Resources for Celebrating Black Farmers
February is Black History Month—but here at SiX we work with legislators to fight for racial justice and support Black and BIPOC farmers and communities all year long.
Check out some of the resources below to support you in working alongside Black farmers, advocates, and your colleagues to create a more just and sustainable food system.
- Overview and History
- Policy Examples
- State-Level Non-Policy Activities
- Communication Resources
- Further Resources
Overview and History:
The agricultural landscape of the U.S. is deeply enriched by the enduring legacy, contributions, and resilience of Black farmers. Despite facing systemic oppression and land disenfranchisement, these farmers have been integral to the development of the nation’s economy. However, our state and federal food and farming policies do not reflect these contributions and continue to block pathways to the success of Black farmers.
The legalized enslavement of Black people built the U.S. economy, and yet, with few exceptions, formerly enslaved people and their descendants have seen little of the country’s wealth. In fact, gains in land ownership by Black Southerners following the Civil War were erased over the following century, mostly through threats, violence, and systemic discrimination, including by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) itself. In 1910, Black farmers accounted for 20 percent of farmers; by 2017, that number had dropped to 1.3 percent. Black land ownership has plummeted by 98 percent in the last century, with most of the loss occurring not in the late 1800s, but just since the 1950s.
Despite historic and ongoing oppression, Black farmers have played a pivotal role in US agriculture, from introducing new crops and agricultural techniques to making key developments in plant science, food storage, and much more. Black landowners played an important role in the civil rights movement, providing property bail bonds for civil rights workers and gaining independent economic power through farmer cooperatives. Much of what we know today as sustainable and regenerative agriculture has deep roots in Black heritage. The techniques employed by these farmers will continue to be key to building a movement of climate-friendly farming.
To create a future where Black farmers can succeed and thrive, it’s essential to recognize and build upon this history and strength. In collaboration with Black farmers and communities, state legislators can play a key role in addressing injustice while creating policies to build pathways and opportunities. In this way, we not only honor their legacy but also pave the way for a better future for us all.
In the last few years, policymakers have introduced initiatives that were co-created with farmers and advocates at both the federal and state level to create access and opportunities for Black farmers to grow and thrive and address this long legacy of harm. Below are examples of state and federal policies addressing a wide range of aspects of Black farmers’ experiences.
The federal Justice for Black Farmers Act (2021 S.300), introduced by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, is a landmark proposal to address access to land, training, credit, and much more for Black and other socially disadvantaged farmers, along with systemic changes to level the playing field for all farmers. State policymakers across the country have drawn on parts of this legislation to craft a variety of state-level reforms.
- End Discrimination within USDA: The Act creates an independent civil rights oversight board to conduct reviews of any appeals of civil rights complaints filed against USDA, to investigate reports of discrimination within USDA, and to provide oversight of Farm Service Agency County Committees. In addition, the Act creates an Equity Commission whose responsibilities include developing recommendations to reform FSA County Committees. The Act also puts reforms in place within the USDA Office of Civil Rights, including placing a moratorium on foreclosures during the pendency of civil rights complaints.
- Protect Remaining Black Farmers from Land Loss: The Act increases the funding authorization for the USDA relending program created in the 2018 Farm Bill to resolve farmland ownership and succession, or “heirs property,” issues. The Act provides funding for pro bono assistance, including legal assistance, succession planning and support for development of farmer cooperatives, to Black farmers. The Act will also create and fund a new bank to provide financing and grants to Black farmer and rancher cooperative financial institutions, and will forgive USDA debt of Black farmers who filed claims in the Pigford litigation.
- Restore the Land Base Lost by Black Farmers: The Act creates a new Equitable Land Access Service within USDA to acquire farmland and provide land grants of up to 160 acres to existing and aspiring Black farmers. To help ensure their success, these new Black farmers will be provided access to USDA operating loans and mortgages on favorable terms.
- Create a Farm Conservation Corps: The Act creates a USDA program where young adults from socially disadvantaged communities will be provided with the academic, vocational and social skills necessary to pursue careers in farming and ranching. Participants in the program will be paid by USDA and will serve as on-farm apprentices at no cost to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, beginning farmers and ranchers, and organic farmers and ranchers with annual gross farm income of less than $250,000.00. Black participants who gain experience through this program will have priority for land grants.
- Empower HBCUs and Advocates for Black Farmers: The Act provides substantial resources historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and to nonprofits who serve Black farmers so that they can provide pro bono assistance in identifying land for USDA to purchase and provide as land grants, help new Black farmers get up and running, provide farmer training, and provide other assistance including succession planning and legal assistance to Black farmers. The Act also provides new funding to HBCUs to expand their agriculture research and courses of study.
- Assist All Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers: The Act substantially increases funding for USDA technical assistance and for programs such as CSP and REAP, and gives priority for these programs, as well as increased access to capital, to all socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
- Enact System Reforms to Help All Farmers and Ranchers: The Act substantially reforms and strengthens the Packers and Stockyards Act in order to stop abusive practices by big multinational meatpacking companies and protect all family farmers and ranchers.
This list includes both legislation that was passed and that was just introduced.
Policies based on the federal Justice for Black Farmers Act
- 2023: South Carolina HB 3540: Black Farmer Restoration Program
- 2021: North Carolina SB 694: Black Farmer Restoration Program
- 2021: Illinois HB 3501: Black Farmer Restoration Act
- 2021: Georgia HB 976: Black Farmer Restoration Office
- 2021: Vermont HB 273: Social Equity and Land Access
Policies that create funding opportunities for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers:
- 2023: Minnesota HB 1057: Agriculture Down Payment Assistance Grants (bill requires that half the funds go to “emerging farmers” including Black farmers)
- 2021: Illinois HB 3089: Amends the Local Food, Farms, Job Act
- 2021: Illinois HB 3229: Agriculture Money for Disadvantaged Farmer
Policies that create and fund commissions and studies on Black farmer issues:
- 2021: Hawaii SB 1416: Relating to Farmer Equity
- 2021: Hawaii HR 50 – 2021: Relating to Farmer Equity
- 2021: Mississippi HB 784: Farmer Equity Act of 2021
- 2021: Maine LD 870: Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations To Study the Impact of Policies Regarding Agriculture
- 2021: Massachusetts H 860: AN ACT promoting Equity in Agriculture
- 2021: Illinois HR 46: Black Farmers- Illinois
Heirs’ Property: Preventing Black Land Loss
Twenty states have enacted a law, called the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, that helps to protect heirs’ property owners from a forced sale. The District of Columbia and the US Virgin Islands have also just enacted heirs’ property and three other states have introduced an heirs’ property bill. At the federal level, USDA provided $67 million in 2022 for owners of heirs’ property, which can be used to clear their titles by buying out other heirs’ shares of the land, or for legal, appraisal, and other fees associated with title reconciliation. For more information on the new USDA funding, see here; for more on heirs property, see this SiX blog post.
- 2023: Illinois HJR 6: Heirs Property Study Task Force
- 2023: South Carolina SB 436: Heirs Property Commission: Establishes a commission to address the legal and economic issues associated with heirs’ property.
- 2021: Kentucky SB 43: AN ACT relating to heir property and making an appropriation therefore.
- 2021: Louisiana HR 201
State-Level Non-Policy Activities:
Policy isn’t the only way for state legislators to support Black farmers in creating a just and sustainable food system. In some cases, the political divisions in the legislature can make it impossible for policies that benefit Black farmers to even be introduced. State legislators can work with advocates and farmers to develop deeper relationships, creating opportunities for understanding and conversation while building awareness of the experience of Black farmers within the state house. Check out some examples of non-policy related activities below:
Black Farmer Lobby Days
In March 2023, North Carolina CROP members Sen. Natalie Murdock and Rep. Ray Jeffers teamed up to host a Black Farmer Lobby Day at the State Capitol with over 50 Black farmers and advocates from across the state calling for increased investment in Black farms.
In Illinois, CROP member Rep. Sonya Harper hosted a Black Farmer and Grower Lobby Day at the State Capitol in April, in partnership with Black Oaks Center, Grow Greater Englewood, Illinois Stewardship Alliance, and other farmer advocacy groups. The lobby day brought over 60 Black farmers from across the state to the Capitol to raise awareness of the issues impacting Black farmers and call for state economic investment in Black farms. For many farmers, it was their first time in the State House. As a direct result of the lobby day, the Illinois House passed a resolution declaring April 23-29 as Black Farmers Week, and passed HJR 0006, creating an Heirs’ Property Task Force. With this success, Rep. Harper and advocates have created a coalition to continue advocating for Illinois Black farmers in policy and beyond.
North Carolina Black Farmer Farm Tour
Following on the success of the NC Black Farmer Lobby Day, Sen. Murdock and Rep. Jeffers hosted Seeds of Empowerment: Cultivating Black Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture, a tour of four Black-owned farms in the state. The tour offered other NC legislators a unique opportunity to learn from farmer experiences and identify and collaborate on strategies to remove policy barriers impacting Black farmers.
Leveraging Funding in Georgia for a Black Farmer Food Hub
Some legislators in the South have used bills modeled on the Justice for Black Farmer Act to start a conversation about the needs of Black farmers with their colleagues when legislation is not feasible. In Georgia, legislators worked with the Governor and advocates to secure funding in the state budget to open up a new rural food hub that primarily serves Black farmers, increasing their access to new markets.
It’s often hard to talk about race, especially in today’s polarized political climate. Talking about race in farming can be especially hard, because the farm system is stacked against family farmers as a whole. Most farmers – whether white or Black, new or experienced – have experienced high prices for what they buy and low prices for what they sell, a farm economy that feels rigged in favor of the big guys, and years when they weren’t sure they would make it.
There is no doubt that it is challenging to be a family farmer in the US today. It is even harder for farmers of color, and Black farmers in particular as they continue to face the legacies of slavery and institutionalized discrimination.
But communicating specifically about the experience of Black farmers in today’s food system is critical in your work as state legislators. Below are some communication resources to support you in uplifting and centering the experiences of Black farmers with communities and colleagues in your state.
- Blueprint for Rural Policy Action in the States Growing Equitable Food Systems Communication toolkits: Including information about how to practice value-based communication, press release template, and media examples.
- Black Farmer Talking Points for Black History Month (And All Year Long) to tailor to your own communities and for use on social media.
- Downloadable graphics to show your support for Black farmers on social media.
For further exploration or to get additional ideas on how to work on Black farmer equity topics check out some of the further resources below. If you have a resource, policy, or tool that you would like to share with other state legislators, please reach out to Emma Newton at [email protected]
For Legislators Looking for Peer-to-Peer Support: Join the SiX CROP Farmer Equity Working Group. Connect periodically with other CROP members in a confidential and supportive space to swap ideas, brainstorm, and troubleshoot your work on Farmer Equity and Justice for Black Farmer issues. Learn more and sign up here.
For Legislators Looking for Policy Tools: Check out the Black Women Best Framework from SiX partner Liberation in a Generation that provides tools to help state legislators center Black women and girls in policymaking. Check out their report as well as their policy scorecard tool to better design and evaluate policy.
For Legislators Looking for Further Reading: Visit the CROP Resource Database here for a wide variety of reports, webinars, and videos (password: SiXAg!)
- WEBINAR: Bringing the Justice for Black Farmers Act to the States — A 2021 presentation from SiX with Senator Booker’s staff on how the Justice for Black Farmers Act can be mirrored at the state level. Passcode to view the webinar is SiXAg!#6
- WEBINAR: Justice for Black Farmers Act: Where Are We Now? — A 2023 update from SiX, including CROP members discussing their experiences introducing policy and concepts based on the Justice for Black Farmers Act.
- TOOLKIT: Farmland Access Legal Toolkit: Heirs Property — A toolkit from the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School on heirs property that outlines the issue and includes state-specific factsheets.
- REPORT: Growing the Legacy: Stewarding a Black Agrarian Revival in the Rural South — This report from SAAFON (Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network) serves as an introduction to the topic of Black agrarianism and land loss and outline of strategies to interrupt land loss and facilitate a Black agrarian revival in the Southeast.
- REPORT: Reframing Food Hubs: Food Hubs, Racial Equity, and Self-Determination in the South— A report from Race Forward outlining how food hubs are one of the ways that farmers of color can transform the food system so that the system centers racial equity, self-determination, and dignity.
- WEBINAR: Farmer Equity Act: A Policy to Improve Access for Farmers of Color in Your State — A video presentation from SiX on California’s Farmer Equity bill, which has been modeled in other states.