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Always looking ahead: What it's like to be a Black farmer in America

Weather, markets, weeds and pests aren't the only worries for America's Black farmers.

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. 

Greg and Bill’s great-grandfather George was a freed slave following the Civil War. A white family, the Bridgeforths, gave him farmland in Tennessee on which he began raising his family and took the Bridgeforth name. George’s son Isaac – Greg and Bill’s grandfather – took the train from Tennessee to college in Tuskegee. During a whistle-stop in Tanner, Alabama, Isaac became enamored with the area’s rich farmland. Discovering there was land for sale, George acted quickly.

“He had a better chance of supporting his family farming in those river bottoms then the rocky hills of Tennessee,” Bill says. “The white Bridgeforths helped him sell the land in Tennessee and buy 600 acres in Alabama.”

The Bridgeforths have farmed there ever since. From the legacy of George Bridgeforth, each successive generation has deployed sound judgment, the latest technology, and a solid reputation as good farmers to expand the farm to nearly 10,000 owned and rented acres. That increase in size and scope has not been easy. The Bridgeforths say the injustices and prejudices they face as Black farmers are numerous, including spending months straightening out incorrect invoices from input providers and waiting more than a year to obtain a critical disaster payment from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers Home Administration.

Prejudice still exists 

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 by local banks or USDA for crop 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.” 

After the Civil War, freed slaves who wanted to farm were promised 40 acres of farmland, only to have the U.S. government return that land to its pre-war owners. Many of those farmers became sharecroppers, under terms that benefitted the landowners. Later, USDA programs designed to help all farmers largely hindered Black farmers’ ability to increase their acreage. White farmers often prevented Black farmers from buying land. If Black farmers were successful in acquiring land, they often were unable to participate in USDA programs intended to help farmers improve their property. Every obstacle forced more Black farmers out of farming, Goldmon says. 

The National Black Growers Council (NBGC) membership is multigenerational and tends to be full-time farmers focused on growing commodities on larger farms. It is a coalition of more than 250 Black farmers from Virginia to Texas, says Goldmon, a retired agronomist and government affairs specialist at Monsanto and Bayer Crop Science and farmer of 1,200 acres of row crops near Pine Bluff, Arkansas. 

Steep Decline

The number of U.S. Black farmers plummeted from 926,000 in 1920 to less than 46,000 by 2017. Roughly 2% of the U.S. population is engaged in production agriculture, and less than 1% of those are Black, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Of those, only an estimated 8% are full-time, row-crop farmers.  

“All of these farmers are in very isolated situations in terms of having another Black farmer in the community,” Goldmon says.  

In P. J. Haynie’s case, no Black farmers who farm more than 500 acres live near his family farm in Reedville, Virginia. 

“I thought for the longest time I was out here all alone,” says Haynie, who belongs to NBGC, which serves as a peer network where Black farmers can provide information and advice to each other. 

Goldmon challenges members of the NBGC to keep moving forward. 

“If you take a look at the rearview mirror, you can see the bad things,” Goldmon says. “We want to look through the windshield and see what we can accomplish.” 

Among those accomplishments? Congressional momentum for the Justice for Black Farmers Act, a November 2020 bill introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that address past discrimination in the USDA. One of the bill’s provisions is the Equitable Land Access Service, which would allow USDA to acquire farmland and provide 160-acre land grants to Black farmers. New farmers would be provided access to USDA operating loans and mortgages under farmer-friendly terms and conditions. 

The bill will likely be reintroduced this year. It provides some hope to reverse the trend of fewer Black farmers, Bill Bridgeforth says. 

“Whatever it takes to get Black farmers on good land is what we need to do,” he says. “To help strengthen the few Black farmers we still have, and enable us to get more started, make land that’s federally controlled available to Black farmers first.” 

Black farmers today are just a few generations removed from slavery and the oppression of being sharecroppers for years after slaves were freed. Many don’t have the same financial wherewithal that often comes from multiple generations of farmers, many of whom were granted 160 acres for free from the government through the Homestead Act of 1862.  

Issues in common

The Justice for Black Farmers Act passed in the Senate may be a big ask, but it’s a good way to get a conversation started between Black and white farmers, Haynie says.

“We have the same challenges they do: markets, weather, and pests, on top of the preexisting challenges that were brought on prior to our generations,” he explains. “That’s why the deck is truly stacked against us, and why we need their help in making it a level playing field because we want our children to farm right beside their children. But they have to understand why we have to work so hard and do what we do.”

“We have more in common than not in common,” Goldmon adds. “We’re farmers just like white farmers. They love farming and we love farming.” 

Christi Bland agrees. The fourth-generation farmers from Tunica County, Mississippi is convinced of the rightness of her decision to join her family farm after years of off-farm employment. 

“I just love that I’m doing something that my ancestors have fought for the right to do,” she says. “I want to continue the legacy for my cousins, for my children, and for their children’s children. 

“When you’re on the land, you get that feeling you’ve never had on any other job. You get the joy and you get to work alongside people who know where you’re coming from,” she adds. “Having a Black farmer come before me has solidified that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

As Bill Bridgeforth’s sons and nephew gain more farm responsibility and have children of their own, the Alabama farmer believes the best is yet to come for Black farmers. 
“We have the best government in the entire world. Eventually, we will correct the discrimination and racism,” he says. “I don’t have any doubt, the next generation, if they choose to farm and the Lord will bless them, will have the opportunity.”

Editor's note: This article is one of a multi-part series focusing on Black farmers' experiences in honor of Black History Month. Read the other parts of the story here.

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