…That’s in part because of what type of land marginalized people can live on. According to Savi Horne, executive director of the Land Loss Prevention Project (LLPP), the land that farmers of color were, and still are, able to afford is often land within the floodplains of river systems and marshes. As hurricanes reach further inland with greater intensity, the flooding devastates farming operations by washing away soil and crops and destroying infrastructure in surrounding communities. The LLPP was founded in 1982 by the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers to curtail epidemic losses of Black owned land in North Carolina. “From our standpoint as a law firm, we work at the intersection of environmental justice and land loss,” says Horne.
In 1910, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there were 25,000 Black-owned farms in the United States and one million Black farmers. At that time, between 16 and 19 million acres of land were under Black stewardship, but legal battles plagued Black farms from the start. Because of discriminatory practices, 90% of that land was lost over the next hundred years. In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. government doled out loans to smaller scale farms through locally elected USDA boards. The purpose of these boards was to support farmers during hard times or small yields, but Black people were systematically excluded from participating in them as their votes were suppressed in the Jim Crow South. Emboldened segregationists filled the local USDA boards to block Black farmers from receiving the federal support and push them off their land. The loans were given to or withheld from Black farmers to manipulate their business and political involvement. Today, local USDA boards still disproportionately delay and deny Black farmer’s loan applications. https://eji.org/news/one-million-Black-families-have-lost-their-farms/
Often, Black farmers have had to deal with what are called “heirs’ property” disputes. Since Black farmers often didn’t have the legal resources to officially transfer their land ownership, the property became heirs’ property, the ownership split equally among the deceased farmer’s descendants. After several generations of this process, the land might have hundreds of legal owners. In such cases, maintaining, selling or developing the land becomes a herculean task of tracking down all of the heirs. Without a clear owner or title to the land, Black farmers are often hamstrung and forced to give up their property under market value. With the little money made off of the forced sale, less desirable land, in a floodplain for example, can be the only affordable option to continue as a farmer.
The LLPP is working with the Rural Coalition to help farmers of color secure their land tenure and stay attached to the land. “BIPOC farmers in the South, in particular, have smaller, more environmentally vulnerable pieces of land that is often the least desirable,” says Lorette Picciano, director of the Rural Coalition. Helping them hold onto their land is increasingly important, Picciano says, because small-scale farms are more nimble and faster to adapt to the challenges of climate change, but they also struggle to get loans and government support. “There is a growing recognition of the importance of the work that BIPOC farmers are doing just feeding their community,” she says. “The huge factory farms raising monoculture crops are not resilient systems of agriculture.”
Flooded with Debt
Wayne Swanson had long dreamed of being able to raise food to feed his family and friends. Since starting Swanson Family Farm on 32 acres of pasture land near Hampton, Georgia, he has worked hard to make that dream a reality. Recently, however, Swanson has been worried by unusual weather patterns. He’s seen bees swarm in the dead of winter. His cows lose their winter coats late. He can’t count on crops that he has grown for years.
“Give farmers of color money to put that oxygen mask on first and let them have some peace of mind. You can’t move your business forward if you can’t get your parents to dialysis.”
“I am just some guy in some dirty jeans and boots standing in the middle of a field looking at stuff,” Swanson jokes, but he knows what he’s seen. Climate change is a concern for him, but, like most Black farmers, he needs to bring products to market now and struggles to find the time and money to start making his farm more climate resilient. Swanson himself isn’t in debt, thankfully, but he knows plenty of farmers who are. “If you’re behind on bills, you have to pile as much as you can into that land,” he says.
Married couple Angie and June Provost, multigenerational farmers in New Iberia, La., face similar obstacles. The Provosts’ neighborhood is in the floodplain and most of the homes on their street are elevated — but not their home or the homes of many other Black people who live there. “Every hurricane season, we are scared,” says Angie. “Scared for our home and of our land being flooded and that the insurance won’t cover it.” As climate change exacerbates weather extremes, the burden of debt keeps the Provosts from being able to adapt to this existential threat. According to the Provosts, chronic indebtedness cripples many farmers of color.
Swanson says Black farmers need resources and funding so they can better navigate the stresses climate change puts on their farms and finances. He compares government grants for farmers of color to the oxygen mask on an airplane: “When there is an emergency, you put your oxygen mask on first.” Black farmers, he says, can’t put their oxygen mask on. Their kids, spouses, and parents have needs, and if they are inter-generational farmers, they probably take care of their grandparents as well. “There is a financial need that goes beyond cows and chickens,” he says. “Give farmers of color money to put that oxygen mask on first and let them have some peace of mind. You can’t move your business forward if you can’t get your parents to dialysis. Give them the money and let them do with it as they see fit, and American agriculture will be better for it.”
For decades, Black farmers have campaigned for such relief. Among other organizations, the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) has pushed for debt relief and fair loan access since its founding in 1995, lobbying on Capitol Hill and mobilizing its tens of thousands of members through door-to-door canvassing campaigns.
This advocacy is beginning to bear fruit: The $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, signed into law in March, allocated $5 billion toward debt relief for farmers of color. The debt relief provisions in the American Rescue Plan were borrowed from two bills introduced in the first two months of the 2021 U.S. Congress: the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act the Justice for Black Farmers Act. Both bills have received widespread support among Democrats but are currently stuck in committee.
According to June Provost, the benefits of debt relief are not only political but personal, even physical. “It adds years to your life,” he says. “To have that constant worry of debt on your shoulders affects every part of your life — mentally, physically. [The debt relief provision in the American Rescue Plan] relieves that burden of having to worry about that every second of your life.”
Angie Provost also supports the debt relief but notes that it’s only “a first step,” it’s “a tenth of a percent” of what’s needed. “It’s not reparations,” she says, “but it is an avenue for Black and Brown farmers to breathe a bit. It shows us the result of collective action.”
The Green New Deal in the South
A state-level voting map of the Southeast gives a deceiving portrait of the region. The South has long been a conservative stronghold, and in presidential elections Republican candidates can usually count on the Gulf states. A closer inspection of county and district-level maps, however, shows the more diverse, complex side of Southeastern politics, and the 2021 Georgia Senate flip illustrates this reality.
The region is home to 56% of the total Black population in the United States, with large rural and urban populations. Despite small pockets of extreme wealth, it is the poorest region in the country. According to the Yale Climate Opinion Map, between 60% and 70% of adults in Southeastern states think global warming is happening and a majority think it is already harming people in the United States. In short, the Republicans who mostly represent the region in Congress — who are, overwhelmingly, white, rich, climate skeptics — don’t really represent the region at all.
Faced with inaction at the state and federal level, many city and county governments in the Southeast have taken it upon themselves to make climate resiliency plans and environmental and community groups have formed broad regional networks to advocate for climate policies that fit the region.
For example, more than 225 community groups in the five Gulf states forged the Gulf South for a Green New Deal around the “collective assertion that the Gulf South must be included in the development of national policy.” And in 2020, the Southeast Climate and Energy Network (SCEN) and several other organizations started a project called Southern Communities for a Green New Deal (SC4GND). More than 100 social and environmental organizations across the South have signed onto the policy platform, which borrows the framework of the Green New Deal but with a focus on the needs of Southern communities. The platform’s key demands include policy changes related to energy use and generation, agricultural land use, water infrastructure, economic development and civic engagement. SCEN organizes meetings across the South and offers financial support and guidance to its member organizations. Alexander Easdale, executive director of SCEN, says the diverse perspectives the various groups bring to the table are helping to shape policy that reflects the medley of political ideologies in the Southeast.
Rev. Leo Woodberry, faith leader, environmental justice activist, and member of SCEN, says “our hope is that policy makers, both federal and state, look at these community-led climate solutions that are being done with very little resources, and pour some financial support into that and also let it be replicated.”
Ben Lilliston, director of Rural Strategies and Climate Change at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, thinks that both Democrats and Republicans need to be doing more to support community voices in the Southeast. He says that climate change policy needs a partnership between locals and experts. “We really need a bottom-up climate policy and not just a top down,” Lilliston says. “How can we empower communities to make their own climate plans? They know their community, they know their needs best.”
PAUL GORDON is an environmental journalist and restoration conservationist based out of Chicago. His reporting on the far-reaching impacts of climate change appears in The Nation and Belt Magazine.
Black landowners in the South have lost 12 million acres of farmland over the past century—mostly from the 1950s onward. The Atlantic reports that a million Black families have been ripped from their farms in a “war waged by deed of title” and propelled by white racism and local white power.
The dispossession of 98% of Black agricultural landowners in America is part of our history of racial injustice that is hugely important but mostly overlooked.
First, rich farmland in the South, especially along the Mississippi River, was taken from Native Americans by force. It was cleared, irrigated, planted, and reaped by enslaved Africans, who came to own part of it after emancipation.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 25,000 Black farm operators in 1910, an increase of almost 20% from 1900. The Atlantic‘s reporting focuses on Black farmland in Mississippi, which totaled 2.2 million acres in 1910—about 14% of all Black-owned agricultural land in the country, and the most of any state.
Later, through a variety of means—sometimes legal, often coercive, in many cases legal and coercive, occasionally violent—farmland owned by Black people came into the hands of white people. It was aggregated into larger holdings, then aggregated again, eventually attracting the interest of Wall Street.
Starting with New Deal agencies in 1937, federal agencies whose “white administrators often ignored or targeted poor Black people—denying them loans and giving sharecropping work to white people” became “the safety net, price-setter, chief investor, and sole regulator for most of the farm economy in places like the Delta.” As small farms failed, large plantations grew into huge industrial mega-farms with enormous power over agricultural policy.
Illegal pressures applied through USDA loan programs created massive transfers of wealth from Black to white farmers in the period just after the 1950s. Half a million Black-owned farms across the country failed between 1950 and 1975. Black farmers lost about six million acres from 1950 to 1969. Black-owned cotton farms in the South almost completely disappeared, and in Mississippi from 1950 to 1964, Black farmers lost almost 800,000 acres of land, which translates to a financial loss of more than $3.7 billion in today’s dollars, The Atlantic reports.
While most of the Black land loss appears on its face to have been through legal mechanisms—“the tax sale; the partition sale; and the foreclosure”—it mainly stemmed from illegal pressures, including discrimination in federal and state programs, swindles by lawyers and speculators, unlawful denials of private loans, and even outright acts of violence or intimidation.
Discriminatory loan servicing and loan denial by white-controlled, federally funded committees forced Black farmers into foreclosure, and their property was purchased by wealthy white landowners.
Many Black farmers who avoided foreclosure were defrauded by white tax assessors who set assessments too high, leading to unaffordable tax obligations. Tax sales followed, and the land was purchased by wealthy white people.
Lack of access to legal services put Black families’ title claims in jeopardy. Lynchings, police brutality, and other forms of intimidation were sometimes used to force Black farmers off their land and still more land was abandoned as Black families fled racial terror in the South. From 1950 to 1970, Mississippi’s Black population declined by almost one-fifth as the white population increased by the same percentage. By the time Black people could exercise the vote in that state, they were a clear minority.
Mass dispossession did not require a central organizing force or a grand conspiracy. Thousands of individual decisions by white people, enabled or motivated by greed, racism, existing laws, and market forces, all pushed in a single direction.
The end of the 1970s saw commodity prices drop as inflation accelerated, creating a farm-credit crisis that was impossible to survive without federal assistance. But even 20 years after the Civil Rights Act, federal help was denied to most Black farmers. According to a 2005 article in The Nation, “In 1984 and 1985, at the height of the farm crisis, the USDA lent a total of $1.3 billion to nearly 16,000 farmers to help them maintain their land. Only 209 of those farmers were Black.”
In 2008, the global financial crisis caused a boom in the market in U.S. farmland and Wall Street investors pounced. One of the nation’s largest pension firms, Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association, bought more than 130,000 acres in a strip of counties along the Mississippi River, becoming the biggest pension-fund player in the global agricultural land market. These institutional investors made it virtually impossible for smaller farmers to compete, so they bought up millions of acres of farmland that they’ll likely retain for generations.
The foundation of these portfolios was a system of plantations whose owners created the agrigovernment system and absorbed thousands of small Black-owned farms into ever larger white-owned farms.
Today, the vast majority of Black farmland in America is owned by white people or corporations. From a million Black farmers in 1914, there were 18,000 in 1992. “The dispossession of Black agricultural land resulted in the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars of Black wealth. We must emphasize this estimate is conservative … Depending on multiplier effects, rates of returns, and other factors, it could reach into the trillions,” researchers told The Atlantic. The large wealth gap between white and Black families today exists in part because of this historic loss.
The costs of uprooting Black people from their land are readily apparent in the Mississippi Delta. Ten counties in the Delta are among the poorest 50 in America. More than 30 census tracts in the Delta have an average life expectancy below 70, compared to the national average of 79. In some Delta counties, the infant mortality rate is more than double the nationwide rate. And a new analysis from ProPublica found that the Delta is audited by the IRS more heavily than any other place in the country.
“In sum,” The Atlantic concludes, “the areas of deepest poverty and under the darkest shadow of death are the ones where dispossession was the most far-reaching.”