American farmers represent less than 3% of the population, and less than 2% of American farmers are black. There are many factors that contribute to the decline of black farming careers, including the general decrease in farming jobs, the black community’s historical relationship with raising crops, and poverty that forces the sale of farmland. Post the civil war, black farm ownership peaked at 15 million acres of land by 1920. During this period, there were 926,000 black farmers spanning various regions in the country, and fewer than 10,000 were in the south. Unfortunately, fewer than 20,000, or 1% of all farmers, were black by 1997, and black farmland ownership had decreased to two million acres.
What happened? Well, the answer is complicated. For one, the USDA decreased black farmers’ loans, forcing them to miss planting opportunities, and denied them equipment grants along with other subsidies that were readily available to white farmers. While white farmers were able to grow their farms and business, black farmers were suffering from discrimination. As the rule of farming often reflects more land equaling larger profits, these unfair lending practices limited the survival of black farmers, forcing most to sell their land and choose another profession.
But there’s good news: recently, black farmers won a 1.25 billion lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While this money will provide some compensation to elderly black farmers, it still doesn’t address the disinterest of younger generations. As the technology industry has boomed and other jobs become available, it’s rare that you meet a black student that expresses a desire to go into farming. For one, the black community has experienced a tumultuous relationship with toiling land from the years of slavery. As we were held in bondage, mistreated, and then taken advantage of as sharecroppers post-slavery, our history certainly isn’t inspiring black youth to considering farming as a rewarding profession. Then, tack on contemporary discrimination practices and black farmer lawsuits. Selling a career in farming to a vibrant young person is like selling a lemon car to a knowledgeable customer.
Regardless, the dying out of black farmers is not good news as land ownership is attached to the profession. The more black farms that close their doors and sell their property to construction companies, the greater the loss of wealth for the black community. In addition, there are all sorts of politics surrounding food production and the health consequences of black food choices. If the proper infrastructure were set up, black farmers could assist in raising fresh organic crops and distributing them to the urban communities that need them most. For one, a stronger distribution network would keep black farmers in business and preserve landownership while shrinking the popularity of food deserts in urban neighborhoods. It’s unfortunate that the black farmer is near extinction. But unless we implement innovative business strategies to keep them in business, they’ll continue to be an endangered species.