Melissa Harris-Perry: You are listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Thanks for being with us at the end of your week. Late last month, the USDA held a listening session with local farmers. See, the agency is planning to open a new farm service center, connecting local growers with federal resources like emergency assistance and credit programs, but this new farm center isn't planned for rural Iowa or remote Kentucky, the USDA is coming to Detroit.
The planned center will be the first ever established with the goal of supporting urban agriculture. With African Americans making up more than three-quarters of Detroit's population, the office will be tasked with supporting an urban farming population that's uniquely Black. Of course, some of America's rural Black farmers might have a warning for the Detroit counterparts.
John Boyd, Jr: When we got introduced to the United States Department of Agriculture, I think it was probably one of the worst things that could have happened to us from a group of people. We went from 20 million acres of land at the turn of the century down to 4.5 million acres of land as I'm talking to you today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's John Boyd, Jr, Founder and President of the National Black Farmers Association, talking with me here on The Takeaway back in March. For Boyd, the USDA has been a source of frustration rather than relief. You see, the American rescue plan set aside $4 billion in debt relief payments for socially disadvantaged farmers, but those payments have been stalled for more than a year, a delay which could cost some farmers their land, and Black land loss is not new.
A recent study from The New Republic analyzed historical data from 1920 to 1997 and found that the value of Black farmland lost in that period equates to $326 billion today. That's not even taking into account potential reinvestment and growth of the millions of acres lost in that period. Still, Mr. Boyd wakes up early each morning and gets to work on his Virginia Farm.
Urban farmers across Detroit are turning small plots into food-producing pockets of hope. Black land remains a site of resistance. To learn more, I turned to Monica White, Professor of Environmental Justice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Freedom Farmers: Agricultural resistance and the Black Freedom Movement. I asked her, why does Black land matter?
Monica White: Black land matters as strategies of resistance and resilience as we witnessed Black communities returning to our agricultural traditions to feed our families, to feed our communities, and to demonstrate mutual aid and self-care. Black land matters because it is connecting with the Earth that we are often healed in ways that pharmaceutical strategies often miss. We're talking about healing, we're talking about ancestral connections, we're talking about food production and the development of alternative community-based food systems that demonstrate agency, resistance, and resilience. The answer is an affirmative, Black land absolutely matters.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You write in your book specifically about freedom farmers. How is freedom connected to agriculture?
Monica White: As I moved to Detroit to care for my parents, I was looking for a research project that I could engage in in Detroit. What I knew was that there was a rich, beautiful history of folks who farmed in the city. While folks were acknowledging this "new urban ag movement," I knew that the faces and the stories that were being told did not reflect people like my grandmother who had a container garden in her apartment complex, folks like my dad who grew food in every home we've ever lived in, and folks like my sister who grew corn and zucchini on the east side of Detroit near 6 Mile and Gratiot.
I was curious about the image of folks who were growing food, but also the history of the times and points in our collective Black history when African Americans have turned to our agricultural traditions as a strategy of resistance and resilience, especially during economic downturns. What I found was that what folks were doing in Detroit, were taking and engaging agriculture to make vacant lots into food producers and cultural spaces, intergenerational exchanges, but also healing centers. I wanted to know, were there other moments in history when Black folks had turned to the land for resistance and healing?
What I found was that yes, in fact, there was this rich history of folks who saw the connection to the land as a strategy of freedom. One example is Reverend Wendell Paris whose family I'm writing about, one of the first Black USDA loan officers. He told me, "You can free yourself when you can feed yourself." That statement alone let me know that I was on the path to something rich and important.
It is through that idea, that philosophy, that self-provisioning creates political options that previously would not be available if a person isn't able to provide for themselves. That was where freedom farmers really came from, the idea of it. It was Mrs. Hamer's freedom farm that I captured in the book that really allowed me to think more thoughtfully, not just as freedom farm as a place, but freedom farmer as an occupation and a state of being.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Since you have name-checked her, let's just go ahead and dig in for a moment on the history of Mrs. Hamer or Fannie Lou Hamer, who we so often freeze in this one absolutely crucial but limiting moment of her speaking to the DNC Credentials Committee in Atlantic City. We think of her rightly as a civil rights and voting rights advocate, but talk to me about Mrs. Hamer as a freedom farmer.
Monica White: It was after that moment that has captured our attention that she returned back to Ruleville Mississippi in Sunflower County and decided that accessing the right to vote was only one part of what Black folks needed to be healthy, happy, and whole. She recognized that it was important to make sure that we had the means to utilize our agricultural skills, but to turn that inward and to turn those strategies to building community.
With this in mind, she established Freedom Farm Agricultural Cooperative. It eventually grew to about 680 acres. Just looking at all the different ways that Mrs. Hamer had decided that food was being used as a source of oppression and that the community members and folks who had been formally sharecroppers and tenant farmers were being starved. What she wanted to do was she wanted to create the means by which a community could feed itself.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Even as we go into the work that Mrs. Hamer was doing, when we look at the acres of land owned by Black folk, it is also diminishing rapidly at exactly that same moment. I don't want us to get too romantic about urban farmers' markets, that is about our cooperative capacity to engage because I want to be sure that we're also focusing on dispossession of Black land. Can you tell us that story?
Monica White: Sure. There have been three primary ways that Black folks have been dispossessed of their land. One is through USDA policies that really privileged and benefited those with large land ownings, and those policies were not allowing the family farmer to engage in the decision-making process. There were other ways that the USDA discriminated against Black farmers in the implementation of the policies. You would have a Black farmer and a white farmer with similar assets but race was definitely a factor in how folks were-- either their applications were received, or the process for the application.
The last thing I'll say in terms of the USDA is that there were ways in which accessing land and those resources that would serve as the lien were very different for Black farmers versus white farmers. What Black farmers thought was in their best interest was to have a direct relationship with the bank. Having to go through local politicians was often a way that Black folks were dispossessed of their land.
I think there were extra-legal ways in which Black folks were dispossessed of their land. Often you would hear stories of Black farmers who would have disputes with folks in the neighborhood. By just the sheer result of speaking up for themselves, they would be visited in the night by folks who had bad intentions. In doing so, Black folks learned that you either negotiated to their advantage, or folks were disappeared at night and they would leave the rural area, end up in Birmingham, and many of those folks actually eventually settled in Detroit. There are several different ways that Black folks were dispossessed of their land. I don't know that we'll ever actually have a real, totally accurate picture of what those numbers are.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When we tell the story of the mid-century movement for civil rights, we don't always talk about it this way, but it is an urban story in so many ways. Where are there buses to desegregate? Where are there public water fountains that are separated? I wonder about the ways that we have thought of progress, those of us looking and reading on this as history, but also those activists in the moment itself, and how much that mid-20th century movement for civil rights was urbane and urban in a way that maybe shrugged a bit about, "Okay, so there's fewer sharecroppers. Maybe that's not such a big deal. Oh, so there are fewer farmers. Who cares? Let's move into the modern era." Go back to the if you can feed yourself, you can free yourself, how do we capture the importance of the rural in the question of liberation?
Monica White: Thank you for that question. I'm actually working on a biography of the Paris family, as I mentioned earlier. The father was one of the first Black USDA loan officers, and they were based in Tuskegee, Alabama. As I'm writing, I'm talking about a lot of historical moments like the Montgomery bus boycott and all the legislation that was happening to desegregate public schools and what have you.
What I knew originally was that there was an urban bias when we talk about the Civil Rights Movement, and we talk about the organizers. What that does is I think it mutes the role and significance of what we see in rural communities, but also the ways in which farmers, and I say farmers in a broader sense than the USDA definition of a farmer. When the USDA talks about who a farmer is, we often talk about economic relationship to the land.
What I'm saying is, I'm talking about labor, who are the folks who actually provide the labor to produce food from seed to plate, as you will? I think when we talk about the importance of rurality, yes, agriculture in the city is great and amazing and important in a lot of different ways, but we cannot provide the caloric intake for an adult community in urban areas only. That's why thinking about rurality is important, explaining this reverse migration that we see African Americans returning to heir property in southern spaces. We see communities of Black folks that are coming together, buying land, and providing for their families in really new ways in this century.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This question of scale, there are food justice advocates who critique these efforts at urban farming, even at land reclamation, because on scale, to feed everybody, you end up engaging with agribusiness. What are the ways that we bring freedom farming ethic to the big scale of how food is produced in this country?
Monica White: I think what's important is to recognize that local food and urban ag serves a purpose, and that purpose would be different than big ag. What I mean by that is that urban ag is often a place where we are teaching production, food production, because we often hear about children not knowing where food comes from except in a bag, either grocery store or-- I think that this helps us, the knowledge of food production and the knowledge of ecosystems. I think that urban ag teaches us respect for the labor. I also think that urban ag is important in building community and also mutual aid.
What this urban ag movement is doing is we wouldn't see in grocery stores local foods to the degree that we do now because I think that communities are asking for it. I don't think we would see the organic foods section or sustainably grown food sections in the ways that we do had it not been for markets and the conversation community need and demand for it. I think it would be really useful for big ag to consider the need for sustainably grown and to be more ecologically responsible.
I also think it's important for big ag to think about the community benefits of food systems. I also think it's important for us to think about the ways to make sure that those who labor for our food are paid equitably. I think in these ways, these would be some lessons, and the upscaling of food production, making sure that that technology is rooted in these community benefits principles, so to speak, to make sure that the benefit is equally shared, because it's important to know what's in the soil, what's in the air, what's in the water because it impacts all of us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Monica White is Professor of Environmental Justice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement. Professor White, thank you so much for taking the time.
Monica White: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Thank you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's take a quick break, and when we come back, a conversation with Kamal Bell of Sankofa Farms on reclaiming Black land.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're back with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and we'll continue our conversation about the ways Black people and communities use land, farming, and food justice as tools of resistance against racial inequality.
Kamal Bell: My name is Kamal Bell and I'm the founder of Sankofa Farms, located in Cedar Grove, North Carolina.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Bell offered to take us on a little sonic site visit of Sankofa Farms.
Kamal Bell: If you come to Sankofa, upon entering the property, you're going to see four alleyways, beautiful, lush green or beautiful colors of produce, and you see the same exact thing. You see a lot of beautiful crops as well. Once you step foot on the property, you then begin to see beehives off in the distance, 40 beehives, and bees buzzing all around, and to your left, you'll see all seven of the tunnels, and you'll see lastly, a big 30 by 72 foot tunnel, which we have purchased through the USDA cost-share program that is being developed.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sankofa is a concept derived from West African peoples, translated to mean go back to the past and bring forward what is useful. It is a reminder that we must understand our histories in order to build new futures. Mr. Bell, a former middle school teacher, is doing just that with Sankofa Farms, which he founded in 2016 with the help of his wife, Amber Bell. Sankofa began as a food production venture but has evolved with an educational mission as well.
Kamal Bell: The whole mission was to get people who are affected by food deserts access to healthy, nutritious food. Through our work over the last six years, we figured out that throwing food wasn't the solution or wasn't a possible solution, we needed to reverse engineer the problem. Through that, we started an educational component through the farm. When we were looking at just what made up food deserts, we saw that there was so many parameters that tied into it, with education being one as a policy, there's the Black land loss, there the socio-economic.
What we wanted to do with the educational component was bring in urban youth and teach them about food deserts, our ancestry, because Sankofa does mean to remember your African ancestry as you move forward in life. We tied in all these different things, the identity piece as well, so that we would be able to be beacons of change in our communities. We look at the farm as an engine to rebuild civilization and rebuild what the circumstances look like for Black people in this country and how we address these circumstances. We want Black lives to change through agriculture.
Melissa Harris-Perry: For Bell, the history of Black land dispossession is personal. Sankofa Farms is truly a land reclamation project.
Kamal Bell: We had an ancestor and he owned 50 acres of land on the eastern part of the state. The year before the boll weevil hit, he was actually persuaded to take on a loan, and he did. He tried to pay back the loan that year because he had done so well farming. They denied him the opportunity to pay the loan back. What ended up happening was, the next year, the boll weevil hit, he didn't have the money, and they seize his land. On his deathbed, he asked to be taken by the land one more time so he can lay his eyes on it. After he did, I believe he died the next day. When we go to visit my grandmother, I see that they have now a prison on the property. I think that prison is around 15 or 20 years old. It's been there for a while, but it's on my family farmland that was confiscated.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Acquiring the land for Sankofa Farms was not easy. In 2015, Mr. Bell applied for a Farm Service Agency or FSA loan. That's a USDA program, which helps new farmers acquire land, but he ran into roadblocks.
Kamal Bell: Once I took my application to the FSA agent for my region, that's when I started to get a lot of pushback. I can recall an experience I had where he was looking over my application, and he looked me right in my eyes and said, "This is one of the best well-put-together application that ever come across my desk." He told me he's going to give me a decision within three days. As three days went on, he called me and let me know that they were going to deny our application under the guise that we didn't have enough farming experience. I started to see all these nuanced things that I read that Black farmers complained about when dealing with the Farm Service Agency and the USDA at large.
Melissa Harris-Perry: According to the USDA, three years of relevant experience are required to be considered for an FSA loan. Bell's application was denied despite a bachelor's degree in Animal Science and a master's degree in Agricultural Education, both from North Carolina A&T Go Aggies. He also had a whole year of experience working with another Black farmer and owned and operated a dehydrated food business at the time. After his denial, Mr. Bell appealed by getting in touch with the director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in North Carolina and the USDA's Civil Rights Advocate. He won and Sankofa Farms was born.
Kamal Bell: I want Sankofa to be a model for reclamation, with us in agricultural spaces, with the farm being the center. I think one of the things that has happened to us over time as Black people is our relationship by systemic oppression has been fragmented with the land, but the land is going to be one [unintelligible 00:20:08] is going to be our best teacher, but also two, it's going to be a space where we can center ourselves and our experience here in America, then we can develop solutions off of our insight. No one's doing that for us. We can be the center and we can be the engine for how we want Black life to look. That's what we want the farmer to be for Black people so we can reclaim the land.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We want to thank Kamal Bell and his wife, Amber Bell, for sharing Sankofa's story. You can find their freedom farming journey on Twitter and IG at Sankofa Farms.
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