John Boyd Jr. Worries Black Farmers Will Go Extinct. These Young People Are Here to Prove Him Wrong.
The average age of a Black farmer is between 60 and 61 years old, but thanks to new organizations that support minority farmers, civil rights activist John Boyd Jr. is optimistic in the industry's future.
Though the world has been living in uncertainty for nearly a year with the spread of COVID-19, for John Boyd Jr., living with the feeling that anything can happen is second nature. But what he can't stand, he tells Inside Edition Digital, is the added weight of difficulty he and other Black farmers face.
“You have to deal with mother nature, like today, snow and ice,” Boyd, a commodities farmer, said as the snowstorm last week devastated the south. “But you shouldn’t have to be faced with discrimination and unfair practices.”
Boyd explained that his farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia faced days of power outages and frigid temperatures that made tending to his crops near impossible. But being frozen out of his normal farming operations was unfortunately something he knows very well.
Boyd is Black in an industry he calls “a white man’s game.”
The 55-year-old farmer explained that since he started farming in the '80s, he has been spat on, called the N-word and threatened with a gun when attempting to secure loans, apply for relief programs and advocate for the rights of other Black farmers.
“I don’t know what he thought [but] It’s not commonplace to visit a farmer with a loaded gun, you know?” Boyd said. “These are things that are happening in my lifetime – not my dad’s or my grandfather’s.”
Because of his plight and that of many others like him, Boyd has fought his entire life to make farming and agriculture a more equal playing field for all farmers.
But he worries that his advocacy work won’t be enough to keep his kind running.
The average age of a Black farmer is between 60 and 61 years old, according to a USDA census in 2007. And Boyd fears that without support of the younger generations, the art of farming among Black people will die out altogether.
“Farming is the oldest occupation for Blacks in this country,” Boyd said. “If we become extinct, all of that history goes with it.”
Farming Is as Black an Industry as They Come, Those Entrenched in the Way of Life Say. But Convincing Others of That Fact Is Not Always Easy.
For Boyd, becoming a farmer was a no brainer. “That’s just in my blood and I love it,” he said.
He explained he has been farming since 1983, an art form passed down by his grandfather and his father. “When you plow, the smell is the smell of heaven is what he taught me as a kid. I love planting. I love to see my crops grow and I get excited during harvest. I still get excited during harvest time, whether the prices are low or high.”
Boyd started in tobacco, cotton and peanuts, then expanded into corn, wheat, soybeans and cattle.
“I believe I’m going to die a farmer,” he said, “That’s my goal in life, is to farm all the way to the cemetery.”
He explained that his family has always been in agriculture, but it hasn’t always been an easy legacy to carry on. In fact, his grandparents were share croppers in the very county in which he owns a farm today. “My own kids find it hard to believe,” he said.
Sharecropping was a system in which landowners would allow a laborer to use a piece of their land in exchange for a portion of the crop. Many Black people turned to sharecropping after enslavement in order to make a living following the Civil War. The land they worked on was often white-owned, according to History.com.
While some Black families were able to make some money from the system, the system also led to much exploitation of the laborers, leaving many in debt or poverty despite doing back-breaking work.
“My grandfather taught me early on the importance of land ownership,” Boyd said. “He taught me that if you want to be free, you need to own some of God’s land.”
Boyd himself was taught to farm by his father and grandfather, and when he turned 18 years old, he decided he would buy his own farm.
He immediately ran into trouble when it came to securing a loan. “Lending officers during one time I was applying for a loan tore my application up and threw it in the trash can,” Boyd said. “Another particular time, he spat on me and he used racial epithets. He did a farm visit, but with a loaded handgun strapped on his hip.”
Those familiar with the industry say that’s just the beginning of the discriminations that many Black farmers have faced.
There were nearly 950,000 Black farmers in America in 1920, accounting for 17% of all farmers, which authorities have identified as the peak of Black farming thus far. That number dwindled to just over 45,000 in 2017, according to census records by the USDA from both years. In comparison, 95% of all farmers in 2017 were white.
Some say white supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, intimidated Black farmers to give up their practices, while others believe the numbers shrinking has more to do with degrading institutional policies like supervised bank accounts, which continue to exist today.
“All Black farmers had supervised bank accounts,” Boyd said. “That means that the account would be opened in the lender's name and your name and you couldn't spend any of the operating money without he or she signing the check. It was almost like we couldn't read or write or count.”
Behind these practices was the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which some have nicknamed the “Last Plantation” due to the history of racism and discrimination within the agency. The USDA has long been the focus of federal discrimination inquiries, and is often involved in large civil rights lawsuits.
Wanting to combat the discriminatory practices he was forced to deal with, Boyd founded the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) in 1995 with the mission to help other Black farmers and their families facing injustice just like he was.
Through his organization, Boyd has met with White House officials, testified before congress, lobbied for legislation and pushed forward class action discrimination cases, including Pigford v. Glickman, a 1997 class action suit that claimed the USDA discriminated against Black farmers and failed to investigate or respond to complaints spanning nearly a decade and a half. The suit ended in what some have have called the largest civil rights settlement in American history.
"Many underrepresented communities have an understandable lack of trust and hesitancy to engage with USDA," the USDA's newly-appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Monica Rainge told Inside Edition Digital, acknowledging the agency's problematic past. "USDA must find ways to partner with groups that have trust among these communities in order to conduct outreach or even become technical service providers for USDA programs in an effort to act more directly on USDA’s behalf."
Rainge added that the "USDA is committed to building a Department that represents and serves all Americans," and the agency intends to do so by creating an Equity Commission with the mission of keeping the USDA accountable, taking a special interest in tackling civil rights complaints and collecting better demographic data in order to better serve its constituents.
Boyd said that he is cautiously optimistic that things will improve for himself and other minority farmers under the Biden administration, and explained that he formally endorsed then-presidential candidate Joe Biden after having met with him during his campaign. “I got up behind Biden because he told me there would be changes at USDA, which was important to me,” he said. “I'm very optimistic, but I have to wait and see what kind of results we get.”
During the Trump Administration, however, Boyd was outspoken on how he believed Trump's policies took rural America “decades back in history and race,” he said, and worsened the divide between Black farmers and the government.
But only focusing his efforts on supporting minority farmers isn’t enough, he said. “The ability to communicate with the millennials is important to me,” Boyd, a fourth-generation farmer, explained. “I would like to see younger African Americans and other minorities partner with an older Black farmer, so that they can learn the art and skillset of farming. We want them to start small, but think big. Tap the knowledge and wisdom of the Black farmers who are still tilling the soil.”
Boyd’s own sons, however, will not be part of the next generation of farmers. “My sons said they don't want to be a farmer and that's very painful for me, from the long legacy and history of farming that I have,” he said. “They say we struggle so bad, trying to hold on. I’ve been struggling my whole damn life to stay on this farm. I've been treated badly and unfairly, but I'm not going to let it break my spirit. I'm going to keep pushing ahead.”
What the Next Generation of Black Farming Looks Like
“Having your hands in the soil, as a person of color, or anybody really, is a healing process,” said Michelle Hughes, a 28-year-old Black woman living in the D.C.-area. “Farming just heals something in me that I didn’t even know was broken.”
After college, she went to work on a large-scale hog farm in rural Pennsylvania, but soon grew disenchanted with the work and the industry. Hughes was working 12-hour days with few weekends off, wasn’t making enough to support paying off her student loan debt and grew more and more passionate about smaller scale hog farming.
When she quit her job, Hughes wanted desperately to go into farming for herself but found that path to be too intimidating. She didn’t come from a well-to-do family and desperately needed the financial stability that starting off on her own wouldn’t be able to provide. Hughes felt discouraged by complicated loan programs, plus, she knew she would have to work with the USDA at some point, and felt that was too big of a subject to approach.
“I grew up around systems of government that made it very hard for me to obtain wealth. Now I have to not only go back to dealing with these people, but also have to have enough money to buy land, which … feels very impossible,” Hughes said. “When you are going to go into farming, you're coming to it as a person of color, especially a Black person, with this perspective.”
So she left farming altogether, and started working for the National Young Farmers Coalition (Young Farmers), a nonprofit organization supports young people who need help getting their bearings in the world of farming, from providing direction, to offering loans and financial aid for operations impacted by COVID-19, to providing guidance on selling at farmer’s markets and grocery stores.
They also provide fellowships and advocate on the state and federal level for more equitable policy reform that benefits young and beginning farmers and farmers of color.
Hughes, who is now in charge of equity and organizational change at the nonprofit, has made it her mission to make farming a more inclusive space. She explained that the goal is not only for the benefit of people of color and other minorities, but because she believes diversity is the key to advancing the agriculture industry as a whole.
“Why would you close off the door to people who intimately understand different forms of oppression and climate justice, when they probably are the ones that have the solution because they've had such an intimate experience with this on the front lines?” Hughes said. “People of color in farming, especially Black and indigenous farmers, and farm workers who are primarily Latinx and from Hispanic communities, these are the people that … are bringing in diverse perspectives [which] means that we have innovative and creative solutions for the future.”
And despite Boyd’s worry that Black farmers may eventually disappear from the industry, the promise of diversity within the field seems to be the slow and steady prediction moving forward. Working with other organizations, Young Farmers found that of more than 3,500 farmers under 40 years old, 2% of them are Black or African American – a figure higher than the national average of 1.4%, according to a USDA study in 2007. Additionally, more than 10% of all young farmers surveyed by the coalition identify as people of color – compared to the USDA’s estimate that 95% of all farmers are white.
Additionally, 60% of farmers under 40 are female and 3% are transgender or other – a stark contrast from a USDA census in 2012, which found that of more than 3 million farmers, whose average age is 58, 70% are male.
All of this points to a changing demographic, and more diversity in the next generation of farmers, a group that Hughes hopes she can rejoin in the future.
“There's this huge opportunity right now to make change, because people are talking about it,” Hughes said, “There's a lot of possibility for farming to transform the way it looks. And I would love to be a part of the creation of a newer system.”
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