Black farmers in Georgia reclaiming agricultural roots

Salu Binahtabor (from left), 13, author of “Be Bugged: Beneficial Insects for Farmers and Gardeners,” Kevin Springs, a land owner in the Southeast, and Felicia Bell of SAAFON represent a new generation of black farmers. CONTRIBUTED BY SAAFON

Salu Binahtabor (from left), 13, author of “Be Bugged: Beneficial Insects for Farmers and Gardeners,” Kevin Springs, a land owner in the Southeast, and Felicia Bell of SAAFON represent a new generation of black farmers. CONTRIBUTED BY SAAFON

Almost 200 of 1,638 acres in an Albany-based farm collective are devoted to pecan trees. Harvest season could come as early as next week, but farmers are already worried they will see lower profits this fall. Georgia pecans have become very popular overseas in recent years, particularly in China, but in April, tariffs on pecans imported into China jumped by 15 percent.

“Our farmers can’t afford to store their crops to wait for a better market. They have to sell on the market when they harvest, and that is when we will see the pain,” said Shirley Sherrod, executive director of the nonprofit Southwest Georgia Project (SWGP), which helps connect hundreds of black farmers in southwest Georgia to resources and education.

Farmers across the country have expressed similar concerns about tariffs resulting from the nation's trade wars with China.

On Monday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced details of the first phase of the $12 billion in aid to farmers impacted by tariffs. In a major part of the plan, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency is providing an initial $4.7 billion in payments to producers of corn, cotton, dairy, hog, sorghum, soybean and wheat beginning Sept. 4.

But black farmers, who are more likely to grow non-program crops versus subsidized commodity crops, have ongoing concerns about the impact of tariffs and a troubled history with the USDA.

Georgia's cotton, peanut, pecan and soybean crops are at risk.

>> Read more: Subsidies offered for Georgia farmers hit by tariffs; impact unclear

There are about 44,629 black farmers in the U.S., according to 2012 data from the USDA, the most recent census available. They accounted for 1.4 percent of the nation's farmers, and 90 percent live in 12 Southern states. In the five-year period from 2007 to 2012, the number of black farmers who were in charge of day-to-day operations increased by 9 percent compared to a 4 percent decline in principal operators of other farms. About 4 percent of farmers in Georgia are black.

Sherrod, former Georgia state director of rural development for the USDA, has spent several decades helping black farmers navigate the ups and downs of the industry.

From 1969 to 1985, Sherrod and her husband Charles operated a nearly 6,000-acre community land trust in Lee County that was one of the largest black-owned farms in the U.S. Then came the farm crisis of the 1980s. The Sherrods were denied an emergency loan from the USDA. It was later determined that white farmers in the area had received comparable loans.

Similar complaints among other black farmers became the focus of a 1997 class-action lawsuit. Pigford v. Glickman found a history of bias resulting from decades of discriminatory practices by the USDA. A total of $2.25 billion in two phases was allocated to compensate tens of thousands of black farmers.

In 2011, the Sherrods received a reported $12.8 million award under the Pigford lawsuit, the largest amount paid to a single farm. They purchased a former plantation in Albany and re-energized their efforts to help black farmers.

Black farmers tend to have smaller farms (86 percent had less than 180 acres, according to 2012 data) and lower sales (79 percent have annual sales of less than $10,000) when compared to other farmers. These are just some of the characteristics of black farms, which organizations such as the Environmental Working Group found to be the result of decades of discrimination rather than justification for lower levels of government assistance.

In 2010 when Sherrod served as the Georgia director of rural development, a video posted on the conservative website Breitbart showed her making racist statements. Sherrod resigned under pressure, but when the full recording was released, it revealed that Sherrod's remarks had been presented out of context. Government officials offered her a new job. Sherrod declined.

“I went into the agency knowing what I was going into and determined to make the changes I could make while I was there,” Sherrod said. “I have always had to work from the outside.”

Much of the recent growth in black farming can be attributed to outsiders such as Whitney Jaye. She didn’t grow up on a farm, but she came to understand the power of healthy food as a teenager when her mother grew ill. By the time she was a student at the University of Georgia, she was fully invested in the agricultural movement. She began researching the history of black land loss — the number of black farmers peaked in 1920 and declined 98 percent by the late 20th century — as well as studying the grassroots agroecological agriculture movement in South America.

Whitney Jaye and her husband began farming two years ago on a half-acre of land in Lithonia where they grow flowers, vegetables and culinary and medicinal herbs. Jaye is among a small but growing number of black farmers hoping to reconnect their communities to cultural roots through farming. CONTRIBUTED BY WHITNEY JAYE

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Two years ago, she and her husband turned a half-acre of land in Lithonia into Semente (“seed” in Portuguese), where they grow culinary and medicinal herbs, as well as fruits and vegetables including greens, peppers, beans and more.

“For me, it is important that the food I grow is super accessible to my folks,” she said, adding that she looks for ways to grow things that black people want while also making sure they see themselves as part of the local food community.

As network coordinator for the Southeastern African American Farmers' Organic Network (SAAFON), a 12-year-old organization that promotes the prosperity and viability of black farmers in the Southeast, Jaye has met a crop of like-minded black farmers.

A fellow SAAFON member is establishing a farm to provide housing and teach farming skills to women ages 18-25 who age out of foster care. The organization is also promoting cooperatives as a business model, a tradition which dates back to the 1800s in the black community.

It isn’t easy for small-scale non-commodity farmers to survive in a market where 4 percent of farms control 66 percent of sales, but there are signs that alternative spaces in the food system are evolving. A 2015 USDA survey revealed that direct sales to consumers, institutions, food hubs and more — viable avenues of sales for many small black producers — totaled $8.5 billion in sales in 2015.

Related: Mobile markets provide access to fresh produce in metro Atlanta food deserts

Tamara Jones, executive director of SAAFON, said a number of black farmers in the Southeast are making it work on 20 acres or less. And they are doing it in ways that support nonindustrial agriculture and different scales of farming tied to their communities and not the commodities markets.

“We are reclaiming the agricultural expertise and history that black people owned even before we came to America,” said Jones. “We are reconnected with a deep history and a deep power, and despite all the travails we have gone through, black farmers are emerging again in America.”


Here’s a look at black farmers based on 2012 census data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

44,629 black farmers in the U.S.

1.4 percent of the nation’s farmers

90 percent live in 12 Southern states

9 percent increase in the number of black farmers who were principal operators of farms