BROOKSVILLE, Fla. — Many Black farmers in our area say they’re struggling to survive and it’s not just because of the pandemic. They say racism and discriminatory practices in the farming industry have made it impossible to stay afloat.
ABC Action News in-depth reporter Anthony Hill dug deeper into their concerns and pushed leaders in the agriculture industry for answers.
Since the beginning of this country’s inception, Black people have had a connection with the land. For many, owning cultivating land signifies a sense of freedom.
“I love farming. I like to watch it grow.” Willie Joe Woods has been a farmer in Brooksville for 42 years and he’s grown practically everything, “like watermelon, cantaloupes, eggplants, squash, you name it,” said Woods.
For Willie, farming the land is a lifestyle and growing food to feed us is his passion, but he says, this lifestyle has been anything but easy, “I had to quit,” he said. Willie stopped growing produce in 2015. Now, he just raises cattle. He says there just isn’t enough financial assistance to help struggling farmers. “You do need a little boost to help you along, you know, and it’s not there,” he said.
Willie says he’s not the only one who’s struggling. He says over the years, many Black farmers, in particular, have been forced to go out of business in our area. I was shocked by his observation. So, I decided to look at the Census of Agriculture to see if the numbers backed his claim, and what I found was eye-opening.
According to the Census of Agriculture, 100 years ago, in 1920, there were about 13,000 Black operators of farms in our state. Today, that number sits at about 2,000, and it's not just Florida. The national stats are just as shocking. There were nearly a million Black farmers in the country in 1920. Today, there are about 45,000
So why are we seeing fewer and fewer Black farmers in our area? One expert on the matter says it’s because of a long legacy of racism and discriminatory practices by the USDA and private lending institutions. So, I went to Brooksville to talk to her. I wanted to find out what exactly are those discriminatory practices, in her view, have made it hard for Black-owned farms to stay afloat.
“A lot of those discriminatory practices were still on-going,” said Dr. Latrecia Wilson from the Florida Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association. She’s an expert on the history of Black farming in Florida.
“We noted that our Black farmers were losing their land at alarming rates,” she said. Dr. Wilson says, one of the major reasons why we’re seeing fewer Black farmers is because they aren’t always offered the same financial opportunities as White farmers. “What they found was that, unfortunately, they would give other farmers help and financial support during hard times, whereas Back farmers were not given any, or very little,” she said.
The Pigford Lawsuit was the largest agricultural, class-action lawsuit to date. It all started in 1996 when thousands of Black farmers banded together to sue the USDA for racial discrimination in how they allocated farm loans and assistance. The Black farmers won and the federal government had to pay more than one billion dollars to thousands of Black farmers.
However, Dr. Wilson says, even after more than two decades of the Pigford lawsuit victory, many Black farmers still complain of discriminatory practices because there were no repercussions for those that were involved. "So, these people are still sitting in these offices, but now as managers making those decisions for the farmers," she said.
I requested an interview with our area’s Farm Service Agency, which is an extension of the USDA. I wanted to find out what they’re doing to ensure that Black farmers here have the support they need. They declined my request, but it does appear that on their website they have loans geared toward people of color.
This topic is even starting to get the attention of Congress. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is sponsoring a piece of legislation called the “Justice for Black Farmers Act.” If passed, the act would do three things:
- Protect remaining Black farmers from losing their land
- Provide land grants to the next generation of Black farmers
- Create systemic reforms within the USDA so that it’s more inclusive
Local Black farmers say, this legislation is long overdue and would right some of the wrongs done against them.
The Farm Credit of Central Florida is a farm cooperative based in Lakeland. They lend farmers, who are members, money to maintain and grow their farms. They say they want local Black farmers to join them and take advantage of their services. “Obviously, we want to see agriculture grow. I mean, there’s less than 2% of the population now that has a tie back to agriculture in this country, so if we can help our Black farmers grow then that’s what we want to do,” said Johan Dam from the Farm Cooperative.
As for Willie, he says no matter what he’ll continue to farm and work the land. “It’s rough, but I can’t lay and do nothing. No, I can't lay and do nothing.”
Black farmers in our area say they hope that under a Biden Administration they have more access to tools and resources to help them excel in an already difficult profession. I'll continue to dig into these issues impacting our area's Black farmers and future farmers.