Growing forward: Facing historic and modern challenges, Virginia’s black farmers look to bolster ranks and grow their communities

By: - December 4, 2018 6:01 am

For decades, John Boyd Jr. of Baskerville, president of the National Black Farmers Association, has been an advocate for black farmers. (Image courtesy of Terence Penister )

Agriculture is the largest private industry in Virginia, making a $70 billion economic impact annually, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

There are more than 44,000 farmers in the commonwealth and the top crops include soybeans, corn and tobacco.

Of those Virginia farmers, 1,865 are African American — about 4 percent.

In 1920, census records show there were 233,222 black farmers who owned and operated 16 million acres of land in the United States, with 31,000 of them in Virginia. The most recent data available reports that 24,672 black farmers nationwide own and work just over two million acres of American farmland.

Coaxing crops from bare earth requires skill, extremely hard work and no small amount of luck for any farmer.

Some of Virginia’s black farmers, though, say they have an especially tough row to hoe, from a legacy of discriminatory lending and the loss of family-held farmland to difficulty encouraging a new generation to take up the lifestyle.

‘Black farmers were denied over and over’

John Boyd Jr., a fourth-generation Baskerville, Va., farmer, has advocated for the rights and interests of African-American farmers for nearly 30 years.

“Every day, while I was shaving, I’d look in the mirror and say, ‘Today I’m going to defeat the United States Department of Agriculture,” Boyd Jr. thundered, his eyes piercing the crowd of about 100 people gathered on Virginia Union University’s campus at the Faith, Food and Farming Summit, held in Richmond in mid-November.

In the fiery oratorical style of a Baptist preacher, Boyd referred to his work championing a landmark class-action lawsuit in 1999, initiated by thousands of African-American farmers who sued the USDA for longstanding systemic discrimination and unfair lending practices.

The agency maintains that federal civil rights law prohibits the agency from discriminating “based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity” among other characteristics.

Boyd Jr. and the African-American farmers he represents beg to differ.

“Farmers need land, but they need resources,” Boyd Jr. said in an interview after his speech in Richmond. In the late 1980s, Boyd Jr. applied for a USDA loan to help keep his farm operating. The USDA’s farm loan programs are intended to help farmers “start, improve, expand, transition, market and strengthen family farming and ranching operations,” according to its website.

During the 2018 federal fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 508 Virginia farmers applied for USDA farm loans and 358 were approved. Boyd, however, was denied repeatedly when he applied for USDA loans over the span of several years from the late 1980s to the early 1990s.

Other black farmers he knew experienced the same situation, he said.

“We saw that it was the same thing over and over, white farmers could get loans to start or expand their farms, but black farmers were denied over and over.”

Boyd Jr. and other black farmers met with then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Daniel Glickman and President Bill Clinton about their concerns. More than 22,000 black farmers filed suit in 1997. The USDA later agreed to a settlement and awarded each farmer in the suit $50,000.

“But then they said the funds would only be awarded to farmers originally named in the suit,” Boyd said, leaving thousands of farmers who said they’d suffered discrimination, but hadn’t learned of the lawsuit in time, without recourse.

For the next 10 years, Boyd Jr. advocated tirelessly for the government to address and correct the obstacles black farmers faced.

In 2008, Congress approved new legislation that amended the Farm Bill and allowed 800 black farmers to have their discrimination claims heard and redressed.

In 2009, President Barack Obama proposed a $1.5 billion settlement for 70,000 more black farmers who said their farms and livelihoods had suffered because of USDA discrimination. Payouts to farmers, however, hit a brick wall, and most haven’t seen a dime of the settlement money, said Boyd. Jr.

“We have to keep the pressure on for the government to make this right,” he said.

Boyd also faults big banks for failing to lend to African-American farmers.

“We just don’t have the real access to credit that we need. A tract of land comes up in our community and we want to buy it, we can’t get credit. And it’s not just black farmers they’re doing this to, it’s black people, period,” he said.

People of color continue to encounter discriminatory lending practices from loan officers at leading banks nationwide, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The study analyzed millions of 2016 Census Bureau and Home Mortgage Disclosure Act records in 61 cities nationwide. It found that in Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Newport News, for example, “black applicants were 2.4 times as likely to be denied a conventional home mortgage as white applicants.”

Losing the land

Land ownership and retention is also a barrier for the sustained success and family wealth building of modern black farmers.

Fleeing frequent threats of violence and lynching that pervaded the Jim Crow era, an estimated six million blacks left the South – and their farmland – behind during the Great Migration, pursuing opportunities for higher-paying jobs and an improved quality of life in northern cities.

“They left their land behind that was then claimed and bought up by white people. So now, we see younger, white farmers returning to their family’s farmland, taking up the reins,” said Chris Newman, who left an office job in Washington, D.C., to co-found Sylvanaqua Farms on rented land in Montross in 2013. “Many young black farmers don’t have that opportunity, because their families no longer own their land.”

Another threat to black farmers’ land ownership is partition sales, enabled when a parcel of land is passed down through a family and split up among several heirs.

Historically, African-American farmers and landowners in the South enacted this “heir property” system without leaving a legal will in place.

“Access to capital and competent legal counsel were problematic and there was often distrust within the African-American community regarding the dominant legal and lending institutions,” the USDA’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service reported in a 2008 notice about mitigating heir property issues in rural black communities.

As ownership of the land is split again and again between numerous heirs, families risk losing it to tax defaults and unscrupulous property speculators.

Further, partition sale laws in Virginia and all other states allow any of the heir owners, “no matter how small their share and how recently they acquired it, to ask a court to sell the entire property at auction against the will of all of the remaining owners,” explains the Heirs’ Property Retention Coalition, an organization whose legal advocacy work is centered on land loss, particularly among African Americans in the Southeast.

When black farmers can’t get loans to buy or keep their land, they lose it to foreclosure, Boyd Jr. said.

“We’ve got mules, but what happened to our 40 acres?”

The Virginia Farm Bureau did not respond to requests for comment for this article. The USDA says it “targets a portion of all guaranteed loan funds, direct operating and direct farm ownership loan funds, microloan funding and youth loans, to historically underserved farmers and ranchers,” including African-American farmers and other groups.

A dubious legacy                                                   

Black farmers in Virginia face challenges that others don’t, predicated on a complex history.

Nearly 400 years ago, the first Africans arrived in Virginia, debarking at Point Comfort in Hampton from an English pirate ship called the White Lion; the captain traded his human cargo for food.

For the next 200 years, a brutal system of slavery forced black men, women and children to labor without compensation for the economic and social benefit of their white owners, much of that labor agricultural.

“Agricultural slaves mostly cultivated tobacco and wheat” on small farms in Virginia’s earliest days, writes Encyclopedia of Virginia editor Brendan Wolf.

For generations to come, enslaved black men, women and children laboring under the threat of the lash grew and harvested untold millions of pounds of tobacco, a hard-to-raise, easy-to-kill crop requiring lots of land and constant care.

After the Civil War ended slavery, wealthy Southern planters — those whose plantations and crops hadn’t been decimated by the war — needed a new system of cheap labor to work their fields.

Sharecropping was born, wherein blacks, now free but lacking even the most basic rights of citizenship, lived and worked on the land of men who might have previously owned them or their family members.

Sharecropping provided Virginia freedmen and their families with shelter and allowed black men to live as independent heads of their households. Largely, however, it disadvantaged and disenfranchised black workers, who were bogged down in debt to the landowners who advanced them seeds and tools each year.

“In reality, [sharecropping] more often worked to the benefit the landowner,” The Virginia Museum of History & Culture says. “Sometimes sharecroppers were cheated out of wages and disputes were almost always decided in the landowner’s favor. And the accumulation of debt made the sharecropper’s nominal control over his family meaningless.”

These enslaved workers and sharecroppers were the forebears of some black farmers living in today’s Virginia.

And the inextricable tie between slavery and agriculture prevents many would-be black farmers from ever planting a seed, some African-American farmers say.

Renard “Azibo” Turner owns a 94-acre farm in Charlottesville where he raises myotonic “fainting” goats for meat. In food justice activist and author Natasha Bowen’s “The Color of Food,” a book of narratives by American farmers of color, Turner puts it plainly.

“It’s an uphill battle to find people of color that have an interest in farming. I think it gets back to what I call the ‘anti-agricultural Blacklash’ where black folks are still equating farming with slavery. But nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, it is hard work, but at least we are doing for self.”

Newman finds considerable irony in his rented farmland, which is part of the 1900-acre Stratford Hall plantation that dates to Colonial times.

“I’m literally farming on Robert E. Lee’s plantation. The amount of crap I get from my own family, wow,” he laughed. “They joke with me, but there’s a kernel of truth. The whole imperative for a lot of our families was to get off the farm. … Even my own family, my mother grew up on a farm with her brothers. The biggest imperative that my grandfather and grandmother had was to send their kids off to college so they could get off the farm. This was despite the fact that my grandfather was a fairly successful farmer.”

Additionally, farmers of color face a lack of access to newer, popular agricultural opportunities, he says.

“The clean food and farm-to-table movements, even though many of the folks leading them claim to be progressive, are still comprised largely of privileged white people, who are more than likely to work with people who look like them,” Newman said.

New ground

What’s the state of black farming in Virginia?

“We’re in trouble,” Boyd Jr. said simply.

None of his four children wanted to be a farmer, said Boyd Jr., because they witnessed the challenges he faced.

“The next generation of farmers … where are they? For example, my son Wes is 26 years old. He had never been in a tractor until this television show challenged him to see if he wanted to be a farmer,” said Boyd, referring to a forthcoming History docuseries depicting the daily joys and struggles of eight American farmers, including Boyd Jr.

Future black farmers are out there, but they need encouragement, support and resources, some say.

“Farming has changed, and I wish many of us younger folks knew that,” said the Rev. James Banks at the VUU farming summit.

Banks is a fourth-generation farmer from Southampton County as well as a student at VUU’s Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Divinity. Citing tractor systems piloted by satellites in orbit and other agricultural innovations, Banks said “technology has changed everything.”

Boyd said one of the foremost missions of the National Black Farmers Association is introducing young people to the farming lifestyle. Students get their hands dirty and a close up view of raising crops through the organization’s internship program. In partnership with the Chrysler Foundation, the NBFA gives scholarships to 20 historically black college and university students studying agriculture each year.

“Our goal is to support our youth, because they are the ones who will be growing our food and supporting our agriculture sooner than we think,” said Boyd.

Efforts to create and support urban and rooftop farmers, and to assist African-American communities in correcting food insecurity, food justice and healthy food access issues, are emerging statewide.

Arthur Burton is executive director of Kinfolk Community Empowerment Center in Richmond and principal project manager of the Food Justice Corridor, a collaborative project that “uses urban agriculture as a community engagement tool to address health and economic inequality,” said Burton.

Economic disparities in Richmond mean some parts of the city — the ones most often inhabited by poor, black residents — lack access to fresh food, even as numerous grocery stores offering organic fruits and vegetables continue springing up in more affluent, whiter parts of the region.

Poor food options lead to poor health outcomes, said Burton, who added that his organization and several others around the city are working directly with residents to reframe this reality.

“We’re developing an urban farm continuum, which right now has seven sites. We’re developing an urban farm ministry program, to train churches on how to get involved in urban farming and how to deliver health-equity messaging.”

Burton said his group has also begun working with the NBFA’s Let’s Get Growing initiative. Through the program’s hands-on workshops, Burton said they aim to train 10 black churches in central Virginia in farming and gardening techniques that they may share with their members.

“We are hoping this will impart the importance of farming and urban agriculture to our youth,” said Burton. “We want to be a national model for this type of work and community empowerment.”

“You don’t need 100 acres to farm, you don’t even have to call yourself a farmer,” Boyd said before he left VUU’s campus, a camera crew trailing his brisk steps. “Start where you are: Plant a garden in your backyard, join a farming cooperative, research grants and resources for your farm or for your community. And if you you’ve never had a connection to the soil, build that connection now. It’s important.”

He offered the best advice he could to other black farmers in Virginia facing challenges.

“Keep on working, and keep your hand in God’s hand. Don’t you ever, ever, ever give up.”

CORRECTION: This story has been edited to correct the percentage of Virginia farmers who are African-American.

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Samantha Willis
Samantha Willis

Samantha Willis, a writer and journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans 12 years, is Commentary and Deputy Editor at the Virginia Mercury. Her work has appeared in leading publications including Glamour Magazine, Essence Magazine, Scalawag Magazine, and the Columbia Journalism Review, and within a wide range of Virginia-based media.