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Black Farmers during COVID-19 “Are we, like always, not going to get any funds?”

by Abby Simonin, Co-Editor Our current media (social and otherwise) is focused on black life in the U.S, as it should be. You probably have seen the statistics that black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at a rate three times higher than white Americans. These disparities are because of where they live, what jobs they have access to, the underlying health disparities resulting from those, and bias in the healthcare system. If one wants to care for the poor and oppressed in the U.S., surely we cannot turn a blind eye to the systems affecting black communities. As we rally together against senseless police brutality, I have also seen a surge in support for black businesses, academics, and artists in these last weeks. Have you also considered supporting black farmers? Do you know any? According to the last U.S. Census of Agriculture in 2017, there are about 45,000 black farmers in the U.S, which is only 1.3% of all farmers. Did you know that in 1920, only a hundred years ago, there were almost a million black farmers? I came across this article that highlights Loretta and Sam Adderson, a black farming couple near Augusta, Georgia and their experience during this coronavirus pandemic. They are in their seventies and grow organic vegetables. Their focus is on leafy greens, which they sell primarily at a farmer’s market in Augusta. This market is located in an urban food desert where it is otherwise difficult for people to get access to fresh produce. When businesses began shutting down to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the spring opening of this farmer’s market was put on hold. The Addersons’ other outlets for selling their produce - a supermarket, restaurants, a cancer treatment center, and other pop-up markets - also closed. The USDA signed a stimulus package mid-March to help offset lost income during the coronavirus shutdowns for small farmers who supply to farmers markets. It sounds like a perfect match, right? The catch is that it’s not been easy to figure out eligibility requirements, how to apply, or how to access information and services if you don’t have internet or a phone. A big question for many black farmers in the Southeast is whether they’re eligible to receive aid at all if they have a type of land ownership called “heirs’ property,” which often does not have a clear title. This story of not having access to federal support is not new for black farmers. Without a clear land title, black farmers in this region have not had access to most USDA programs for over a century, including disaster assistance. You may wonder how we went from almost a million black farmers to less than 5% of that in only a few generations. The story includes the explicit discrimination and violence in the decades before the civil rights movement. It also includes structural discrimination to disenfranchise African Americans starting in the Reconstruction following the Civil War - yes, that far back. Black land owners were denied equal legal services for land tenure, the USDA excluded them from loans and support, and there was lack of backing from banks and other agricultural support industries. This is certainly a part of American history I didn’t learn in school. Would you commit to learning more about black land loss in the U.S. with me? The Addersons are faced with difficulties during this coronavirus pandemic not only because of their age and any health disparities connected to where they live. They are black farmers and business owners without a clear way to access federal aid, yet again. Loretta Adderson’s question in this article is poignant, “Are we, like always, not going to get any funds?” Could you dream with me and commit to serving black farmers in the U.S. more right now and going forward? I envision vibrant rural and urban communities with more farmers of color. Fresh, quality produce to those who need it. Land access and support equal to those for white farmers and business owners. My community would be richer for having more farmers and gardeners and growers of color. Wouldn’t yours? Shouldn’t it be so? Learn more:

  • Look up the racial disparities of the coronavirus in your state.

  • Read more about heirs’ property and black land loss in the US (here and here).

  • Consider the movement for land reparations in connecting farmers of color to land.

  • Purchase books from black farmers. See the Community Garden Exchange newsletter from October for a book review of Farming While Black.

  • Did you know that the concept of u-pick and CSAs came from Booker T. Whatley, a black American agricultural professor? Here’s more contributions black farmers have made to agriculture in the U.S. Did you know the agricultural techniques for raised beds, vermiculture, rotational grazing, and so much more, originally come from black cultures?

  • Listen to this talk from Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm (also the author of Farming While Black). Read some of their publications.

Reach out and take action:

Abby Simonin lives and grows near Ithaca, New York. She works for NOFA-NY Certified Organic and is an agricultural education consultant designing curricula for organizations serving smallholder farmers. 

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