Race and Agriculture

Sustainabilities: Eco-oriented | Justice-oriented

Sustainable agriculture is often critiqued as a white domain, but that is often true of agriculture more generally. How did farming become a majority white occupation?

Much of the blame for this lies with the USDA’s racist policies, which denied farmers of color access to the support that allowed their white counterparts to industrialize. Loans from the USDA were essential as farms mechanized over the course of the 20th century. Today, a wide variety of subsidies continue to support the economic viability of agriculture, and, while they disproportionately benefit large industrial farms, subsidized water, diesel, and crop insurance are essential to agriculture at a variety of scales.

Historically, USDA loans were much more easily accessible to white male farmers, and African American, Native American, Latino, and women farmers have each sued the USDA alleging discrimination. African American farmers have alleged the most widespread discrimination, and their lawsuit has been the most successful. In the early 1900s, more than 900,000 black farmers owned over 15.6 million acres of land. By the end of the 20th century, just 18,000 farmers owned only 2 million acres. While black-owned farms were disproportionately small farms, and small farms generally fared more poorly than their larger counterparts, size alone cannot explain this decline. In 1997, the USDA settled a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of almost 15,000 African-American farmers for $1 billion. The lawsuit claimed that black farmers were systematically given false information about government programs, denied loans, and given insufficient or arbitrarily reduced loans. Even after this victory, the USDA’s process through which farmers and their decedents received payments was so obscure that it had to be settled through a second lawsuit in 2010.

In addition, the USDA has negotiated a smaller settlement with a class of Native American farmers, and Latino and women farmers allege similar patterns, but have thus-far been denied the ability to sue as a class. Chinese and Japanese farmers were often prevented from owning land through the Alien Land Acts, making farming a more difficult proposition for these communities. Many Japanese farmers who did acquire lands––often by putting titles in the names of their US-born children—saw it seized during World War II while they were imprisoned in internment camps. Given all these examples, it’s no wonder that communities of color often continue to refer to the USDA as “the last plantation.”

This discrimination contributed to the development of a present-day agriculture that is predominantly white and male (as of 2007, 83% of principal farm operators fit this category). This is beginning to change, however, and the USDA now has a few small initiatives and programs targeting women and immigrant farmers. Natasha Bowen’s excellent photo-documentary project The Color of Food features the stories of a diverse array of farmers of color, and attempts to shift the images most commonly associated with agriculture.

Locally, food justice activists seek to play a role in shifting these dynamics by supporting the very communities who have faced this discrimination. As Quinton Sankofa, a former program director for Oakland’s Mandela Marketplace puts it, “the work that we do connects two populations that have traditionally been left out of the mainstream food system: small minority farmers and urban markets like West Oakland.” The store displays profiles of local producers such as Maria Catalan, a former farmworker who now owns a 14-acre farm about 100 miles away. Leroy Musgraves, a retired African American farmer serves as a nutrition educator, and is on-site several times a week for consultations. By providing a distributional outlet for farmers of color and highlighting their struggles, Mandela helps to create economic opportunities for farmers who have too often been marginalized.

Alison Alkon

Published June 1, 2015