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American Black Farmers: An Endangered Species

June 14, 2005, Issue #409
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness
>From a Public Interest Perspective

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GREG BURNS, CHICAGO TRIBUNE: As a child growing up on the family farm in
west central Illinois, Lloyd Johnson remembers cropland extending for miles
around, all of it owned by African-Americans like himself.

"For a stretch of four miles, it was black-owned land," the 66-year-old
farmer recalls. "Now there's mighty few."

Today, Johnson's farm in Alton, Illinois, is one of just 59 run by
African-Americans across the state, down from 123 in 1997, according to
newly revised figures from a 2002 census.

As farming has become a big business, it has become one of the least diverse
businesses around. Whites operate more than 72,000 Illinois farms, Hispanics
488 and those of other ethnicity 219 combined. As senior government
demographer Calvin Beale noted: "It has to be among the whitest of

It wasn't always. In 1920, Illinois had 892 black farmers, and
African-Americans owned 14 percent of the nation's farmland. Now they hold
less than one percent.
The same pressure to consolidate that has reduced the ranks of farmers for
the past century is making any turnaround unlikely, demographers say. The
number of black farmers in Illinois, currently less than one in 1,000,
appears destined to eventually hit zero.

"This is the oldest occupation in history for black people, and it's going
to be the first to go extinct," said John Boyd, president of the National
Black Farmers Association. "We are an endangered species."

The numbers are dwindling across much of the Midwest, according to the
Agriculture Department census, which was updated in April. Iowa has 31 black
farmers, down from 40 in 1997. Indiana has 55, down from 61. Several states,
such as North Dakota, list no black farmers at all. A few states reported
small gains, but the numbers are tiny across the region.

Illinois farmer Johnson chalks it up to the lure of better jobs off the
farm. While he took over the family homestead, his four brothers moved to
town and did "quite well," he said with a rueful smile. "Farming's tough. It
is uncertain. They found a better way to make a living. Who's the dummy?"

The scarcity of African-American farmers stems from a troubled history as
well. Racial discrimination played a big role in driving blacks off their
land in southern states. During the Great Migration that began with World
War I, blacks moved north for jobs in industrial cities, not the
hinterlands. "When blacks left the south, they got the hell out of farming,"
said demographer Beale.

For sharecroppers, farming was associated with the poverty and backbreaking
labor of slavery. For those who owned land, unequal treatment made it
difficult to retain the property and earn a living.

In a landmark legal settlement six years ago, the Agriculture Department
acknowledged that it had abused black farmers for generations. USDA agents
approved only a fraction of financing requests, delayed loans until after
the planting season and withheld other key payments.

White farmers who got their government money on time eventually took over
most of the land. Federal subsidies remain crucial to success in the field.
They amounted to more than $10,000 per Illinois farm in 2003, most of it
going to large-scale corn and soybean farmers who are overwhelmingly white.

Less systematic discrimination worked against black farmers, too. As
recently as the mid-1990s, according to Boyd of the Black Farmers trade
group, white neighbors who agreed to sell his crops for him would routinely
get better prices at market than he could obtain.

Johnson recalls a banker who was eager to sell him prime farmland in the
1980s until they met face-to-face. "As soon as he saw me, the story changed.
`We're only making [agriculture] loans to some of our preferred customers,'
he told me. That went by the way."

Most Southern black farmers migrating to factory jobs in Chicago didn't even
consider buying land in Illinois, at least in part because they often had no
capital. "It's impossible to know how many would have gone into agriculture
if they had the wherewithal to do it," said Johnson.

As it stands, Illinois' few remaining black farmers cluster in three spots:
Kankakee County, the far southern tip of the state and Madison County
outside St. Louis --- where Johnson's great-grandfather first bought
property in 1850.

Efforts to revive those communities have made no apparent headway.
All along, most of the state's African-American farmers have tended to stay
away from the networks of mainstream farmers. "You just don't see them in
our circles," said Illinois Farm Bureau President Philip Nelson.

The county offices of the Agriculture Department were long viewed as hostile
turf. "I saw few if any of them in the county office," recalled Merrill
Marxman, former head of the agency's Kankakee branch and now a private
consultant. "There was a real trust issue. They didn't want the federal
government to know their name and address."

Perhaps not surprisingly, recent co-operative ventures aimed at promoting
black farmers around Kankakee and far southern Illinois have gone nowhere.

Johnson attributes his staying power to a certain stubborn determination. "I
never gave up," he said. He also credits good neighbors who trusted him to
farm their land, helping him achieve economies of scale by renting him
several hundred additional acres. And it helped to be a fixture in the area,
he acknowledged. "We have a longstanding good name in the community."

Despite his success, Johnson doubts he'll ever see young African-Americans
entering farming under any circumstances.

"It's the lack of exposure," said Blannie Bowen, vice provost at
Pennsylvania State University and an agriculture scholar. "We're so far
removed now, most African-Americans don't have the knowledge base to even
tell you if they would like it."

Moving from the city to a farm community would be difficult, added Eddie A.
Moore, an agricultural educator at Michigan State University. "It's about
access and feeling comfortable," he said. "For a black to move to the rural
parts of Illinois, they'd probably be the only African-American there."
Indeed, Illinois has barely one black farmer for every two of its 102

In Chicago, the public High School for Agricultural Sciences might sound
like a school for farmers, but its mission is training future agribusiness
executives for Archer Daniels Midland and the like, explained principal
David Gilligan. "I don't think anybody has come to school with the desire to
be a farmer," he said.

Only in a few Southern states have the ranks of black farmers made a notable

In recent years, retirees have been returning to buy small holdings in the
communities they had left to make their fortunes up north, according to
Moore. States such as Mississippi and Texas have seen significant gains, the
Census shows.

"The money goes further in the South," Moore said. "They might buy ten or 15
acres. Before you know it, they're growing. It gives people a chance to go
home, go back to the roots." [ June 12, 2005 ]


Owned Land is being Side Stepped by the Nation's Leaders
The real work needed is not prioritized and other agendas get in the way

In June 2000, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund
included the editorial statement below in it's Rural Agenda newsletter.

We thought it important to release the statement again as it is relevant to
today's activities around the Pigford v Johanns class action law suit
against the USDA by Black farmers. There are concerns now about the
acceleration of foreclosures against Black farmers in the Pigford case ---
the Federation and other groups have called for a moratorium --- and that
countless groups and individuals are coming to the fore without knowledge or
history of the Black farm struggle and development needs of the community.

There is also legislation that has been submitted to the Congress by the
Federation and other groups to address some of the on-going problems with
Pigford case and some of the issues relative to agricultural needs. As
stated below, the "real work" of development is not being prioritized that
is needed to save Black farmers and this needs to be changed immediately.

The class action lawsuit filed by Black farmers against the USDA continues
to get press coverage and spawn *organizations* and *leaders* who until the
lawsuit did not know black farmers existed, or that black land loss was a
critical drain on the economic well being of African-Americans.

Many are taking advantage of the current situation to further their own
agendas with no respect or consideration for those farmers who have and
continue to suffer from discrimination and other problems that threaten
their livelihood. Over a billion dollars could be awarded to current and
past farmers under settlement terms of the lawsuit, yet this will probably
have no discernible positive impact on the loss of black-owned land and
farmers. In fact, the lawsuit could unintentionally speed up the current
loss rate.

As of June 2000,16,212 claims have been completed, of those, 38.4% (6,395)
have been rejected and 60.6% (9,817) approved. Out of the 9,817 approved,
probably less than 6,000 are still farming, 4,000 of which probably owe the
USDA and other lending sources more than $50,000 which is the amount awarded
under Track A of the settlement; of the 6,395 turned down, it is estimated
that 50% will be reversed and of that number approximately 2,000 are still

When you total the number that will not be approved (2,000) and the number
that will not be able to eliminate their debt under the agreement (4,000) it
is a sad fact that of the 16,000 farmers mentioned above, 6,000 will
probably face foreclosure or other
financial problems. This is in addition to thousands more who did not file
claims and those who have yet to receive a verdict on their claim.

The point is, nearly half of the remaining 18,000 black farmers face an
immediate crisis. Very few organizations and individuals are developing
plans to deal with what could be the greatest acceleration of black farm
and land loss in over fifty years. The USDA itself is so caught up in the
lawsuit that it is spending little time and effort to implement its own
recommendations to help remedy the unique problems experienced by
African-American farmers.

Politicians and the media have focused on the lawsuit with little
understanding or concern about the history of the struggle and what is
needed to avert the impending crisis. They like the new *leaders* and
*organizations* seem to think the lawsuit is a cure all when, in fact, it
does not begin to deal with the situation. The fact is, a
lot of work still has to be done --- one-on-one technical assistance,
community organizing and education, leadership development, etcä.this work
will have to be done away from the TV cameras, newspaper reporters, and
political rallies.

It will have to be done by those who are committed to the cause rather than
to themselves and their personal agendas. This in itself will weed out the
pretenders and the real workers can get on about the business of ensuring
that African-Americans continue to make positive contributions to
agriculture and exert some control over their food system. [ June 13, 2005 ]

The Federation/LAF, now in its 38th year, assists Black family farmers
across the South with farm management, debt restructuring, alternative crop
suggestions, marketing expertise and a whole range of services to ensure
family farm survivability.