Across the United States the uprisings and calls to support Black owned businesses have resulted in an uptick in resourcing for Black farmers. In Durham, NC hundreds waited in line to get into the Black Farmers Market. In Baltimore, and many other cities, urban farming continues to be on the rise. Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm, was even featured in an online editorial on Vogue.com. This month, we released the #BlackFarmersEdition of the Ujima WIRE, which unpacked monumental cases like Pigford I and II, reparations and the United States’ modern history of land theft in the Black community.
In this issue, we cover the roots of the contemporary farming movement, data and its implications on farming policy, and land reclamation happening across the United States.
Fannie Lou Hamer and The Delta: Erasure of the Black Experience as a Political Weapon:
Fannie Lou Hamer was a civil rights activist born on October 6, 1917, one of twenty children. Her parents, Jim and Lou Ella Townsend, were sharecroppers. Hamer grew up on the farm, and continued to work as a sharecropper in her adult life after she was married to her husband, Perry Hamer in 1944. In the summer of 1962, she attended a protest meeting led by civil rights activists James Forman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She became an organizer for SNCC that summer, and went on to found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), co-organize the Freedom School, give speeches across the nation, and co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus. In 1968, she turned her gaze from politics to economic equality and famously began a pig bank, and launched the Freedom Farm Cooperative.
These roots sowed the seeds of change as Hamer shifted the conversation on voter suppression and land sustainability into the hands of Black southerners, despite the government’s repeated attempts to silence her voice and erase the Black experience — as noted in Monica M. White’s Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement.
In 1965 Congressman Jaimie Whitten demanded “[to] end any data collection that would evaluate the economic situation of those in the [Mississippi Delta] area. Whitten fought to ensure that U.S. farm policy would never have a means to recognize the effects of its programs on sharecroppers or other farm workers[.]”
Hamer’s legacy manifests in the contemporary uprising in the Delta. In 2019 The Atlantic’s feature on The Great Land Robbery highlighted the durational impact of policy and discrimination in the Mississippi Delta:
“Even as the U.S. government invested billions in white farmers, it continued to extract wealth from black farmers in the Delta. Each black farmer who left the region, from Reconstruction onward, represented a tiny withdrawal from one side of a cosmic balance sheet and a deposit on the other side. This dynamic would only continue, in other ways and other places, as the Great Migration brought [B]lack families to northern cities… This cosmic balance sheet underpins the national conversation — ever more robust — about reparations for [B]lack Americans. In that conversation, given momentum in part by the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘The Case for Reparations’ in this magazine in 2014, I hear echoes of Mississippi. I hear echoes of Hamer, the Scotts, Henry Woodard Sr., and others who petitioned the federal government to hold itself accountable for a history of extraction that has extended well beyond enslavement.”
Data as a construct: The Performative Nature of Neutrality and its Impact on Policy:
There is a misconception that data exists as an objective entity. That data is raw which equates to truth. Data is seen as a representation of what exists; it must therefore be true. As a construct, it removes two vital framing components: who conducted the survey and who is analyzing said data of the survey and for what gains. Van R. Newkirk II gives us the following questions: “How do we quantify discrimination? How do we define who was discriminated against? How do we repay those people according to what has been defined and quantified? The idea of reparations sometimes seems like a problem of economic rightsizing — something for the quants and wonks to work out…There’s a reason the fabled promise that spread among freedmen after the Civil War was not a check, a job, or a refundable tax credit, but 40 acres of farmland to call home. The history of the Delta suggests that any conversation about reparations might need to be more qualitative and intangible than it is. And it must consider the land.”
A lack of qualitative data has heavily impacted the analysis of Black farmers and land ownership that leads to erasure, misrepresentation of land ownership, and counterfeit records that promote a false sense of equity.
The path to dissolving this performative nature of neutrality began with W.E.B. Dubois in his 1904 commentary entitled, “The Negro Farmer,” a study which focused on census data from 1900 as summarized by Spencer and Wood in a 2018 publication by the Amercian Sociolgy Association, Emancipatory Empiricism: The Rural Sociology of W.E.B. Du Bois
“He highlighted the limitations of the government classification of farmers in a manner that does not always differentiate between owners and operators. Consequently, he correctly concluded that the number of Black individuals who own their own farms is likely lower than the census data suggests with its broader category of farm operator and that the number of those who work as laborers, croppers, and tenants is likely higher than the data reports…His theoretical concepts surrounding race, such as the color line and the veil, were linked to his personal experiences of racial prejudice in the rural south and later observations of rural spaces (Du Bois 1968). Rural spaces, for Du Bois, were characterized by both the processes of marginalization that accompanied the onset of modernity and the potential economic and social development that Du Bois wished to see Black communities attain. It was in the vast regions of rural spaces that Du Bois first described the foundations of his emancipatory goals of social and economic development and it was in rural spaces that he conducted his first investigations toward realizing these goals.”
Black Farmers: Reclamation and Roots:
In Black communities, urban gardens have long been a part of the culture: from free abolitionist communities, to literary examples like the all-Black town of Eatonville, FL in Their Eyes Were Watching God, to cousins and grandmas raising herbs, tomatoes and sunflowers in their backyards.
Overall, Urban Farming has grown in popularity over the last 15 years. Defined as growing plants and livestock in and around densely populated towns and cities, “recent developments in technology together with a pressing need to find more sustainable ways of production and consumption, has led to the adaptation of farming technique[s]” around the world. In the mid-aughts, restaurants and markets responded to the growth in foodie culture, led by informed consumers, by touting expressions like “fresh” “organic” and “farm-to-table.”
As a culture, we’ve always kept our connection to the land, and made strides in the scientific development of the field. Even the oft touted George Washington Carver, should be known for much more. “The whole reason Carver wanted farmers to grow peanuts was because he was trying to convince them to plant nitrogen-fixing legumes into diverse crop rotations, which would improve the soil in a region that had been burned by decades of mono-crop cotton farming. Carver also developed a system for disseminating his university’s research to surrounding farmers through workshops and demonstrations, as well as helping them troubleshoot problems they were encountering. Carver’s system would later take form nationwide as the US Department of Agriculture’s extension program,” remarked Leah Penniman in Tom Philpott’s recent Mother Jones article.
Penniman, the co-founder of Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York, is a leader in the movement of larger-scale Black farming and education. About her work she says, “[w]e use Afro-indigenous and regenerative practices — fancy words that essentially mean we’re trying to farm using the best advice of our ancestors and we’re trying to farm in a way that actually makes the environment better and not worse,” she says.
Elsewhere in upstate NY in the South Catskills, the Black-trans led collective Activation Residency is working to “cultivat[e] collective consciousness… [and] …are redistributing creative access from elitist structures and meritocratic frameworks to serve marginalized artists and communities,” through an innovative land and art residency project called Farming Futurity.
More locally, since 2012, the Mattapan-based Urban Farming Institute operates seven farms around the city of Boston, trains new farmers, educates and advocates for stronger urban farming policies at the city and state level.
As 2020 escalated, from the pandemic to the state of emergency, many of us realized too late that we were wholly unprepared for the crisis. Food insecurity was at the top of everyone’s minds as panic buying threatened supply chains around the country. For many of us, mutual aid became a top priority. Community Supported Agriculture, more commonly known CSAs, saw a spike in membership. Even more of the U.S. began to see food sovereignty as a necessary system for our country. According to the National Family Farm Coalition, “[t]he current food system is dictated by the demands of markets and corporations, reducing food to an internationally traded commodity.” The erosion of our food system in the 1980s coincided with Black communities being torn asunder by the decades of chaos which followed the Reaganomics era. The tangible freedom we dream of is bound up in our relationship to land, and our ability to care for ourselves and others. “I think a big part of the healing and recognition of belonging in the movement has been learning about the history of Black farming beyond and before slavery,” says Leah Penniman, “That narrative was important for me to uplift and teach Black and Brown farmers, to make them understand that it is not only our trauma that connects us to the land.”