promised to them by Union General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15.
Now known as “40 acres and a mule,” the Order designated 400,000 acres of land—“a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. Johns River in Florida, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland thirty miles in from the coast”—to be reserved and set apart for the settlement of newly freed people. The order specified that “each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) acres of tillable ground . . .” and “the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves.”
Garrison Frazier, one of 20 African American ministers who negotiated the deal in Savannah, Georgia, on January 12, 1865, told Major-General Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton:
“The freedom, as I understand it, promised by the proclamation, is taking us from under the yoke of bondage, and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, take care of ourselves and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom. … The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor.”
But when President Abraham Lincoln was shot by a confederate assassin, Order No. 15 was rescinded—and the 400,000 acres was returned to a handful of plantation owners.
That was only the beginning of the backlash against African American land ownership.
As Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms wrote recently:
“Emancipated slaves were the best farmers in the world and poised to take over American agriculture forever in 1865. White America literally waged a 100-year race war to keep this from happening…”.
It’s time to get absentee corporations out of our farming communities. It’s time to rebuild strong local and regional food systems.
It’s time to put food and farming back in the hands of the people—all people—who are invested in their own communities, and committed to an organic regenerative food system that nourishes, rather than depletes.