A few years ago, a friend and I were having a conversation about selling his farmland. It had been a dream come true when he acquired the little over 5 acres he owns, a place where he raises goats and chickens, and grows vegetables. As for selling, I remember saying, “Please don’t; you can’t. You represent so much. Only 1 percent of farmers in this nation are Black.” He kept his land.
For those who think racial discrimination and its effects are a thing of the past, look no further than the history and current landscape of land ownership, access and who benefits most from farmland. Land ownership has often been a precursor to wealth in this country, and its economic power propped up by slavery, terror lynching, immigration policies and theft, and a food system that’s at the root of nationwide health disparities.
Reportedly, the largest civil rights payout in the history of the United States was in the case of Pigford v. Glickman, which addressed long-standing United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) discrimination against Black farmers. Now, before you get excited, that worked out to be about $50,000 per farmer, a drop in the bucket compared to the billions of dollars in generational wealth that has been stolen over centuries.
In 1920 there were close to 1 million Black farmers in America. As of 2019, there are 3 million farmers nationwide — and only about 45,000 are Black, according to the USDA. Inequality.org, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies, reports, “The five largest landowners in America, all white, own more rural land than all of Black America combined. This tiny group, a band that would fit comfortably in any mid-size sedan, owns more than nine million acres while all of the African American population combined, over 40 million people, own just eight million acres. African Americans, despite making up 13 percent of the population, own less than 1 percent of rural land in the country.”
Some of those top landowners hold large swaths of Colorado. According to “Colorado Producer Profiles,” a Nov. 17 report compiled by the Colorado Farms and Food Systems Response Team, the value of land lost by Colorado’s Black farmers since the 1920s is close to $306 million. Land ownership is directly related to food insecurity and, in many ways, COVID-19 has magnified the issue (one in three Coloradoans is now struggling to eat, according to a survey commissioned last summer by Hunger Free Colorado).
However, with all the attention focused on the presidential election, the Justice for Black Farmers Act may have flown under the radar. The Senate bill, introduced in November by Democratic senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, proposes a land grant program meant to encourage the next generation of Black farmers and represents a big step toward correcting historic injustices by addressing USDA discrimination. This act could transfer up to 32 million acres to 20,000 Black farmers over the next 10 years. It could also provide paid apprenticeships for BIPOC people to study with legacy farmers. Many BIPOC farmers — notably Leah Penniman, author of Farming While Black — are part of the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, and have worked with senators for years to draft this legislation, which could help people acquire the resources needed to be successful in farming, such as land, training, reliable buyers and technical assistance.
There are many gaps in the bill, and more work is needed to include Indigenous peoples, the original stewards of this land. It is not perfect, but it’s a step toward healing trauma caused by land theft, improving food security and health, and allowing Black farmers a chance to build the intergenerational wealth they have earned.