Black Farmers Are America's Future

It’s tempting to think that Civil Rights are always improving, even if it’s two steps forward, one step back. Black farm ownership tells a different story — but one that may be changing. Black farm ownership peaked in 1910 (the earliest year for which data on farm owner demographics are available) when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) farm census showed 195,809 farmers of color. Today’s numbers show 44,629 Black farmers — less than a quarter of the figures from a century prior. Black, Indigenous, and other people of color were lumped together in 1910s statistics, but the majority of farm owners of color at that time are presumed to have been Black due to laws against land ownership by immigrants of color, the USDA’s refusal to consider Native land management “farming,” and a low density in Latinx farm/ranch areas due to arid climate. Farm census figures show 3.2 million white farm owners in 1910. Today’s number of white farmers is nearly identical — just over 3 million. These numbers tell a story that anecdotes on farm loss won’t: Black and other communities of color are hit much harder than white farmers. In 1920, 85 percent of farmers were white. Today, it’s 95 percent. Much of the last century’s whitening of farms was due to discriminatory lending, including USDA-backed loan programs. The USDA plays a similar role in farm lending that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac do for home mortgage lending, and built a massive lending market that wouldn’t otherwise exist. These programs refused loans and crop damage payments to Black farmers, paid fractions of what their white peers received, and sent payments when it was too late in the season to use them. The damage was catastrophic. In 1999 and 2010, Black farmers won $1.2 billion in damages from the agency for its involvement in Black farm loss following Pigford v. Glickman. It remains the largest federal Civil Rights judgment in US history, though the USDA refused to pledge to prevent future discrimination. Black readers are familiar with the pressure to be “twice as good” to reach comparable success with white peers, but discriminatory lending didn’t just steal land and futures from Black families. These predatory practices damaged agriculture as a whole and effectively filled the farm industry with white folks who only had to be half as good. As a crop scientist, we see the repercussions constantly. I’ve personally witnessed or had to clean up after farmers’ pesticide abuse, erosion, poor yields, and fly-blown floods of manure. The sustainable agriculture rather naively blames these horrors on “agribusiness.” I think these issues have more to do with discriminatory farm lending, which built a farm economy where skills didn’t matter as much as the color of your skin. When Jim Crow drove Black farmers off the land, they took their crop care and organizational skills with them. Similar farmworker purges occurred with “repatriation” of Mexican farmworkers in the 1930s and incarceration of Japanese American farmers during World War II. These brain drains left white landlords to their own deskilled and individualistic devices. Uncritical reliance on agribusiness soon followed, and American farming has still not recovered. While Pigford v. Gilman was still being fought in court, one Black farm family’s troubles with discriminatory lending were just beginning. Wenceslaus “June” Jr. and Angela Provost are fourth generation sugarcane farmers in New Iberia, La., two hours west of New Orleans. Sugarcane is a reliably profitable crop, rare in today’s farm sector, but is also tricky to grow. It has to be milled immediately upon harvest, or the sugar will ferment. The costly planting process has to happen at exactly the right time; and since it’s harvested for four years, stunting from late planting follows the entire life of the crop. Sugar farms have always been the exact opposite of the “independent family farmer” image. They’re an elaborate concert of financing, mechanics, and time-sensitive scheduling with the mill. Every party has to honor their part of the process to the letter, and when it works, it works splendidly. But it’s also devilishly prone to manipulation. Beginning in 2008, the Provosts’ annual planting loans began coming later every year. The loans were also less than what they applied for. These problems follow the precise pattern of small, late loans outlined in Pigford v Glickman’s discriminatory lending suit. In 2008, the local Farm Bureau had named June farmer of the year thanks in part to his farm’s record sugar yields. June and Angela are a young, energetic couple who go the extra mile every year to make sure their farm keeps getting better — exactly the kind of people that the agricultural industry says it needs to attract and retain to survive. But, due to late planting that resulted from loan delays, the Provosts’ cane was stunted. Yields dwindled. Soon, they were unable to keep up with their land payments, and their acreage dwindled. Their farm lender put a lien on the Provost’s family home — a decision the bank made with no rational business justification. Finally, in 2018, their mill refused to honor their harvest contract and left the Provosts with three-quarters of their crop unbought, standing in the field. The farm, weakened by years of manipulation, folded. The house is now under foreclosure proceedings. This is usually where the story ends. But Angela and June are flipping the script. Not only did they sue the mill and bank for pulling the same maneuvers that Pigford v. Glickman was supposed to end, they’re making noise. The Provosts have kept up a relentless pace of blogging, tweeting, interviews, articles, and video news features. Their GoFundMe page has already raised over $57,000, enough to keep them in business for the next year and over one-third of what they need to end the foreclosure process entirely. Most remarkably, neighboring white farmers are lining up to testify on the terms of their own loans. Their testimonies show these white neighbors received larger loans per acre, that their loans arrived on time, and their homes are lien-free. This is one of the most damning things that can happen to a bank during a discriminatory lending suit. Traditionally, banks have relied on farmers’ reluctance to talk about finances and on racial stereotyping about work ethics to explain away the disappearance of Black farmers from agricultural communities.

From left: Rodney Provost, Wenceslaus Provost Sr., Edward Provost, and Wenceslaus "June" Provost Jr. (John Ficara, 'Black Farmers in America')

In New Iberia, that’s not working anymore. Instead of siding with their county’s power players, white farmers are crossing color lines to support their Black neighbors. The Provosts are also exploring ways to make their farm business less vulnerable to interference through the use of alternative crops, a community-oriented model, and a museum. The Provosts’ dogged advocacy for themselves has begun to tilt the balance of their entire community. Ultimately, this is what American agriculture has always needed to be sustainable. Decades of intertwined Black farm and Civil Rights leadership, from Reconstruction through Fannie Lou Hamer and beyond, focused on three things: improving Black farmers’ land ownership, collaborative rather than individualistic approaches to farming, including solidarity with poor white farmers; and education. The erosion of Black land ownership had serious consequences for Black communities, helping build today’s massive wealth disparities between white and Black families. It also hurt agriculture at large. The technical and collaborative skills that Black farmers used to survive Jim Crow are the same skills that all farmers need to learn from to stay afloat in today’s competitive markets. And finally, as old farmers retire, the agriculture industry must stop behaving like an exclusive country club. There are legions of skilled, energetic young people eager to farm. We can’t keep driving fresh blood away and expect to survive. The Provosts’ struggle to keep their farm is about keeping their family’s heritage and legacy. It’s also about keeping the Black farming tradition alive: a tradition of collaboration, of knowledge, and of farms being productive through the farmer’s skill, not just bought inputs and other people’s labor. In that sense, the Provosts’ mission is all of ours. White supremacy isn’t just an odd step-cousin to our broken food system. It’s an integral part. If we want good farming, white supremacy has to go. The community the Provosts are building around their farm may show us what that future looks like.

About the Author

Sarah Taber is a crop scientist with over 20 years in the agriculture and food business. Her work as a farm auditor and coach has highlighted the importance of human capital in agriculture, and the damage done by over a century of farm lending based on demographics and connections instead of aptitude. She is a graduate of University of Florida (DPM '11) and lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina.