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Black Farmers in America face difficult odds

Racism, prejudice, and limited opportunity have plagued Black farmers for years.

From behind the wheel of his Ford pickup, Bill Bridgeforth surveys silt-clay-loam fields in northern Alabama. On either side of Bridgeforth Road – named after his father, Darden – corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton grow in rotation. 

Bill, who farms with his two sons, Kyle and Carlton; his brother Greg; and Greg’s son Lamont, joins other farmers who worry about weather, the markets, weeds, and pests. 

Like his ancestors, though, Bill Bridgeforth faces an additional challenge. He’s Black. 

In the Black farming community, the list of discriminatory behavior is lengthy: cornfields paid to be fertilized, but left undone; excessive charges for input supplies; getting approved for loans too late for the growing season, if at all. 

Are these just honest mistakes? Dewayne Goldmon doesn’t think so. 

“When it first happens to you, the inclination is yes, it’s a mistake and that’s OK. Maybe it won’t happen again. But down the line, another ‘honest’ mistake occurs,” says Goldmon, who in 2020 became executive director of the National Black Growers Council. “And when our farmers sit around the table and talk about these coincidences, it really comes to a head. You start to figure out the incidence of those coincidences goes up a lot when we’re dealing with Black farmers. That makes it all of a sudden, not a coincidence.” 

USDA: The last plantation

Black farmers’ struggle with the federal government dates back to Special Field Order 15 issued on January 16, 1865. It promised each newly freed Black family 40 acres in a strip of land covering 400,000 acres, ranging from South Carolina to Florida. Nearly 40,000 freed slaves took up residence on this land.  

The effort was for naught, though, as President Andrew Johnson rescinded the Special Field Order in the fall of 1865.

The forgotten farmers

PJ and Philip Haynie
PJ and Philip Haynie
In the 1980s, Philip Haynie II was one of the most progressive farmers in Northumberland County, Virginia. He had built a row-crop farm operation nearing 5,000 acres before feuds with USDA caused him to lose the farm and his marriage dissolved.   

Haynie, the fourth generation to farm near Reedville, was a victim of the 1999 class action lawsuit by Black farmers against USDA, called Pigford v Glickman. The suit was intended to make reparations to Black farmers by USDA. Some farmers, however, were left with nothing, and onerous rules from USDA prevented them from receiving further assitance from the agency.

Why Black farmers don’t trust Tom Vilsack

Lloyd Wright
Lloyd Wright
Lloyd Wright was hopeful Tom Vilsack would advance the plight of Black farmers during his eight-year run as USDA secretary from 2009 to 2017. 

Wright, though, says he was wrong, and he fears Vilsack, President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of Agriculture, is likely to continue that agency’s legacy of discrimination against Black farmers.

Where are the Black ag leaders?

Polly Ruhland, United Soybean Board
Polly Ruhland, CEO, United Soybean Board
Farm groups say they are committed to improving diversity, but there are no Black farmers on the boards of directors of the American Farm Bureau Federation, U.S. Grains Council, the United Soybean Board, National Corn Growers Association, National Peanut Board, Cotton Incorporated, and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. It’s a complex problem that requires solutions at the grassroots level, leaders say. 

A frank discussion about racism in agriculture

Bryana Clover, founder, 1619 Consulting
Bryana Clover
Early in Bryana Clover’s 12-year agribusiness career, she was a sales representative for Elanco Animal Health, calling on poultry customers in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Almost always, she was the only person of color in a room filled with white employees and managers.  

Most of the laborers working on the farms or the poultry processing floors, however, were not white. 

Her customers saw Clover as different than the laborers.  

“They told me I was different. I was more professional than them. Or when they would be talking about the ‘lazy plant workers,’ or referred to many of the plant workers as ‘crackheads,’ they would say, ‘no offense, but you’re different,’” Clover recalls. 

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