Local & State
|After a century of losses, black farmers take root again|
|More African Americans return to agriculture|
|Published Thursday, June 27, 2019 8:13 am|
|PHOTO | TROY HULL|
|Bernard Singleton, 55, of Charlotte irrigates plants at one of his westside lots. After a century of declining numbers and land ownership, more African Americans are farming, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.|
The fruits of Bernard Singleton’s labor are all around.
In the midst of planning blueberries – the Charlotte farmer estimates this year’s crop will approach a ton – there’s also maintenance of infrastructure, such as irrigation systems needed to bring water to thousands of plants. Every day brings a new challenge.
“There’s a lot of un-dirt related stuff going on,” he said.
Singleton, 55, has spent a lifetime in Carolina soil. He grows produce on raised beds on westside lots as well as an 11-acre spread in Indian Trail. He also teaches what he calls “food sovereignty” where communities can wipe out food deserts by growing their own fruits and vegetables.
“We have cucumbers down, we have squash, we have peppers, tomatoes, melon, cantaloupes,” said Singleton, a Charleston, South Carolina native who moved here in 2011. “We’re taking in the fall crop now – greens and cabbages – and transplanting some new things.”
After a century of decline, a small but growing class of African American farmers has sprouted. The 2017 Census of Agriculture reported 32,052 black farmers – 1.6 percent of the nation’s producers, double the share in 1997. Black-owned acreage is up, with 3.9 million acres in 2017 compared to the low point of 2.3 million in 1992. Although a far cry from the 1920 high of 925,710 black-owned farms – a seventh of the nation’s total – the upward trend is encouraging.
“Millennials of color are increasingly more interested in agriculture,” said Fitzroy Beckford Ph.D., agriculture and natural resources program leader at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. …“More younger people and people of color who are leaving their jobs and retiring in their 50s and 60s are seeing these opportunities in both production agriculture and the support systems around that as well as agribusiness. They can actually do these kinds of agricultural businesses on a smaller scale to produce more.”
Market forces fuel comeback
Although African Americans control less farmland, today’s growers are more technically savvy and better equipped to tap into specific markets, such as direct sales to restaurants and organic retailers. As a result, more people are drawn to small-scale operations, which require less investment with a larger return.
“You can actually do so much more in a greenhouse or a hoop house,” Beckford said. “Farmers are realizing they can do so much more for so much longer.”
According to the national farm census, black North Carolinians owned 1,435 farms in 2017, encompassing 170,450 acres, but the numbers don’t account for small scale and nontraditional settings like Singleton’s westside lots. Successful modern farming, he insists, doesn’t require huge spreads or major investment in equipment like tractors and cultivators.
“We need to train more farmers and people who can find a niche that can make it worth it to them,” Singleton said. “It’s enjoyable work, but it could be work that’s sustainable, also.”
The number of blacks involved in agriculture fell off due in the 20th century to numerous factors, including racial discrimination by federal officials, who denied farm loans that ultimately pushed them into an untenable economic situation and off the land.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a long and well-documented history of discrimination against black farmers,” according to the Center for American Progress in an April report. “The unequal administration of government farm support programs, crucial to protecting farmers from an inherently risky enterprise, has had a profound impact on rural communities of color.”
Singleton’s explanation is more direct. Africans were successful farmers on native soil, but their experience in America has often been fraught with violence, intimidation and discrimination. As industrialization opened new opportunities, blacks abandoned the rural South for the urban North and West.
“Our ancestors did a lot of growing and farming here,” he said. “A lot of us shied away from that, which I think was a mistake. Once we got here, it was like returning to the scene of the crime. The land wasn’t the crime, but the farm was the scene of the crime when the slavery came in.”
Another issue for black farmers was land loss through heirs’ property. When property owners die without a will to transfer possession, disputes among surviving relatives often wind up in court. As a result, cases drag on for years or unrelated parties scoop up most, if not all, of the property. Lost land is lost economic opportunity.
The federal government has stepped in with a fix for heirs’ property. The 2019 Farm Bill makes it easier for families to prove ownership, which helps them gain access to USDA loans. The legislation also created a $50 million fund for legal assistance to resolve title disputes.
“Although concerted efforts at the federal level have helped reverse black farm loss in recent years, federal and state lawmakers must push reform efforts, including targeted USDA programs, to continue the push for racial parity when it comes to the treatment of farmers,” the authors of the Center for American Progress report wrote. “The federal government must ensure that black farmers have expanded access to land, that legal protections are in place to preserve it, and that black farmers have the legal and technical resources to thrive.”
The profit motive
Farming is serious business, even for small-scale operators. Singleton said he expects to clear a minimum profit of “$50,000 to $60,000” on this year’s crops, but more excited about the future. He cites relationships with new customers, namely local supermarkets and restaurants looking for organic and exclusive crops as building blocks to an economic bonanza.
“This is a breakthrough year,” Singleton said. “We’re doing a lot of building, and like with any other business, it takes a couple years to break a profit. That’s nothing compared to the potential of the crops we have in the ground now. We could actually have over the next year or two up to $3 million in projections.”
Beckford sees similar possibilities for farmers willing to leverage assets that didn’t exist a generation ago, much less five. Technological developments in irrigation and fertilization allow year-round growing seasons, which in turn make for more production.
“The information, the education, the diversity in agriculture and agribusiness are some of the stimuli that are causing this move to agriculture where black farmers are actually seeing more opportunity to make money and sustain themselves and their families,” he said.
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