Progressive Governance Can Turn the Tide for Black Farmers

Wednesday, April 3, 2019
Center for American Progress

Introduction and summary

In January 1865, when Union Gen. William T. Sherman issued an order to allocate 40 acres to each freedman, the black ministers who lobbied for the policy envisioned vibrant, self-governed black agrarian communities dotting the Southern countryside. Unfortunately, President Andrew Johnson’s revocation of this order later that year and the institution of the Jim Crow regime after reconstruction left rural black Americans to build their farming communities from scratch.1 It wouldn’t be the first time that the U.S. government worked to undermine black farmers—and it certainly won’t be the last.

Yet even in the face of broken promises, not to mention the violence and discrimination aimed at black Americans by white landowners and lenders, black farms secured a foothold in American agriculture. At the height of black farming in 1920, black farmers operated 925,710 farms, about one-seventh of all farm operations in the United States. As of 2012, black farmers make up less than 2 percent of all farmers.2


The impact of structural racism—or systematic discrimination by private and public institutions—over the course of U.S. history on the wealth of black families is staggering. Black households hold about 10 percent of the wealth of white households.3 These inequities reflect the lasting impact of slavery, as well as impacts of exclusion from government policy initiatives aimed at promoting economic opportunity.4 The most widely known example of this is redlining, a policy instituted by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in 1933 that declared that mortgages in black neighborhoods were too risky—thus denying black Americans the opportunity to build wealth during the 1950s middle-class boom.5 The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a long and well-documented history of discrimination against black farmers.6 The unequal administration of government farm support programs, crucial to protecting farmers from an inherently risky enterprise, has had a profound impact on rural communities of color.

For black farmers, the effect of discrimination by the USDA has been particularly devastating. In 2012, only 1.58 percent of U.S. farmers were black or African American, according to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture.7 In 1910, this number was about 14 percent.8 As the number of black farmers shrunk, so did the size of their farms. All told, black farmers lost 80 percent of their land from 1910 to 2007. As the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded in a 1982 report, this pattern of discrimination virtually eliminated black farms, dealing a serious blow to rural black communities.9

Since the height of black farming in the first quarter of the 20th century, advances in technology and public policies aimed at promoting efficient, large-scale agriculture put enormous economic pressure on family farms operated by Americans of all races to become larger in order to compete. To put it another way, family farms had to “get big or get out.”10 The result: a precipitous drop in the number of farms and a dramatic increase in the average size of farms. The number of all farms in the United States declined from 6.8 million in 1935 to just more than 2 million in 2017. Over that same time period, the average farm grew from 155 acres to 444 acres.11

However, because of discriminatory practices by the USDA and private lending institutions, black farmers did not have equal access to the credit or crop insurance necessary to sustain their farms, let alone expand them.12 Black farms today, on average, are much smaller, representing just 0.4 percent of all farm acreage,13 and generate much less income when compared with white farms. In 2017, the average full-time white farmer brought in $17,190 in farm income, while the average full-time black farmer made just $2,408.14 After factoring in other income sources from part-time jobs, salaries of spouses, and rent income, the median black farming-occupation households made less than half of their median white counterparts.15

At a time when the national conversation has turned to the precarious situation of rural American farms, policymakers must pay special attention to the plight of the most vulnerable farmers—black farmers. This report looks at the history of how U.S. farm policy and private lending institutions have discriminated against black farmers, contributing to the virtual elimination of black-owned family farms. From 1920 to 1978, black farmers lost more than 36 million acres of farmland.16 This loss has had a profound impact on rural black communities, which today suffer from severe economic challenges, among them a poverty rate twice that of rural whites.

Although concerted efforts at the federal level have helped reverse black farm loss in recent years, federal and state lawmakers must push reform efforts, including targeted USDA programs, to continue the push for racial parity when it comes to the treatment of farmers. The federal government must ensure that black farmers have expanded access to land, that legal protections are in place to preserve it, and that black farmers have the legal and technical resources to thrive. Despite the incalculable damage of slavery, Jim Crow, and the continuing discrimination faced by black Americans, inclusive progressive governance, informed by history, can begin to make amends. Intentional federal policies aimed at preserving black land ownership and expanding opportunity for black farm creation and growth can reshape rural America by building wealth and strengthening communities.

To address the inequities in farming that stem from discrimination against black farmers, federal lawmakers should:

  • Establish a public land trust for beginning farmers of color
  • Enact a federal law to protect inherited land—heirs’ property—from forced sales
  • Expand technical assistance and outreach to farmers of color
  • Conduct strict and sustained oversight of the USDA

Land, money, and power: A history of government-sanctioned discrimination against black farmers

Following the Civil War, white landowners and merchants systematically denied black farmers access to private credit, while the government denied black farmers access to government services. White landowners refused to rent farms to black Americans on the same terms as white men, instead offering them exploitative sharecropping or rental arrangements. At the same time, merchants denied blacks access to credit to grow anything but cotton, while others denied their warehouse services to black farmers.17 White farmers, on the other hand, were given access to credit and used the money to rejuvenate their soil through crop rotation; they stored their excess cotton as they waited for prices to improve. As a result of these and other practices, many black farmers found themselves squeezed financially, were unable to pay off their mortgages and other debts, and were forced to sell their land for a fraction of its value.18 Yet even in the face of this adversity, black farmers had amassed millions of acres by 1920. Unfortunately, a series of discriminatory choices made by federal policymakers and agency administrators undid this progress.

The government sector systematically denied black famers access to wealth building programs. The federal government’s New Deal farming programs—the first set of major federal farm policies—intentionally excluded and discriminated against black farmers. During the Great Depression, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 (AAA) sought to raise and stabilize farm commodity prices by reducing production. The federal government incentivized farmers to produce less by providing rental and other benefit payments to those who withdrew acreage from cultivation. However, the lack of outreach to tenant farmers—with little regard for their rights under the AAA—coupled with higher levels of illiteracy among black tenant farmers, led to black tenant farmers being exploited in huge numbers by white landowners.19 For example, white landowners often pocketed government benefit payments for decreasing acreage under cultivation, instead of distributing that money to their sharecropping tenants.

1939 Missouri Sharecroppers Strike

A group of black sharecroppers led by Rev. Owen Whitfield protested these unfair practices in the 1939 Missouri Sharecroppers Strike. Evicted by white landowners who pocketed AAA payments, black sharecroppers protested this unjust treatment, staging mass rallies along two of Missouri’s major highways in the frigid January winter. Although the sharecroppers suffered through the cold with little protections, the American Red Cross refused to help because their struggle was “‘a man-made’ disaster.”20 Low-income white sharecroppers also made up about 10 percent of the protests. Eventually, students from Lincoln University, a historically black college, raised enough funds to help the protestors buy a parcel of land named Cropperville. This protest, and the fact that these black farmers could not depend on the government for help, demonstrate the failure of the USDA—and the U.S government at large—to protect black farmers from discrimination.21

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service was created in 1914 to work directly with farm communities to increase acreage, promote farm management practices, and promote other skills to help families maintain stable farms.22 During this time, the USDA advocated that a segregated extension service would best serve black farmers, with white agents working with the landlords and managers instead of directly with the black tenant farmers and sharecroppers.23 Black extension service workers were unable to help black sharecroppers and tenant farmers if white landlords objected to the black service workers’ presence on their land.

Discriminatory treatment of black farmers in the New Deal era and beyond reinforced the economic and social inequality of the Jim Crow South. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration granted a disproportionate amount of funds to white farmers, leaving black farmers vulnerable.24 In 1934, in Georgia’s Greene and Macon counties, blacks were in greater need of assistance from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration but received less aid than whites. In Greene County, blacks received 20 percent less direct relief than whites, even though the average rural white family earned twice as much as a black family.25 In Macon County, whites received double the amount of direct relief as blacks, even though the average income of a white family was almost triple that of a black family. The number of black farmers in the South decreased 8 percent from 1930 to 1935, while the number of white farmers increased by 11 percent. Thus, government workers and actions helped maintain the pre-Civil War social hierarchy of the South.26

The Farm Security Administration (FSA), established in 1937, was another New Deal program that further exacerbated income inequality between black and white farmers. County FSA committees allocated loan and grant funds in a discriminatory manner. The standard rural rehabilitation program was created to serve high-risk farmers. In 1939, blacks in the South received 23 percent of the allocated standard rehabilitation loans but made up 37 percent of all low-income farmers in the South.27 Other FSA programs were no different in their treatment of black farmers. In 1940, blacks were 35 percent of tenant farmers in the South but only received 21 percent of tenant-purchase loans.28 On average, whites received emergency grant assistance that was 20 percent larger than assistance given to blacks.29

This type of discrimination continued during most of the 20th century.30 Throughout the 1900s, multiple reports outlined equal opportunity violations at county-level offices where black farmers were denied loan applications or suffered discriminatory delays. Additionally, county-level USDA employees denied black farmers loan restructuring assistance, and because farmers couldn’t restructure loans, they had to foreclose, their property liquidated and sold by county supervisors.31 As recently as the 1990s, when blacks did receive loans, their average processing time was 220 days, compared with just 60 days for whites.32 The delays in loan processing—typically due to discrimination—led many farmers to lose the full benefits of the entire farming season and thus experience large losses in profits. Discriminatory county supervisors consistently excluded black farmers from many of the USDA programs meant to assist low-income farmers.33 This resulted in a dramatic loss of wealth for black farmers, and many blacks left the farming profession altogether. Avoidable foreclosures and loss of property have damaged credit scores and ruined the lives of black farmers and their descendants, all while USDA programs have helped lift white farmers out of poverty.34

In 1983, just a year after a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report found examples of rampant racism throughout the USDA, President Ronald Reagan decided to quietly close the USDA Office of Civil Rights as part of that year’s budget cuts.35 It was reported at the time that USDA employees routinely tossed the incoming civil rights complaints from black farmers into the trash without responding to or investigating the claims. In 1996, President Bill Clinton reopened the office, but the damage had been done. By 1994, blacks made up only about 0.57 percent of all farm operators, down from 2.8 percent in 1983.36

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