They were supposed to become extinct.
An article published in The New York Times in 1992 made a dire prediction: After decades of decline, the end was near for Black farmers.
The Times article says only 1.5 percent of the nation’s farmers in 1990 were Black, while just 30 years prior, the number had been 11 percent.
Pamala Morris, assistant dean of Purdue University’s College of Agriculture Administration and director of diversity programs in the college’s Office of Multicultural Programs, says Blacks owned 14 percent of the nation’s farmland in 1920. Today, that number is less than 1 percent.
“Our industry is probably one of the whitest industries in existence,” Morris said about agriculture.
But despite the steady drop, the trend is finally reversing.
According to the latest agricultural census from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the number of Black farmers increased by about 12 percent from 2007–2012.
The USDA cites deliberate efforts under the Obama administration to fix a system that has historically put farmers of color at a disadvantage through discriminatory lending practices.
“Basically, Blacks just couldn’t get the money from banks to sustain their farmland and buy new equipment,” Morris said. “Black farmers just weren’t able to obtain the resources they needed to keep their farms going. They would come up with different reasons why the Black farmer couldn’t get the loan.”
And in cases when the farmers were able to get loans, they were often too late, given after the window when farmers would be able to plant their crop for the season, Morris said.
John Boyd Jr., a fourth-generation Black farmer from Virginia who founded the National Black Farmers Association to organize against discriminatory practices, described his experiences in a 2011 Q and A with The American Prospect.
“The discrimination was very pervasive; Blacks were denied loan applications where they did not take part in county committees, which are the three-member panels that make decisions on farm loans in each county, run by the USDA,” he said.
Boyd said his own county supervisor, a white man, “was using the system to take land and give it to those on the county committee, and his friends and the community. It was a legalized way to take a lot of land away from Black farmers.”
The county supervisor even suggested to Boyd at one point that he should just give up.
“I tried to apply every year like any other farmer would and he said, ‘No, I’m not going to lend you any money, and you might just as well sell your farm to (another prominent white farmer) like I told you, and he’s going to allow you to milk cows on his farm. Sign the deed to (him), and we won’t come after you for any past debts.’”
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said revamping the racial/ethnic makeup of those county committees is one strategy the USDA has implemented to combat discrimination.
“We’ve taken big, bold steps to rectify past wrongs and ensure all Americans who come to USDA for help are treated fairly, with dignity and respect,” Vilsack wrote in a blog explaining how the department has ushered in “a new era for civil rights.” “When someone applies for a loan today, they can be more confident knowing the individuals reviewing the applications reflect the diversity of the constituency they serve.”
Under the current administration, Vilsack said the USDA has also established the Office of Advocacy and Outreach (OAO) “to improve access to federal programs and enhance the viability of small, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.” The OAO then launched the Minority Farmers Advisory Committee, made up of minority farmers and ranchers, civil rights activists, nonprofits and academics to advise the USDA on policies that impact farmers of color.
In addition to seeing an increase in the number of Black farmers, Vilsack said the number of pending and new civil rights complaints filed with the USDA has plummeted.
“When we arrived in January 2009, there were 14,000 administrative civil rights cases pending at USDA and no formal processes established to provide pathways to justice. …
In 2015, USDA reduced the inventory of pending civil rights complaints to its lowest level in five years; and between 2010 and 2014, USDA’s Farm Service Agency reported the fewest customer complaints on record,” Vilsack wrote. “Major improvements to farm loans have made it possible for more Americans to get involved in farming and ranching.”
While the government works to right past wrongs, Morris is working at Purdue to build the pipeline of minority students coming to the College of Agriculture. Through programs like a two-week campus visit for underrepresented minority high school students and daylong workshops in Indianapolis and The Region for middle school students, Morris has been able to increase interest in the programs.
The most recent annual report from the Office of Multicultural Programs, which was released in August 2016, shows a steady increase in undergraduate applications from underrepresented minorities. In fall 2011, 116 underrepresented minority students applied to the program. In fall 2015, that number jumped to 199.
Morris said minority students gravitate more toward non-farming aspects of the agricultural industry, partially because there’s still a stigma among people of color — both Blacks and Hispanics — about what it means to work the land.
But Morris applauds the recent steps toward diversifying the agriculture industry, stressing their necessity.
“We can’t continue to repeat what we’ve done in the past,” she said. “We have to build environments within the industry that are welcoming and respectful for people who might be different from ‘the norm.’ It’s crucial that we diversify the field.”