Thursday, May 22, 2008

Is the black family farm in danger of extinction?

Young Negro farmer working on the field

TITLE: Young Negro farmer working on the field of Mr. Miller's farm. Mr. Miller is the only Negro farmer on Rumsey Hill, submarginal farm area near Erin, New York.

The number of black-owned farms in the United States plummeted from 925,000 (14 percent of the total) in 1920 to just 18,000 (1 percent) in 1992. And the amount of land belonging to black farmers has dropped from 15 million acres to less than three million acres. White farmers have also seen substantial losses, but the rate of land loss among blacks is much greater.
UW-Madison researcher documents a dying way of life in rural America

If the family farm in America is thought of as a threatened species, representing a way of life that is slowly dying out, then the black family farm can be regarded as an endangered species, teetering on the edge of extinction.

The black family farm is disappearing in rural America, says Jess Gilbert, a rural sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. It is a victim of legal “shenanigans,” loss of land through heir property, and discriminatory practices by lending institutions and government agencies, according to Gilbert’s research.

The1999 USDA Agricultural Economics and Land Ownership Survey revealed that blacks constitute less than two percent of agricultural land owners and own one percent of total ag acreage in the United States. Two-thirds of them do not farm their own land, but rent it to others, mostly whites. Gilbert and his colleagues want to do something about it.
“I work with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and other black farm organizations in the South trying to preserve the land base of rural blacks,” says Gilbert, co-director of the Center for Minority Land and Community Security, a USDA-funded program jointly administered by the UW-Madison and Tuskegee University. The center’s main goal is to help minority landowners retain their land.

Black land ownership in the United States is almost completely confined to the so-called “Southern Black Belt,” a crescent-shaped area of 15 southern states extending from Virginia to East Texas and along the Mississippi river delta. Not surprisingly, this area coincides with former slave states, says Gilbert, who is studying black land ownership issues in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

“This is a huge issue,” says Gilbert. “The peak of land ownership for blacks was World War I, when they owned more than 20 million acres of farmland. In 1920, there were close to a million black farmers, about one-fourth of them land owners. Now there are less than 20,000 farmers who own less than two million acres.”

But not all of the changes have been bad for blacks, says Gilbert. The drop in some of the figures reflects the dismantling of the share cropper system and forced labor in the South.

It’s the unwilling loss of land Gilbert is concerned about. “The disappearance of black farms cannot be explained by general economic trends alone. Blacks are hit harder than other groups because they are small-scale farmers. Black farms tend to be between 50 and 100 acres, with less than $10,000 in gross annual sales. The size of the holding matters. Small farms decline at a more rapid rate than do large farms.

“The loss of land in the South as a result of legal problems still continues today,” says Gilbert. “Over half of black land owners die without leaving a will.”

Gilbert’s research revealed that black landowners experience discrimination by lending agencies that are unresponsive to their needs, reject their loan applications at higher rates than whites, or loan them only a portion of the money they need. In addition, historically blacks have not been represented in local USDA committees nor have they participated in federal government farm assistance programs to the same degree as their white counterparts.

In the article, “The Loss and persistence of black-owned farms and farmland: A review of the research literature and its implications,” published in the journal Southern Rural Sociology in 2002, Gilbert and co-authors Gwen Sharp and M. Sindy Felin found that despite the declining numbers and dire predictions-at one time it was predicted that by the year 2000 there would be no black farmers left in the U.S.-black farmers and landowners want to hang on to their land and make a go of it.

Pride and a sense of well-being are two sentiments blacks list as important dividends of owning land. But Gilbert and his co-authors have discovered even greater implications from their literature review. “The importance of property ownership goes hand in hand with active citizenship and social independence,” they wrote. Black landowners were some of the first to support the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Their children tend to be high academic achievers: many become doctors and lawyers. And blacks who own land contribute to the economy in rural areas by patronizing businesses in their communities and paying property taxes.

Some of the solutions that could potentially keep agricultural land in the hands of black owners include increased access to legal assistance, putting idle land back into production, better utilization of county extension resources and an end to racial discrimination in local USDA offices.

“For black farmers, agriculture must be a viable business, but it is also a way of life. Black land loss is a loss not only of potential income, but even more a loss of wealth, with deep consequences for social inequality and political power, especially in the rural South,” concluded Gilbert and his co-authors. ###

contact Jess Gilbert at (608) 262-9530 WEB: UW-Madison News

No comments:

Post a Comment