The number of family-sized farmers in America has decreased greatly in the
past 7 decades or so, but the decline for Black farmers has been
According to USDA numbers, in 1920, there were more than 900,000 Black
farmers owning or operating 15,691,536 acres of farmland. They represented
14% of all farmers.
Today, Black farmers own 1% of all farmland. They number approximately
18,000. This is a 98% decrease from 1920 numbers. In a country that has
approximately 2.2 million farms, this represents a fraction of one
percent--far lower than proportional representation of Blacks in the
population at large, which I think is around 12-15% (does anyone have an
In the last 15 years, numbers of Black farmers have declined at a rate 10
times greater than that of all other family-sized farmers.
So you may be able to see that there is a particular crisis in carrying on
the proud tradition of Black farmers in America, a country which has
systematically discriminated against them, even in supposedly color-blind
programs such as receiving government loans. Black farmers have also
routinely experienced discrimination in receiving credit. Perhaps overseas
the U.S.A. may appear to have resolved its racial issues during the civil
rights movement of the 50s and 60s, but please be aware, Frits, that racism
and inequal access to resources for racial minorities is still very much a
The USDA is "investigating" the problem, but if something really is to be
done, a community-based effort is the best bet.
Now, on to my second thought: my appreciation to Michele Gale-Sinex for
bringing up an issue near and dear to me, namely the lack of diversity in
mainstream farming culture. Sometimes it seems too much to ask of farming,
while expecting it to resist the huge wheel of capital turning across the
land, to wish that it had a place for more people like me and like the
people in Detroit, as well.
I have lived in the beautiful state of Nebraska for 3 years now, and while I
admire the strength and resiliency of those who have survived the crises in
farming and remained on the land, I perceive one paradigm of how to be a
farmer: a married couple, usually the husband but sometimes the wife has
access to the land from family, they work their way into the operation
gradually with the wife supplementing the cash flow with a job in town,
which also ideally provides medical insurance for the entire family. (I
could go into more details but that's not the point here.) Occasionally a
couple with no previous ties to farming are able to buy some land and build
up the farm, yet this seems to be rare. It seems that there is only one way
to get into farming if you are a woman: get married.
Where are the single women, the Asians, Latinos, communal groups,
gay/lesbian/bi folks, Native Americans, Blacks? They are out there,
sprinkled across the country, yet so few as to be almost invisible. And at
the SARE 10th Anniversary in Austin, a gathering of hundreds of people in
sustainable ag from across the country, there was some diversity, but
overall the audience was very white.
In my experience, rural areas tend to be socially conservative and not
welcoming of diversity or difference. Maybe this is connected to the
difficulty we in sustainable ag have in gaining acceptance for alternative
agricultural practices. I understand that there are very good reasons for
such conservatism, linked with fiscal caution, and that there are many
broad-minded people living on the prairies.
>I'd gladly see a national organization
>of women in sustainable farming, and of gay/lesbian/bisexual people
>in sustainable farming, and of people of any race, cultural identity,
sayeth Michele. I'd gladly see the existing sustainable ag organizations
make a more heartfelt attempt to open space to its own members who identify
outside of the dominant paradigm of family farming, to come together and
discuss their experiences and concerns, and to be able to freely go back to
the larger group and communicate these, so that real awareness of diversity
>We need people called to the land.
YES! All kinds of people have this experience. Let's keep opening the circle!
University of Nebraska-Lincoln alternative crops research technician
Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society western organizer
High Plains Ag Lab
3257 Rd. 109
Sidney, NE 69162
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