The next generation of Black farmers

“It’s a reminder of my beginnings and who I am”: 3 Black farmers on their relationship to their vocation.

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By Anoa Changa
VOX
Image by Luis Alvarez/Getty Images
April 13, 2021

 

Growing up, I never imagined living on a farm and working the land as a possible future. 

As a poor Black kid in an urban community, farming was a foreign concept. So much of what I saw about farming felt overwhelmingly white, with little mention of Black farmers and their communities. 

My parents and others around me would talk about wanting to go down South and living on the land. It sounded more like a dream than a possible reality. The rare coverage about Black farmers was primarily limited to loss and discrimination. Broken promises combined with programs that relied upon white state and local decision-makers stacked the deck against newly independent Black people in the United States. Federal Homestead Acts largely benefited white landowners providing highly subsidized opportunities for ownership. 

The number of Black farmers has dwindled over the past century, and as of 2012, less than 2 percent of all farmers identified as Black. That’s because millions of acres of land owned by Black farmers were lost or outright stolen, such as through federally funded farm programs discriminating against Black farmers by refusing to issue loans those farmers were otherwise entitled to.

Systemic racism and institutional neglect left many Black farmers without the support and financial investment of their white counterparts. A 2019 investigative report by the Atlantic explored the institutional policies adopted by the federal government beginning in the New Deal to support struggling farmers, and how Black farmers were so often left out of these benefits. 

A documented pattern and practice within federal government program administration for farmers, including the USDA’s administration of loans and debt forgiveness, continued to benefit white farmers while excluding Black farmers and others of color all the way through the Trump administration. Reports indicate the federal bailout given to farmers under the Trump administration almost exclusively benefited white farmers. 

But change is coming. Passed as a part of the sweeping American Rescue Plan this year, the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act and the Justice for Black Farmers Act provide financial assistance, loan forgiveness, and more to Black and other farmers of color who have been historically left out of federal aid efforts. The passage of this landmark legislation provides long-overdue support to Black farmers. It includes funding for research and grants at historically Black colleges and universities as well as a provision in the Justice for Black Farmers Act that would create a Farm Conservation Corps for young farmers from disadvantaged communities. 

I spoke to three Georgia-based Black farmers who shared thoughts about their relationship to farming as not simply a vocation, but as a lifestyle and cultural practice. Whitney Jaye and Alsie Parks both work with SAAFON, a Southern-based farming collective working to strengthen and support Black farmers in building alternative food systems and to help young people exist and work in relation to land. Nakita Hemingway, whose specialty is cut flowers, also shared her journey to farming, and she’s very proud of her seed collection. 

Through our conversations, I got the sense of possibility for a future in connection with the land. 

All three challenged traditional notions of productivity and value, adopting a more holistic approach to their craft. But they also explored the expansive opportunity in innovating and living a joyful existence as farmers. As my children approach adulthood, they have expressed greater interest in farming and growing and overall adopting a way of life more consistent with an agrarian lifestyle. They also have me looking at my large yard through a different lens. 

Our interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

“This is truly who I am”

Nakita Hemingway, Gwinnett County, Georgia

I grew up in the metro Atlanta area, but I was born in Savannah. Every summer was spent in rural Georgia and rural South Carolina. So, being connected to the land outside of my ancestry, it’s really a part of my personal identity and my DNA. 

My ancestors were rice farmers in the coastal Carolinas. It’s unfortunate that we, as Black people, have traveled so far from our history, being willing or unwilling. But our culture is deeply rich in agriculture. So in many ways, for me, it’s a reminder of my beginnings and who I am.

My husband, who is not African American, is a fifth-generation farmer from Central Illinois. And when I met him, I knew that he grew up on a farm, but he had no interest in farming. And it wasn’t until our daughter was born that we realized this is a part of our legacy that we want to pass along to our children. At my age, and I’m in my early 40s, you stop looking at life from personal gains to “all right, now it’s time to pivot to what can we pass along to our children.” 

I believe that’s a true testament to the American story — in many ways, we have different backgrounds but are also similar. Farming in this space, pursuing a simpler life, is everything to me. A lot of women my age, they’re happy about their purse collections and their shoe collections. And I’m bragging about my seeds, the fact that I have over 500 different varieties in my personal seed collection. The reality is this is truly who I am. 

Prior to discovering this space, there was this journey in my soul to connect with the land and the natural places. We as Black people, we have learned to work with what we’ve been dealt and what we have. But that doesn’t speak to all of our talents. I am an extremely innovative person, and I am very creative. Farming is very technical and analytical. And it’s so funny, because when we’re talking about STEM and we’re talking about technologies, people look at farming from the lens of the past. But farming is very tech-driven. And there’s great innovation in this space.

“We’ve been able to use the land as a refuge”

Whitney Jaye, DeKalb County, Georgia

I was having a conversation for a podcast and the question that was asked was basically like, “How has the land mothered you?” And how I responded to that question in part was thinking about the ways that the land has really been like a refuge. So when I think about urban farming, what came to mind was the Great Dismal Swamp. It’s a swamp where, throughout American history, maroons [formerly enslaved people] basically ran away and found a home there and said, “I will not be in bondage here.”

When I’m processing our relationship to land and thinking about sustainability, I’m thinking about the embodiment of our ability to survive really being tied to the ways that we’ve been able to use the land as a refuge. I’m thinking about maroons running to the mountains, I’m thinking about maroons running to the swamp. The land in the South has also been that place where we could just honestly be some inkling of free. It runs counter to the narrative where we oftentimes internalized that the land was this place and source of the trauma. I think about us being in these places, including cities, and building refuge in places where we are ultimately put by a system that was designed to destroy us. 

So much of how people have come to understand the positioning of the lifestyle and lifeways of Black farmers is through the lens of loss and trauma. And it’s really important that while we can name that, we can also name the abundance of what currently exists in our constellation of Black farmers, the survival skills, strategies, and tactics we can learn from the people who have been holding land since Reconstruction and before.

It is really important that we also name the abundance because if not, what ends up happening is that we invisibilize not only our legacy as agrarian people, but also our present and our future. So being very clear that while those things have certainly happened, we are still here. And what can we learn from where we are? What can we learn from the folks who are still on the land? And prioritizing that in how we think about what are strategies for getting more folks on the land. Part of that has got to be uplifting and amplify how we’ve survived.

“Our ancestors and elders sacrificed a lot to be able to call the land their own”

Alsie Parks, DeKalb County, Georgia

There was an urban growing program [that teaches practical urban farming and agriculture techniques] that I was a part of specifically for Atlanta youth. I see that as an entry point to not only get some fundamental skills of being able to grow and provide maintenance for the plants and the food that is grown, but also to generate a spiritual connection to the land. 

I spent my summers in the country picking pecans with my granddaddy in the backyard, and in my grandmother’s flower garden. My granddaddy would bring home rabbits and skin them in the backyard. Even though my grandparents chose to move to a larger city, they held on to those agrarian lifeways and practices, and I’m just so grateful that I was exposed to them.

I feel like a lot of folks, especially from Atlanta, have roots and lineages that extend throughout different rural communities in Georgia. And so I ground myself in those lived experiences. I’ve had so many foundational experiences that don’t make me feel distant from the land.

My mom, I think, had a similar kind of experience where she grew up in Augusta, but she was always in Lincolnton, Georgia. She would spend time with her aunties and uncles, supporting them with their farms. She also went to a Black boarding school in Keeseville, Georgia, and they were self-sufficient. 

There’s also folks that have ancestral land, who understand through their family’s kind of cultural inheritance the power and the wealth that is embedded in the land. Our ancestors and elders sacrificed a lot to be able to call the land their own. And I think ownership and stewardship in a lot of ways, especially for Southerners, are interchangeable because this is generational wealth that I’m able to pass on. I’m also able to pass on the importance of it through my descendants. 

Oftentimes, some of our families still have their land, but it does not have the same kind of infrastructure that you would think of when you think about a production farm. So I find that a lot of folks are searching for ways to be able to provide for themselves and make a livelihood off of the land where it’s like, we’re trying to exit this kind of economic system that has just extracted our love and labor and our skills, and what does it actually look like to reclaim our labor and our ability to be able to provide for ourselves.

A lot of our elders who have embraced these different models and different modalities of making a life on the land for themselves and the lineage of their families who hold so much of the agrarian knowledge in the technical practices and the culture are longing to transfer this to us. They’re like, “I don’t want this to die with me.” And I think we’re in a unique space to really embrace what it looks like to be inviting intergenerational knowledge and skill and cultural exchanges on the land for healing, but also like extending that lineage and that legacy. Because there’s so many things outside of us that are telling us that is not a way to be able to provide for us, when I know that is a way for us not only to survive but for us to thrive.