Black farming projects seek to restore historic land losses

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Black farmers and other farmers of color see restoring land that has been stolen or defrauded from them as a key step in building their economic power.


When black land rights activists were offered 150 acres (60 hectares) of land in Amelia County, Virginia, they saw it as an opportunity to right a historic wrong.

Black Americans lost 90% of their land across the United States during the 20th century, according to government figures, due to factors such as predatory developers and lack of access to the legal system and counseling. experts.

Now an alliance of black farmers and civil society groups want to reclaim an equal amount of property.

“We have been stripped of this land,” said Kenya Crumel, director of the National Black Food & Justice Alliance (NBFJA), which includes nearly 50 black-led organizations.

“Land is freedom. Historically, in this country, a lot of politics was tied to land ownership – you couldn’t vote if you didn’t have land,” Crumel told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Echoes of that loss continue to reverberate today, she said, noting a huge impact on “generational wealth”.

The group is in the process of appropriating this southern plot, which is the subject of a donation, as its first plot.

It ultimately aims to get between 15 million and 20 million acres in rural and urban areas — an amount that Crumel says might seem “ridiculous” today, but would match the estimated total acreage lost by black households.

Overturning inequalities

The project comes amid growing attention to black farmers and land dispossession, with projects aimed at helping them get a fairer share.

White people own 98% of U.S. farmland, said Duron Chavis, a board member of the new nonprofit Central Virginia Agrarian Commons (CVAC), which supports farmers of color.

“The divide that we’re trying to bridge is land control, land ownership, the land divide that black and brown communities face not just in Virginia but across the country,” he said. “Our job is to upend this inequity and put the land back into the hands of the most marginalized in our community.”

The organization raises funds to purchase land and solicits donations.

This month, landowner Callie Walker will donate 75 acres of her family plot in Amelia County, Va., to allow farmers of color to establish agrarian homes and businesses, such as growing vegetables or l ‘beekeeping.

On a sunny May day, she roamed the rolling fields and woods where she grew up, about an hour’s drive west of the state capital, Richmond. A line of bright orange surveyor’s flags indicated where the property should be split in two.

“I’ve seen other people try to start a farming dream on borrowed land or some other type of land deal, and it always seems to fail,” said Walker, a United Methodist pastor. “The vision is to bring together beginning farmers or dispossessed farmers and set up housing that would allow them to try living and farming here.”

Restorative economy

The burgeoning effort is also increasingly focusing on urban areas.

The 2020 nationwide racial justice protests following the police killing of unarmed civilian George Floyd sparked growing momentum around the use of urban land to foster agricultural work for small farmers of color.

It was also the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when communities suddenly faced empty supermarket shelves fueled by widespread panic buying, recalled Erin PJ Bevel, co-founder of the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund.

Callie Walker discusses the land she donates to the Southwest Virginia Agrarian Commons in Amelia, Virginia. Photo by Thomson Reuters Foundation/Carey L. Biron

“It got very scary,” she recalled of the confluence of Floyd’s murder and the pandemic. “It was a crisis for black people.”

The experience not only increased interest in locally produced food, she said, but also drew attention to Detroit’s network of urban farmers who had been growing on vacant city plots for years, often in a legal gray area.

Detroit has been rocked by population losses for decades and has left significant amounts of urban land vacant.

While some of those properties were available for a few hundred dollars, others in gentrification areas sold for more than $6,000, Bevel said.

Two years ago, when commemorating the end of slavery on June 19, a coalition of groups created the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund to address the issue.

Since then, the fund has raised more than $200,000, collected donated land, and helped 70 farmers and agricultural businesses navigate city processes, enabling them to purchase vacant city lots.

Bevel said she sees the initiative as an example of a “restorative economy,” seeking to undo the damage caused by injustices and help local residents shape their own communities.

“We had no idea it would explode like it did,” she said, noting that the project has spawned at least two similar funds in Michigan alone.

Urban greenery

One of those the fund seeks to help is Timothy Jackson, 38, co-executive director of Detroit Hives, a nonprofit that sells about 700 pounds (320 kilograms) of raw honey a year.

The grant will help Detroit Hives purchase two vacant lots.

Community members work on a Brightmoor Pollinator Project property in Detroit. Photo by Detroit Hives

“When you own your project in your community, it allows you to have a deep investment — you’re not just renting,” Jackson said.

Another local farmer, Erin Cole, runs Nurturing Our Seeds, a farm that grows “anything that can be grown” and sold over $30,000 in produce last year.

The farm began as an effort to tame a vacant lot, and over the past decade has grown to eight lots, six of which the fund helped the nonprofit purchase last year.

Other projects also seek to develop urban spaces for black producers.

The Central Virginia Agrarian Commons, for example, is buying tracts totaling nearly 9 acres in the cities of Petersburg and Roanoke, said Ian McSweeney, director of the National Agrarian Trust.

The plots are in areas officially designated as “food deserts” where residents do not have access to fresh food, he said. They will be used for cultivation, agricultural training and as a base to help growers on Walker land and elsewhere connect to urban markets.

The AJNB seeks to use its collective weight to buy back spaces already used informally.

“A lot of black people farm on vacant land, and often they don’t own that land, but you can negotiate with cities or counties to own it,” Crumel said. “So we want to take advantage of that and use our power as a group to negotiate those terms and, through that, mitigate the losses.”

This story was originally published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers the lives of people around the world struggling to live freely or fairly. This story is republished here as part of the Solutions Journalism Network’s SoJo Exchange, a nonprofit dedicated to rigorous reporting on responses to social issues. It has been slightly modified to YES! Magazine.

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Carey L. Biron

covers Washington DC land and property rights. He has covered South and Southeast Asia for 15 years and has reported on global development from Washington since 2012. Carey also works for the Washington Post as an editor.


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