Essay: African American Gap in Agriculture

Earlier I wrote a post about the African American gap in agriculture. Why are they so underrepresented and why were they pushed out? You can find that post here. Here is an essay I wrote following that  for a class I took this summer 2015. 

African American Gap in Agriculture: When Did it Happen, Why Do We Care, Can We Fix It?

            Here is an embarrassing fact: I didn’t really understand what 4-H was until a few months ago. Growing up in a semi-rural town in Indiana, the participants in the annual fair consisted of white, Christian youth. Consequently, I thought 4H was a conservative, religious organization where children of rural “folks” were taught about animals and patriotism. I felt like an outsider to this part of American culture. I always wished there was a club for minority kids such as myself, when indeed I could have been a part of the same organization. If I had looked harder, I would have realized no one had ever been explicitly trying to exclude me. Another group of people may have had similar feelings growing up, however they are much more American than I can ever consider myself to be, and they actually were previously excluded from many agricultural opportunities. African Americans have deep historical roots in agriculture. In 1910, nearly one million black farmers in the US owned a total of 15 million acres (Homecoming, 2001). Over time, this number drastically decreased. By 1969 they held only 6 million acres. Today, black farmers represent less than 1% of all farms (Homecoming). How did this happen, is it even important anymore, and if so, can this gap ever be mended? Through research, education, community leadership, and acceptance, we can find answers to these questions. Those in the extension field are most equipped to use these methods effectively. Simply due to their color, white leaders and racist policies systematically pushed black people out of agriculture; however, we have the power to improve the reputation of American agriculturalists by re-including African Americans.

In the documentary Homecoming, the narrator, Charlene Gilbert, notes that the African slaves who first arrived to the new world were put to work mostly on farms and in fields, “tilling first the new American soil” (2001). After their emancipation, many Africans continued to work on farms—owning their own land or becoming sharecroppers (Homecoming, 2001). Despite prejudice, blacks were able to acquire land and were more likely to find work in agriculture (Homecoming). As time went on, extension agents worked to educate farmers on new techniques—but those at the top did not share knowledge equally. Samuel Knapp, who is considered the father of extension, believed that African Americans were “unsuited for either progressive agriculture or intellectual pursuits” (Harris, 2008, p. 196). More blatantly, southern congressmen tried to exude black farmers from the benefits of the Smith Lever act with long winded debates and campaigns (p. 197). The conditions for blacks within extension did not improve as the USDA used loans, labels, and legislation to push them out. Loan applications were delayed, bluntly denied, or even just thrown away if the farmer was black (Homecoming, 2001). Black extension agents were called “negro agents” doing “negro work,” and received less prestige than white agents (Harris, 2008, p. 206). Under New Deal programs, black farmers were forced to leave under tax sale or eminent domain (Schneider, 2011). By 1992, the amount of black farmers had declined by 98% (Kelley, 1999). Whether examining individuals or government, history paints a bad picture of the treatment of African Americans in agriculture.

The damage done is so vast that is seems impossible to reverse and not much worth trying when so many other issues call for attention. Nowadays it is difficult to get people interested in farming at all, let alone blacks. However, there are many good reasons for having African Americans once again become involved, and produce black leaders in agriculture. In fact, one in particular makes their re-involvement crucial: they can give agricultural leaders a renewed voice—which is needed in today’s world of food shortage, climate change, and ecological unrest. The historical exclusion of blacks makes the present credibility of agricultural leaders unreliable. Early unions and agricultural societies sought to “[make] every farmer in the district…respectable and independent,” “encourage education among the people,” “garner [the hardworking farmers] as the brightest jewels known,” and were dedicated to the ideal that “life in touch with the earth is the natural life of man” (Hillison, 2001 and Carrier, 1937) Although these goals may have been achieved for a white man, the idea that “every farmer” was treated fairly is mistaken. The black farmer was given little respect, denied education, labeled as ignorant, and given treatment that was definitely contrary to a “natural life.” Organizations today still reference the language of these early societies. Since there is no definitive proof that their language now extends to all people and that this past attitude is no longer the case anymore, the credibility of present agriculturalists is threatened by the past. This can be fixed if the African American population rises and blacks take important, visible leadership roles within agriculture. Acknowledgement of it’s dark past and direct action to fix it will bring new respect to the agricultural field.

There are several ways in which the race gap can be narrowed. First, the image of extension could be rebranded. What was it that caused me to think 4H was a white, Christian organization, rather than a diverse, flourishing club that I could be a part of? Why does a Google Image search of the phrase “american farmer” give pages of old white men? little has been done to promote multiculturalism within agriculture despite it’s well-known benefits (Ewert, 1994). On the other hand, blacks are also plagued by unreasonable stereotypes and are often only represented as troubled singers, dancers, or drug dealers (Mooney, 2014). Blacks must be able to see themselves as agricultural leaders, and current leaders in the field must be able to see blacks as a part of their group. Tackling this “image” part of the issue requires the help of society at large. However, every cause needs a champion that can turn abstract problems into concrete ideas. Agricultural extension has the unique ability to do this. Extension has always stressed research, education, and a connection to the community (Irani, p.2). These methods don’t need to change for them to be at the forefront of this issue. More research can be done to understand the challenges faced by black farmers. Very few organizations and individuals are looking into the distinctive problems faced by blacks and other minorities (Krebs, 2005 and Brannon, 1989). As well, it is difficult to access reliable statistics relating to agricultural multiculturalism because little study exists. Using concrete research to guide rather than blindly jumping into the issue will be beneficial. This research can then translate into education. Education can inspire a new generation of leaders willing to invest in change (Kelsey, 2003). Vocational agricultural programs should be accessible to black youth. 4H programs must be willing to teach about these issues and actively recruit minorities. Within universities, students can learn to be tolerant and inclusive leaders through agricultural leadership programs. At the community level, much progress can be made because of the ability of extension to unite and recruit groups of people (Irani). Agents can redirect some of their resources toward helping black farmers. Neighbors can recruit neighbors. Within communities, the conversation about race and agriculture can begin. Finally, it should be noted that extension agents have influence on their government. It must be made clear that the USDA and other organizations regret the actions of the past, and extension leaders can voice these statements. Some legislation and statements have been made on admitting past wrongdoing, but much more needs to be done. Extension leaders can advocate for new legislation. Despite the long, complex process that will be needed, it is probably most important that agriculturalists acknowledge the past without shame. Only then can a path be extended forward for black leaders, and extension is in a unique position to help.

It is no secret that African Americans have received unfair treatment throughout the history of agriculture and extension. Due to white leadership and biased legislation, the population of black farmers and the prominence of black leaders decreased dramatically. Credibility is required to build trust, persuade, and solve today’s present agricultural issues. Actions from the past question this needed credibility and something must be done to show that those past actions are regrettable and unrepeatable. Solving this complex issue requires the help of larger society, but extension workers are in the unique position to champion this cause. African Americans may never totally regain or reconnect to their agricultural roots, however work can be done to help narrow the gap. Today’s pressing problems in agriculture do not discriminate. A united group of diverse people with different thoughts and roots are needed for things to get better. At the very least, I hope my descendants will not have to wonder why there are no African Americans farmers, and can join a 4H club without the hesitations that I had.

————–

References

Brannon, Tony & Key, J.P. (1989). Impact of vocational agriculture / FFA on community leadership. Journal of Agricultural Education, 30(3), p. 37-45.

Carrier, L. (1937). The United States Agricultural Society: 1852-1860 (4th ed., Vol. 11, pp. 278-288). Washington, D.C.: Agricultural History Society.

Ewert, D., & King, J. (1994). Managing diversity within cooperative extension (2nd ed., Vol. 32). Ithaca, New York: Journal of Extension.

Homecoming: Sometimes I am haunted by dreams of Red Dirt and Clay [Motion picture]. (2001). United States: California Newsreel.

Harris, C. (2008). “The Extensions Service is not an Integration Agency”: The Idea of Race in the Cooperative Extension Service. Agricultural History, 193-219.

Hillison, J., & Bryant, B. (2001). Agricultural Societies as Antecedents of the FFA. Journal of Southern Agricultural Education Research, 51(1), 102-113.

Irani, T., & Doerfert, D. (n.d.). Preparing for the Next 150 Years of Agricultural Communications. Journal of Applied Communications, 97(2).

Kelley, C. (1999). Notes on African American Farmers. Agricultural Law Update, 16(9), 4-7. Retrieved July 27, 2015.

Kelsey, Kathleen D. & Wall, L.J. (2003). Do agricultural leadership programs produce community leaders? A case study of the impacts of an agricultural leadership program on participants’ community involvement. Journal of Agricultural Education, 44(4), p. 35-46.

Krebs, A. (Ed.). (2005, June 14). American Black Farmers: An Endangered Species. The Agribusiness Examiner.

Mooney, C. (2014, December 1). The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men. Mother Jones. Retrieved July 27, 2015, from http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/11/science-of-racism-prejudice

Schneider, S. (2011). Food, farming, and sustainability: Readings in agricultural law. Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press.

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