Picture the organic farmer. You might envision a bearded millennial unloading $5 tomatoes at a Brooklyn farmers market or the Modern Farmer-subscribing hobbyist with a nice backyard plot. Or maybe you imagine the farmworkers tending rows upon rows of Big Organic vegetables that get washed, dried, bagged, and delivered to a Trader Joe’s near you. What you probably don’t picture are black people. And, according to a new story by Marissa Evans for Civil Eats, there’s a reason for that: The organic movement has left black farmers behind.
If organic farming is at the forefront of American agriculture, many Black farmers are still catching up. The USDA’s 2014 Organic Survey released in September found that 14,093 certified organic farms in the United States sold $5.5 billion worth of organic food. The survey did not capture race and ethnicity, but the 2012 Census of Agriculture found that of the over 33,000 Black-owned farms, only 116 of them (or less than .05 percent) are certified organic.
This is hardly surprising. It can be expensive and risky to transition to organic, and black farmers have already faced a plethora of discriminatory practices and economic hardships over the years. Rates of farm ownership by African Americans have steadily declined over the last century. In 1910, black farmers owned 15.6 million acres of farmland in the U.S.; by 1982, they owned just 3.1 million acres, and were recipients of only 1 percent of USDA farm loans. In an interview with Grist last year, John Boyd, a Virginia farmer and founder of the National Black Farmers Association, described discrimination in the ’80s: Loan applications were “torn up and put in the trash can,” and farmers “were spit on, they were humiliated, they were spoken [down to] by these racist agents.”
In 1997, 400 black farmers, Boyd among them, sued the USDA for discrimination. The claimants were later awarded up to $50,000 each, and in 2010, President Obama expanded that settlement to $1.25 billion. This was progress, says Boyd, but the fight for equality hardly ended there, and this is hugely apparent in the organic movement. Moving towards organic could be more profitable for farmers — organic farming is 22 to 35 percent more profitable than conventional farming, Evans reports — but the process to get USDA certified organic is cumbersome, and black farmers, aware of the USDA’s history of discrimination, are often hesitant to pursue certification even though many of them have been farming organically for years. “When you talk about the history of agriculture,” Cynthia Hayes, executive director of the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network (SAAFON), told Evans, “the African American farmer has been growing organically for a long time. This is not new to us.”
Hayes and SAAFON have been trying to get more black farmers certified organic by assisting them with the process, but when it’s difficult for black farmers to even hold on to their land, getting certified may seem like a low priority.
“We have to first support Black farmers keeping their land and not getting denied support to keep their farms running,” said Natasha Bowens, author of The Color of Food, told Evans. “Once those big issues are fixed, then we can start talking about getting them into organic farming.”
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