The Black Farmer Movement Battling History to Return to the Land

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Agriculture was once a major source of wealth among the Black middle class in America. But over the course of a century, Black-owned farmland, and the corresponding wealth, has diminished almost to the point of near extinction; only 1.7 percent of farms were owned by Black farmers in 2017. The story of how that happened–from sharecropping, to anti-Black terrorism, to exclusionary USDA loans–is the focus of this episode on the Mother Jones Podcast.

Tom Philpott, Mother Jones’ food and agriculture correspondent, joins Jamilah King on the show to talk about the racist history of farming and a new movement to reclaim Black farmland.

You’ll hear from Tahz Walker, who helps run Tierra Negra farm, which sits on land that was once part of a huge and notorious plantation in North Carolina called Stagville. Today, descendants of people who were enslaved at Stagville own shares in Tierra Negra and harvest food from that land. Leah Penniman is another farmer in the movement. She is the author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, and the co-founder and managing director of a Soul Fire Farm, a cooperative farm she established in upstate New York that doubles as a training ground for farmers of color.

The campaign to reclaim Black farmland has received some political backing. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act in 2020, a bill that would attempt to reverse the discriminatory practices of the USDA by buying up farmland on the open market and giving it to Black farmers. The bill has received backing from high-profile on the left, including Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA), though it is unlikely to get the votes it would need to override the filibuster and pass.

On the episode, you’ll also hear from Dania Francis, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a researcher with the Land Loss and Reparations Project. When asked how about economic tactics for redressing the lost land and the current wealth gap, Francis suggests: “A direct way to address a wealth gap is to provide Black families with wealth.”

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