“Black-Owned Farms Are Holding on by a Thread”

On the history of discrimination against Black farmers and the ways they are fighting to retain their land

The following is a series of excerpts from an Eater article written by Nadra Nittle.

Black farmers struggle to compete with their white counterparts when they don’t have equal access to federal relief, but there are a confluence of factors that prevent them from gaining equal footing in agriculture. Having fewer industry connections, less access to credit, and smaller farms makes it difficult for African-American farm owners to improve machinery, modernize, or expand, all of which would generate more revenue. Smaller revenues make it harder to qualify for the financial assistance that could give their farms a competitive edge. What’s more, racial discrimination in agriculture has long locked African-American farmers out of the support they sorely need, contributing to the demise of Black-owned farms across the country.

It’s a longstanding pattern. During the 1930s, structural racism began to erode the gains of African Americans who had toiled and sacrificed to acquire their own farmland as newly liberated people after the Civil War. “Farmers of color … were left out of a lot of these policies that supported farmers following the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, when it was a really challenging time to be a farmer, as it always has been,” says Holly Rippon-Butler, [the National Young Farmer Coalition’s] land access program director. “The fact that these programs left out farmers of color, and Black farmers in particular, led to a … really sharp decline in the number of Black farmers that’s disproportionate to white farmers at the same time period.”

For hemp farmer Asaud Frazier, getting a tractor, be it from John Deere or another manufacturer, is a top priority. The 28-year-old just launched his Alabama farm last May, two months into the nation’s coronavirus pandemic. His family spent years combing through paperwork to prove they were the rightful heirs to land that had lain fallow since an ancestor bought it in the 1920s. But after winning legal challenges brought by others who tried to claim the land as their own, hiring contractors willing to help him cultivate the 40 acres proved nearly impossible. After multiple contractors abandoned him during the pandemic, Frazier managed to find one to drill a well, connect electricity and water to his greenhouse, and loan him a much-needed tractor. So far, he’s cultivated five acres of hemp.

A smiling man wearing white t-shirt and jeans crouches next to two potted plants in a field.
Asaud Frazier

Although the USDA offers small-farm operating and ownership loans to beginning farmers, Frazier says his application was unsuccessful because he’s starting out with too few resources to qualify. So, as he builds his farm from the ground up, he does so without federal financial help.

“A lot of the USDA programs for beginning farmers aren’t really for true beginner farmers like myself getting started on virgin land,” says Frazier, who earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in environmental science and plant science, respectively, from Tuskegee University. “For instance, if I want to get a fence for my farm through the USDA, I already have to have … so many acres of fencing to qualify for that. … If I want to get a well for water put on my property, I already need to have animals out … grazing on my land.”

When Frazier didn’t receive the support he needed from the agency, his family pooled their resources to help him begin the work to get his farm up and running, though he has not yet purchased a tractor of his own. “It felt great; that was one of the success stories of 2020,” Frazier says. “I felt a sense of liberation, and I feel like this goes back to the whole movement of Black people wanting to get back to the land. … It’s really a great time.”

Having launched [the National Black Farmers Association] to support a similar population of farmers, Boyd has learned to dictate his own fate. “For people who want to count us out, I’m going to die a farmer,” Boyd says. “No discrimination is going to stop me from putting my plow in the ground. No policy is going to stop me from putting my plow in the ground. That’s the determination that we have to have to survive in this country.”