Black Farmers in the USA and Michigan: Longevity, Empowerment, and Food Sovereignty

Journal of African American Studies volume 22, pages49–76 (2018)

OKT is sharing this important journal article in parts over the next few weeks. Here is part three.

At the turn of the twentieth century, most of the black farmers did not own the land on which they farmed. Hence in 1900, around 75% of the black farm operators were tenant farmers and sharecroppers. In comparison, about 30% of white farm operators were tenant farmers and share croppers. Most of the black farmers also lived in the South. Blacks farmed about 38.2 million acres and the total value of their farm property was roughly $450 million. The farms blacks operated tended to be small—87.3% of the farms were less than 100 acres in size. At the time, 58% of white-operated farms were less than a hundred acres (U.S. Census Bureau 1902, pp. 48–112).

The number of black farmers in the USA had declined dramatically since peaking in 1920. At their peak, black farm operators comprised 14.3% of the total farmers in the USA. They farmed approximately 41.4 million acres and their operations were worth an estimated $2.3 billion (U.S. Census Bureau 1922, pp. 293–313).

The USDA’s Farm Service AgencyFootnote2 responded to the nationwide loss of farmland by helping to create farming settlements during the 1930s. Roughly 13 of the more than 100 farming settlements that the agency created were all-black. This was a short-lived project as the Farm Service Agency phased out its resettlement and coop-building programs after 1941 (Zabawa and Warren 1998, pp. 480–483; Wood and Ragar 2012, p. 18; Reynolds 2002, p. 10). Early on, environmental inequalities were evident in the spatial configuration of the resettlement projects. Though some of the resettlement communities had white and black farmers, the two groups were segregated such that one section of the community had only white farmers and the other only black farmers. This was the case with Tillery/Roanoke Farms. The all-white portion of the settlement was called Roanoke Farms, while blacks occupied the Tillery Farms portion. When the settlement was being constructed, the section that became Tillery was originally intended for white homesteaders. The farms were partitioned and construction began on two-story homes. However, whites complained that the Roanoke River tended to flood and they did not want to live in the flood zone. White farmers suggested that blacks be settled in the floodplain instead. They requested that the higher grounds be allocated to whites. Once it was decided that whites would be settled away from the river, no more two-story homes were constructed in the area designated for black occupancy. The Roanoake River flooded in 1940, destroying about half of the Tillery project (Wood and Ragar 2012, pp. 18–20). Hence in the case of Roanoke and Tillery, residential space, location of farms, exposure to hazards, risk, and size and quality of housing were racialized in a way that placed blacks at a disadvantage. That is, the different levels of risk that blacks and whites in the settlement faced impacted the profitability of their farms and their ability to keep the farms solvent.

Other actions of the Farm Service Agency were also detrimental to blacks. For example, decisions related the agency’s operations—such as the granting of loans—are vested in a local committee structure and blacks have had little say in Farm Service Agency’s committees. For instance, there are nearly 3000 county agricultural offices nationwide and less than 2% of county committee members are black. As a result, separate procedures, loan packages, and levels of oversight are applied to black and white farmers routinely (Wood and Ragar 2012, p. 24). In 2015, only 10.5% of the employees of the Farm Service Agency were African Americans (Partnership for Public Service 2016).

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