For African-American farmers -- afflicted by the legacy of slavery, racism, and land theft -- the struggle for emancipation has not been easy. I was therefore excited to learn about Jubilee Justice, a fledgling project that is trying to reclaim farmland for BIPOC farmers and secure their economic livelihoods. Besides embracing cooperatives and community land trusts, Jubilee Justice is dedicated to an open-source, climate-friendly type of rice farming and to courageous "transformational learning journeys" for racial healing. You can learn more about these experiments in commoning in my interview with Konda Mason on the latest episode of my podcast Frontiers of Commoning models of restorative economics and finance.
Louisville, Mississippi - Until five years ago, Teresa Springs was always in heels and perfectly manicured. As a child growing up in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, she'd never even walked barefoot in the grass. Today, Teresa goes shoeless in rows of crops on her farm, grounding with the Mississippi earth as a part of her daily healing, connecting to the land at sundown before heading back with soil-covered hands and feet to her husband, Kevin, and their old farm house. Now five years into stewarding their farm—dubbed TKO Farming, an acronym for Teresa and Kevin's Oasis—they're still just as awe-struck by what they've built by hand. As self-described city folks who met in July 2013 while working on criminal-justice reform in Miami, the couple never envisioned living on, much less operating, a farm.
At 43 and 45 years old, husband and wife farmers Angie and Wenceslaus Provost, Jr., hope they live to see age 70. They don’t fear terminal illness or a farm accident that could consign them to an early grave. Instead, they fear stress could do them in. Years of trying to protect family land from encroaching banks and government agencies have worn on them, despite their love of farming. After years of mounting debt with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a bank, the New Iberia, La. sugar cane farmers filed a September 2018 lawsuit against a USDA-approved lender. The suit alleges that Wenceslaus, known as “June,” was all but run out of the profession in 2015 after the bank reduced his crop loans over successive years, effectively underfunding his farm operation.
After amassing more than $100,000 in debt over more than two decades of farming, a Georgia-based farmer named Denver got welcome news last year from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farmers like him would be eligible for a new debt relief program. USDA would pay off certain loans and give him a little extra for tax liabilities. Denver did not receive a payment. But almost a year later, he received another letter: A notice that USDA intends to take legal action to collect the money he owes the agency. Denver asked the Center for Public Integrity not to use his last name out of fear of retaliation. “We know that institutional discrimination is systemic within USDA,” said Tracy Lloyd McCurty, executive director of the Black Belt Justice Center.
The loss of Black-owned land in this community exposes a cruel irony. Pembroke has been one of the few places Black landowners could gain a foothold in Illinois, in part because this land was passed over by white settlers who presumed its sandy soils were worthless. And now, after generations without large-scale development or landscape-destroying corporate farming, this land has become sought after by outside conservationists because Pembroke’s savannas remain largely untouched.
The Sweet Fern Savanna Land and Water Reserve, in the heart of Pembroke Township, Illinois, offers a glimpse into what much of the area looked like before European settlers drained swamps and cleared forests to grow corn and soybeans. At least 18 threatened or endangered plant and animal species, including the ornate box turtle and regal fritillary butterfly, have been sighted here. Mature oaks tower over verdant fields of clustered sedge and Carolina whipgrass. Warbling songbirds and buzzing cicadas add a mellow soundtrack to the tranquil scene. Sixty miles south of Chicago, this wildlife reserve is among nearly 2,900 acres owned by private individuals and environmental groups — most prominently, The Nature Conservancy — trying to establish a network of nature sanctuaries in Kankakee County.
Texas is home to more Black farmers than any state. The USDA's Census of Agriculture estimated in 2017 that of the 3.4 million farmers in the United States, roughly 48,000 are Black, and nearly a quarter of them are located in the Lone Star State. The number of Black folks sinking their hands into Texas soil, however, used to be much larger. The early 1900s witnessed the terrors of Jim Crow, which ran Black families in Texas off of their own land. The societal and business practices of the 1950s didn't allow Black farmers access to the fields and credit necessary to keep their farms afloat, and by the 1980s, an estimated 170 farms a week were being forced into foreclosure, most of them Black-owned.
Chief Zogli looked weary as he scratched a notch in his doorpost to record the weather. “Still no rain,” he says with resignation. The chickens pecked lazily in the dust and the goats foraged for the last of the dropped grains beneath the emptying corn crib. In this rural community outside of Odumase-Krobo, Ghana, the farmers depend on rainfall as their only source of agricultural water. Zogli explains that the rainy season has been arriving later each year and ending sooner—and the thirsty crops struggle to mature. From the African continent to the Americas and across the Caribbean, communities of color are on the front lines of and disproportionately harmed by climate change. Record heat waves have caused injury and death among Latinx farmworkers and devastating hurricanes have become regular annual visitors in the Caribbean islands and coastal areas of the U.S.