League of Women Voters

Black farmers and small farms


February is on track to be the warmest ever, and the warmth can mess with a gardener’s bones. Seed catalogs are pouring in, and anyone who starts seeds is saving up recycled pots while telling themselves not to be fooled by this early warm snap. Still, it’s exciting to think about playing in the dirt, letting the sun warm our backs, and inhaling crisp spring air. Gardening is therapy.

Yes, research backs up the claim. The University of Colorado’s Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry pioneered a 2000 study at the University of Bristol showing that good soil bacteria helped rural Kenyons resist TB infections. Injected into mice, M. Vaccae raised serotonin levels in mice. Later studies showed the bacteria helped to reduce “PTSD-like” responses to stressors, reducing fear and anxiety. Other strains of good soil bacteria protect rural children from asthma and depression.

Psychology Today notes that gardening teaches us to practice acceptance, move beyond perfectionism, develop a growth mindset, connect us to our world, stay in the present, get exercise and eat healthy.

So it seems fitting to celebrate Black leaders in agricultural spaces. We’re shedding light on some lesser-known Black agricultural heroes. One is L.A.’s Guerilla Gardner Ron Finley

“The drive-throughs are killing more people than the drive-by,” Finley said in his 2013 Ted Talk. Diabetes and poor nutrition ­— mostly because of fast food and dollar store junk — have long been killing more people than gang violence, so Finley planted vegetables on unused strips of land and vacant lots. At first, L.A. fined him for this kind of gangsta gardening, but his good deeds reframed land usage as well as the term gangsta.

“Gangsta: projecting strength on one’s own terms, hip, cool, innovative, revolutionary, resolute, vital, the cutting edge,” reads his website.

“Growing your own food is like printing your own money,” Finley said. Food deserts affect 87% of rural American counties due to the low-income status of residents and the distance required to reach a supermarket. While some live close to convenience or dollar stores, the lack of unprocessed and fresh food excludes those merchants from being credited for providing nutritious food.  Urban or small cooperative farms have been a way of providing unnourished people with financial and physical support. Finley is only one of many Black and small agricultural dreamers using small patches of unused land that require upkeep. Think of land alongside interstate exchanges and empty lots, often land owned by cities or counties that cost tax dollars to mow. In place of grass or scrub, cities such as LA and Seattle have partnered with the likes of Finley and the Black Farmers Collective to teach gardening. Will Allen’s small farming in Milwaukee and Leah Penniman’s Soul Fire Farm also capture the essence of what it means to farm while black today.

Black Americans’ ties to agriculture go back to the first Africans brought to the Western Hemisphere. As European settlers migrated to Virginia and further south, they sought large-scale crops to make them wealthy.

As the Library of Congress notes, Africans brought their expertise in agriculture and trades with them. “Their expertise shaped the industry and agriculture of the continent. West Africans with experience navigating the waterways of their homeland helped open the rivers and canals of the Northwest frontier to boat traffic, and seasoned African cattle drivers were able to apply their skills to ox teams and livestock. Many Africans were deeply familiar with large-scale rice and indigo cultivation, which were completely unknown to European Americans; without the skills of Africans and their descendants, the rice fields of South Carolina and Louisiana might never have existed.”

After Emancipation and the failure to provide 40 acres and a mule- a phrase that described Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15., which promised to freed Black Americans was returned to white Southerners. Under the U.S. Revenue Act of 1862, the U.S. seized lands from Southern landowners who did not pay taxes to the Union. In 1863, freed slaves were able to buy land sold at auction. Though many black farmers kept the land they bought from the tax auction, Andrew Johnson’s administration compensated original owners for the land. Any Black farmer who didn’t own land joined the ranks of sharecroppers, which was agriculture’s version of the industrial exploitation in the factories and mines of the North and Mid-Atlantic. Sharecroppers were forced to live in substandard homes on farm owners’ land, buy their goods from the owners’ stores and pay the same kind of obscene prices that coal miners and meat packers paid. 

When Black sharecroppers attempted to unionize in 1887, as Reconstruction ended and post-Civil War protections were repealed, they were murdered, according to Smithsonian Magazine, just the first of many violent squashes of exploited workers in the lowest classes.

Threatened by decades of violence, many Black Americans sought safer options by migrating north to work in the new automobile factories, but some Black farmers fought to sustain their small farms. It required creativity as much as labor and funding. As Ron Finley noted in his TED Talk, “The funny thing about sustainability is that you have to sustain it.”

In the 1970s, researcher Booker T. Whatley, who had a PhD in horticulture and had developed five sweet potato and 15 muscadine grape varieties, experimented with sustainable small farms. During the Korean War, he operated a 55-acre hydroponic farm to feed troops. As he reached retirement age, he created a plan for a 25-acre farm to earn $100,000 a year, creating a working prototype at Tuskegee Institute. In 1982, Mother Earth News praised Whatley for pioneering a specific program of action to remedy the plight of the small farmer.

First, “each crop component of a limited-resource farm must produce an annual gross minimum income of $3,000.” Second, “The components of the farm must provide year-round family income. “So, third, “The components of the farm must be compatible,” not competing with each other for labor and coming in all at once.” Fourth it’s going to take 2.5 people ­— perhaps both partners and kids. And it’s going to need to be some kind of membership — pick your own or accept some of the labor for crop. If a farmer has to harvest, wash, grade, package, refrigerate and store produce, labor and cost go up. Reduce this where possible.”

Whatley’s ideas now show up not only in those small city farms but in CSAs and organic farm partnerships, the very places providing opportunities for people to eat healthier and improve their mental health.


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