I love the opportunity to lift up women. About a month ago, I stopped in Walgreens on my way home from work. While meandering through the aisles to go pay, I passed a woman wearing a hoodie that said “Support Black Female Small Farmers” (or a slight variation of that).
Being 100% on board with that message, I told her that I liked her shirt, to which she responded with an enthusiastic thank you. I then asked if it was for a specific organization or just for the support in general, and to my great pleasure she said it was merchandise for her own small, local, urban farm! She said that her farm supports her as a side hustle but also supports her midwifery practice. I was loving all that she was about more and more with every word.
My only regret from that conversation is not asking if she had a website or if there was a chance to check it out. I would have really enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about her mission and work, especially since it is supported women and persons of color in my own hometown.
For those who are curious, I did try to research online, but there are a handful of small urban farms and midwife practices in the area she said she was located, and without a name or photo to confirm it belongs to her, I have no way to verify. Maybe someday fate will have our paths cross again. Regardless, I am grateful to have had this encounter filled with solid, good energy.
Why Black Women Farmers?
I am all about hyping people up, and I know that I definitely come across very “fangirl” when talking about fellow humans. But this post, and this conversation, is about much more than just sharing a sweet anecdote. I had never really thought much about the history and narrative of black farmers. In the US, most farmers I see are white or white-passing individuals, and despite the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, farming was not an area that I even considered possible to be impacted by systemic racism.
But one podcast episode in 2019 would open my eyes to the historical and present-day narrative and injustices of Black farmers in the United States. Now, I am not an expert in this history or narrative, and there is a lot more for me to learn, but I want to highlight the key takeaways from that podcast to help further that narrative for those of you who, like me, are unfamiliar, and to show how important this topic is, and just how significant was my chance encounter.
The Podcast episode was first published on October 9, 2019 on The Stories Behind Our Food | An Equal Exchange Podcast. Titled “A Future for Black Farmers” (you can listen to the episode or read the transcript here), the episode features an interview with Shirley Sherrod, founder of New Communities Inc. the first community land trust in the United States. Now, the work and mission of New Communities Inc. is not exclusive to women-led farming, instead it is an ongoing mission to continue to reclaim the history and presence of Black Farmers in the United States; but the work being done ultimately started from a commitment by Shirley Sherrod, and continues to be driven by her dedication to an environment that regularly persecutes black farmers.
New Communities Inc. once held the largest tract of land owned by African Americans, at 6,000 Acres (think the size of Rhode Island). Shirley’s work began as a direct result of the civil rights movement; encountering countless individuals and families who were being kicked off the land that they lived on, the collective worked to find a lasting way to address this injustice and, most immediately, re-home displaced persons. Interestingly, in the Summer of 1968 they sent a group to Israel to see how they were resettling their people. From that experience, it was learned that the best way to obtain land and not to lose it was through communal ownership of the land.
Bombarded by Constant Discrimination, Persecution, and Opposition
While listening to this episode, both for the first time and while re-listening to write this blog post, I was continuously awed by the opposition and persecution Shirley and her fellow farmers faced for no other reason than for blatant racism. No matter how much I learn or become aware of, I continue to struggle to fully wrap my head around being filled with such a level of hate based on race that you are motivated to destroy entire lives.
In the early 1970s, the collective began to face local opposition. Their buildings would be shot at and opposing members of the community generated political opposition to the movement and property. Eventually, a series of droughts struck the collective in Georgia, and they found themselves in need of agricultural loans to help them sustain their farms. The county supervisor said that “you would get a loan over my dead body” and the collective had to complain to Washington to send someone down to the local office. Even with greater legal action, the process still took three years.
During this time, the collective discovered that they were being sold intentionally tainted liquid fertilizer. When their loan was in the end stages, they were required to obtain a lien on all available assets; once negotiated the county then engineered a foreclosure. Despite having assets worth 4.5 million at the time, the county sold the properties to a man in Atlanta for 1 million, allowing him to borrow $950,000 three weeks later. The new owner then dug massive holes and bulldozed all of their buildings into them, erasing every trace of the collective on those properties.
It was 1985, and the collective had lost everything.
The narrative of Shirley Sherrod and The New Communities Collective is just one, of many narratives involving the devastating effects of systemic racism in the agricultural history of the United States (and globally). There is a growing movement to address racial injustice and to dismantle racism within our food systems.
“New Communities was eventually granted restitution and immediately began working to re-fashion the dream. A powerful site was found on which to continue the “Long Movement” by addressing contemporary controversies such as African American land loss, food- related disparities, environmental and economic justice, and other related efforts like social justice and racial healing.” (New Communities Inc. Website)
In an earlier post, We’re Saving the World Wrong, I briefly addressed the impact of systemic racism in our global food system. ” [That] . . . the biggest issue in our global system of food production – [is] the injustice and oppression of those who produce our global food supply.” I was beginning to be introduced to a broader sense of the injustices within our food systems, injustices that extend far beyond simply food waste.
Where does this leave us? What is our responsibility towards this movement and in helping to dismantle racism as a whole? Share your reflections in the comments below.