I am a third-generation African American farmer from the Midwest. My father and his father were both farmers in Southern Iowa. And, yes, you would be surprised to know how many of us exist. Many of you may have a parent or grandparent who farmed, as well.
However, the image of farming and the quality of life it provides has changed over the years. Farmers, especially Black farmers, are not as visible today as they were in previous generations. That is primarily because we are in rural areas far separated and removed from the ruckus of urban congestion and life in a concrete jungle.
It is also due to people taking their food system for granted and not fully engaging their democratic rights.
Farmers are also thought to lack education, or be ignorant of modern technology, which has caused people to forget that food is not made at a store; rather it is grown in farm fields and handled by people. Some even think of farming as a lower class of work that is difficult, outdated, risky, and with little rewards.
I want to explore ways to update the status and image of the African American farmer in the 21st century. What better time than now as the U.S. Farm Bill is being debated in Washington, D.C.
The bill is a multi-year spending measure that covers everything from conservation to WIC budgeting and includes a proposal to reformulate income and expense criteria for the 42 million recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Under the bill, states could remove about eight percent of those receiving aid from the rolls, according to the research firm Mathematica, which used data from the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service.
Agriculture is about more than ideal, picturesque scenery, although this is a rewarding benefit. Agriculture is really about innovation, creativity, and environmental stewardship.
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A great way to gain a better understanding is to first take a look at our own perspectives of farming. The stereotype of impoverished farming may still exist in the minds of some people, but the reality has changed dramatically. These days, farmers don’t have to suffer from a lower standard of living, and if they work too long and hard, it’s self-inflicted.
The median total farm household income has exceeded the median U.S. household income, being only a bit less than self-employment income in every year since 1998. These are farmers and farming practices that approach agriculture in a new way, while rebuilding a missing narrative: the history of Blacks owning land, being successful farmers and inventors who built entire vibrant communities and created technology that changed the way America farms today.
For example, afro-ecology is a theory and practice created by urban farmer Blain Snipstal to describe how Black people in the U.S. can reconnect with their African or Afro-indigenous past through traditional planting and harvesting techniques. Xavier Brown, a certified master composter for his city, transformed an empty lot into a community garden with his business Soilful City.
And, then there is Leah Penniman, a farmer in upstate New York at Soul Fire Farm, where they lead workshops to help participants reclaim their own history with farming. They show how farming was a way of life and expression of a culture before people were brought to this country to be enslaved.
These farmers — and so many others like them all over the world — are tackling some of our biggest global challenges (poverty, hunger, and environmental degradation, to name a few) while promoting gender equality, preserving traditional and Indigenous knowledge, and reinvigorating rural communities.
They are changing the face of modern agriculture one farm at a time, reversing a top-down, corporate-run system that isn’t healthy for people or our planet; and they are demonstrating sustainability and innovation.
Now you can see why the idea that farming is something we left that behind years ago is a real tragedy for our long-term health and independence. The role of people of color in food and agriculture has been misrepresented and defined mostly in statistics about oppression and inequity.
Our story is richer than that, and we have a larger impact and greater purpose than that. My hope is to motivate and inspire others to stake their claim in this story, too.