Efforts are taking shape to address injustice to Black farmers

PHOTO COURTESY OF MONROE TOWNSHIP

By Michele S. Byers

Logan Davis has a dream of running his own organic farm, one that would use no-till, “regenerative” methods to enrich the soil, grow healthy foods and sequester carbon that contributes to climate change.

As a young Black farmer, he faces many challenges. The vast majority of farmers in New Jersey and throughout the United States are White, and many have the advantage of coming from families that have farmed the same land for generations.

Logan doesn’t have family farmland to inherit or older family members with farming skills to pass on. He also feels that, at times, he has been taken less seriously as a farmer because of his color.

But he is optimistic he will succeed through new initiatives designed to encourage Black people to return to farming, following decades of systematic racism that separated them from the land.

“One of the biggest disparities between Black and White farmers in America is our lack of access to land,” Logan notes. “The history of America is one of systemic barriers to Black land ownership and intergenerational wealth transfer.

“Another disparity is the lack of access to agricultural knowledge. Techniques are often passed down through the generations and links to the land have been broken in most African American families.”

Today, Logan is hoping to lease preserved farmland in the Sourland Mountains of central New Jersey, a place with a rich agricultural history. He is hoping his farm will sustainably produce organic fruits and vegetables, and serve as a resource for Black and other marginalized people who want to learn to farm.

He also wants to share his knowledge of regenerative agriculture at Capital City Farm in Trenton, an urban farm serving a mostly minority population.

Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds and enhances ecosystem services.

“These practices were mostly originated by Black and Brown people,” he points out, although credit has not always been given where it is due. Logan would like to help right that wrong.

In the past century, Black farmers have not been on a level planting field. For years, they were systematically denied crucial U.S. Department of Agriculture loans for the purchase of land, equipment, seeds and livestock – effectively forcing many out of business.

According to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, 100 years ago there were more than 925,000 Black-run farms, accounting for more than 14% of all farms in the United States. By 2017, the number of Black-run farms had dropped to under 35,000, or less than 2% of the U.S. total.

As America faces a national reckoning over racial injustice and a new administration sets its agenda for the next four years, the time may be right for a renaissance of Black farmers. Among the Biden Administration’s top priorities are addressing racial inequality and fighting climate change, two interests that come together in farmers like Logan Davis.

In addition, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) is leading an initiative to enable more Black farmers to enter farming. Booker favors making reparations for what he calls “an ugly history of profound discrimination by our own government.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s actions “caused a loss of millions of acres of Black-owned farmland over the last century, accelerating in the past 50 years,” Booker said in his keynote remarks at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ) Winter Conference in January.

Booker is one of the sponsors of the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which includes reforms within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a proposed system of land grants for eligible Black farmers.

“When it comes to farming and agriculture, we know there is a direct connection between discriminatory policies within the USDA and the enormous land loss we have seen among black farmers over the past century,” Booker said.

“The Justice for Black Farmers Act will work to correct this historic injustice by addressing and correcting USDA discrimination and taking bold steps to restore the land that has been lost in order to empower a new generation of Black farmers to succeed and thrive,” the senator said.

Land grants would help many Black farmers, but even greater efforts are needed from both government and nonprofit organizations:

• Land – The New Jersey Department of Agriculture runs the Farm Link program, matching farmers seeking land with owners looking to sell or lease. Nonprofit land preservation groups that acquire farmland could do something similar with their underused acres;

• Education – There is a lot to know if you want to run a successful farm – especially a sustainable organic farm using climate-friendly practices. Organizations like NOFA-NJ offer beginning farmer and mentoring programs.

And if the Justice for Black Farmers Act becomes law, it will include a USDA program to teach young adults from socially disadvantaged communities the skills needed to pursue careers in farming and ranching;

• Urban farming – Many Black farmers got their start through urban farming. Most of New Jersey’s cities – including Newark, Trenton and Camden – have a network of urban farms and community gardens.

One great example is Capital City Farm, which provides produce to a local soup kitchen and nearby residents. More urban farms should be established using this model to produce fresh, healthy foods for urban communities and encourage more non-White people to enter farming.

As our society tackles several major challenges – including climate change and providing food for a growing population – sustainable farming offers great promise. Correcting past injustices and enabling people of all races to become part of these efforts benefits everyone.

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org