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Dig deeper than discrimination

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Thursday, Sept. 5, 2002 -- CropChoice commentary) -- Tom Burrell thinks it's great that more Americans now understand their government's decades-long discrimination against black farmers. After all, raising awareness is one goal of the rallies and prayer vigils he has helped to organize at Department of Agriculture offices in the South. Major media reported on a July rally at the Brownsville, Tenn. offices of the Farm Service Agency. Dan Glickman, secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration, admitted in 1999 that the Agency habitually denied and delayed loans to black farmers, but not to white farmers with similar finances and operations.

Burrell, who's preparing for a rally on Monday, Sept. 9th at the Farm Service Agency in Star City, Arkansas (Lincoln County), isn't satisfied. The Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association member wants people to understand that the issues go deeper and broader.

"The admission of discrimination is a misnomer," he says. "The issue is whether USDA employees, in discriminating against African American farmers, are expropriating their land, thus satisfying the wishes and desires of the heirs and descendants of the original plantation owners. That's conspiracy, not discrimination."

In towns throughout the South, plantation owners' descendants work in the local USDA offices, and have used familial connections with key local players to take land from black farmers. Their forbears' need for credit to cope with the shift from human to machine labor early in the last century enabled this massive land grab.

Burrell sees even broader implications, though. Much of the land that black -- and white -- family farmers have lost over the years became part of bigger farms. These industrial operations with only a few types of crops requiring heavy use of machinery, pesticides and now, biotechnology, form the model that the U.S. and other western governments and transnational agribusiness are pushing worldwide. The Vision 2020 plan for the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh epitomizes this: bulldoze the small, sustainable family farms -- displacing millions of people -- to make way for factory farms.

Postbellum Agriculture in the South

Following the Civil War, southern plantation owners faced financial ruin. Selling their farms was the best way to earn cash. They divided their holdings, ranging in size from 300 to 5,000 acres, into small parcels and sold them to black farmers for two reasons.

First, the newly emancipated agrarians had managed the aristocrats' land for centuries. They'd been brought from Africa because of their farming skill.

Second, they had big families to labor in the fields.

This was instrumental in maintaining high production that allowed them to quickly pay for the land. "With more hands they outpeanuted, out tobaccoed, outcottoned and outcorned the white farmers with smaller families," Burrell says.

This was how, by 1910, one million black farmers had accumulated 16 million acres. Today, perhaps 10,000 growers control fewer than 2 million acres, according to the USDA.

While it's true that drought, pestilence and repeated economic downturns hurt them, the switch from human to mechanized labor was the most important factor that began the decline of black farmers.

Changing Times Beginning in 1915, the farmers lost the labor of their sons and daughters when they headed north and west to work in the burgeoning automobile and war industries in Detroit, Chicago and New York. Meanwhile, tractors and harvesting equipment were becoming more common. White farmers had access to money to buy such equipment. Black farmers generally didn't. This also marked the beginning of policymakers' vision of larger farms with fewer farmers.

Still hanging on but without the labor advantage, black farmers approached state USDA offices about loans to purchase machinery.

"Bingo, the officials thought," Burrell says. "We've gotcha'. Sure, we'll give you a loan to buy that tractor. When you come back, just remember to bring the deed to your land for security."

Since then the USDA essentially has created disasters for them by denying or delaying loans to buy inputs until the middle of the growing season when it's too late to expect a decent crop. After a few years of losses, the farmers are bankrupt and lose their land. Other farmers purchase or lease it to make larger tracts.

"The USDA says black farmers are in this mess because we're bad managers," Burrell says. "Well, if we were bad managers, how come white plantation owners had us running their farms for five hundred years? If you give any farmer a loan in July or August, they're done. Even the best manager using Monsanto's patented seeds can't make those plants catch up."

Gary Grant, the president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association, cites his community as a specific example of what he agrees is an effort to expel black farmers from the land. In 1935, the Roosevelt administration purchased 18,000 acres of what had been plantation land in Tillery, North Carolina to establish a New Deal community named Roanoke Farms (now called Tillery Farms).

Here's how it worked. Resettled black and white farmers, over a period of 5 years, were to sharecrop 40-acre homesteads to "prove" their managerial ability. Then they could begin purchasing the land.

Some 90 black families were doing just that in 1940. But disaster struck. Waters from the rising Roanoke River flooded 10,000 acres, ending their dreams. The USDA had placed all of the white families on high ground to the west of the river. It had settled most of the black families in the flood plain to the east.

For various reasons, the government abandoned many New Deal agricultural programs and placed others under the bailiwick of the new Farmers Home Administration (predecessor to the Farm Service Agency, created in 1994). It was to be the lender of last resort for farmers. The loans were the ticket to land for many of the Tillery flood victims and those who came after.

By the 1950s, in the face of rampant racism, 300 black families were scraping out a living. Of those, five would survive the next couple of decades.

Government was already beginning to push for farmers to get bigger or get out. Of course, money was necessary to do that. In most cases, the fast-dwindling population of black farmers in Tillery used the money to buy more land; they were operating on an average of 200 to 300 acres. In contrast, the white farmers often opted for more equipment to use on leased land.

Trouble came in the 1970s. Over the course of three successive years, drought and other natural hardships struck the area. Those 5 farm families fell into delinquency and the USDA foreclosed.

Meanwhile, nearby struggling white farmers got different treatment. The USDA helped many of them avoid the same fate by negotiating payment terms and writing off debt. This allowed them or their offspring to continue farming.

It is these farmers, many of whom are descended from the original plantation owners, who serve on the county committees that decide Farm Service Agency lending practices, Grant says. And they are the ones who show up at auction to buy the foreclosed land for pennies on the dollar or to lease it cheaply.

"That is why it's conspiracy, not discrimination," Burrell says. "I can't name names, but USDA officials have told me that, yes, expropriating land from black farmers is a policy."

No one from the USDA would comment.

The Broad Perspective

Burrell sees the loss of farms and farmers happening in phases. The plantation owners were the first to lose their land when the Union Army stormed through the South. Next came native Americans during the Indian Wars of 1865 to 1900. Then the small-scale, subsistence white farmers -- sharecroppers -- who had neither money nor large families were forced out. Black farmers were fourth.

Now it's time to take on the medium- and large-scale growers of corn, soybeans, wheat and other commodity crops.

"The USDA is going to sit back and allow them to eliminate one another," he says. "The Farm Bill is meant to save those who have local, state and national business and political connections."

In the long run, mega farms of say 20,000 acres and larger, will remain. They'll fall under the control of agribusiness. In short, it will be corporate control of patented plants and animals from seed and fetus to plate.

Restricting this farming model to the home front isn't enough. Our leaders want to export it to Africa, India and other places with a history of sustainable, subsistence food production.

"When USDA goes to India, they'll have John Deere, Monsanto, Cargill and Dow on the train with them," Burrell says. "It will be corporations versus small farmers."

The Vision

When is now. Agribusiness and the British government are supporting the Vision 2020 plan in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

"It's a vision that aims to bring millions of poor farmers straight into the 21st century with massive consolidation of farms, mechanisation of agriculture, irrigation projects, new roads and the introduction of genetically modified crops...,'" according to the March, 21 edition of the Independent ( http://argument.independent.co.uk/regular_columnists/natasha_walter/story.jsp?story=276687). Moving as many farmers into the already overpopulated cities where there are no jobs is part of the plan to grow massive amounts of standardized commodity crops for cheap export to Britain, where farmers are under extreme pressure and many have gone bankrupt.

This model is contrary to the agro-ecologically sound method of growing food that Indians have developed over centuries. Rural areas typically feature a large network of plots of two acres or fewer where the people grow fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains, and harvest herbs and medicines from the trees, bushes and grasses that form buffers between the fields.

A state agricultural school provided a cruel preview of the government's plan. After removing a group of people, it bulldozed 160 acres to create an area suitable for a large tractor to operate. Unfortunately, all of the topsoil was removed, revealing something akin to a moonscape, says British farmer Michael Hart, who visited India last year.

"This destroys me and other British farmers and the Indian agricultural system developed over 5,000 years so that they [corporations] can produce cheap food," Hart says.