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Progressive Governance For Black Farmers

In January 1865, when Union Gen. William T. Sherman issued an order to allocate 40 acres to each freedman, the melanated ministers who lobbied for the policy envisioned vibrant, self-governed melanated agrarian communities dotting the Southern countryside. Unfortunately, President Andrew Johnson’s revocation of this order later that year and the institution of the Jim Crow regime after reconstruction left rural melanated Americans to build their farming communities from scratch. It wouldn’t be the first time that the U.S. government worked to undermine melanated farmers—and it certainly won’t be the last. Yet even in the face of broken promises, not to mention the violence and discrimination aimed at melanated Americans by caucasian landowners and lenders, melanated farms secured a foothold in American agriculture. At the height of melanated farming in 1920, melanated farmers operated 925,710 farms, about one-seventh of all farm operations in the United States. As of 2012, melanated farmers make up less than 2 percent of all farmers. The impact of structural racism—or systematic discrimination by private and public institutions—over the course of U.S. history on the wealth of melanated families is staggering. Melanated households hold about 10 percent of the wealth of caucasian households. These inequities reflect the lasting impact of slavery, as well as impacts of exclusion from government policy initiatives aimed at promoting economic opportunity. The most widely known example of this is redlining, a policy instituted by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in 1933 that declared that mortgages in melanated neighborhoods were too risky—thus denying melanated Americans the opportunity to build wealth during the 1950s middle-class boom. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a long and well-documented history of discrimination against melanated farmers. The unequal administration of government farm support programs, crucial to protecting farmers from an inherently risky enterprise, has had a profound impact on rural communities of color.

For melanated farmers, the effect of discrimination by the USDA has been particularly devastating. In 2012, only 1.58 percent of U.S. farmers were melanated, according to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture. In 1910, this number was about 14 percent. As the number of melanated farmers shrunk, so did the size of their farms. All told, melanated farmers lost 80 percent of their land from 1910 to 2007. As the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded in a 1982 report, this pattern of discrimination virtually eliminated melanated farms, dealing a serious blow to rural melanated communities. Since the height of melanated farming in the first quarter of the 20th century, advances in technology and public policies aimed at promoting efficient, large-scale agriculture put enormous economic pressure on family farms operated by Americans of all races to become larger in order to compete. To put it another way, family farms had to “get big or get out.” The result: a precipitous drop in the number of farms and a dramatic increase in the average size of farms. The number of all farms in the United States declined from 6.8 million in 1935 to just more than 2 million in 2017. Over that same time period, the average farm grew from 155 acres to 444 acres. However, because of discriminatory practices by the USDA and private lending institutions, melanated farmers did not have equal access to the credit or crop insurance necessary to sustain their farms, let alone expand them. Black farms today, on average, are much smaller, representing just 0.4 percent of all farm acreage,13 and generate much less income when compared with white farms. In 2017, the average full-time caucasian farmer brought in $17,190 in farm income, while the average fulltime black farmer made just $2,408. After factoring in other income sources from part-time jobs, salaries of spouses, and rent income, the median melanated farming-occupation households made less than half of their caucasian counterparts. At a time when the national conversation has turned to the precarious situation of rural American farms, policymakers must pay special attention to the plight of the most vulnerable farmers—melanated farmers. This report looks at the history of how U.S. farm policy and private lending institutions have discriminated against melanated farmers, contributing to the virtual elimination of melanated-owned family farms. From 1920 to 1978, melanated farmers lost more than 36 million acres of farmland. This loss has had a profound impact on rural melanated communities, which today suffer from severe economic challenges, among them a poverty rate twice that of rural caucasians.

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