At the height of Black farming in the U.S., a million farmers owned almost 17 million acres of land. Between 1920 and 1996, however, Black land ownership dropped by 70 percent and in 2012, there were only 44,000 Black farmers in the nation.
Thanks to evidence uncovered in a landmark lawsuit Pigford v. Glickman, we now know that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) denied credit and benefits to Black farmers and gave preferential treatment to White farmers, essentially forcing Black farmers out of agriculture. By 1992, the number of Black farmers in America had declined by 98 percent.
But that’s not all. Across the board, people of color are under-represented in today’s agricultural landscape. According to the latest USDA agriculture census, Latinos make up 3.2 percent of today’s farm owners, American Indians or Alaska natives make up 1.8 percent, Black or African people make up 1.6 percent, and Asians constitute less that 1 percent.
These are the kinds of facts that propelled me to write The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience, and Farming. When I joined the food and agricultural movement as a woman of color, I was immediately struck by the glaring racial disparities that live, not only in the food system regarding food access and health, but in the good food movement itself.
I could see that the face of the movement was not representing communities of color, the very same communities most heavily impacted by a broken food system. I felt like these voices were missing in the discussions about organic farming, rural homesteading, and even food justice and the urban farming projects that were sprouting up across the nation. It seemed the role of people of color in food and agriculture was misrepresented and defined solely in statistics about inequity. I knew our story was richer than that and I thought storytelling from farmers and food activists of color was the perfect way to share it.
While farming full time on a small CSA farm, I began putting The Color of Food storytelling project together. I spent almost two years reaching out to farmers and food activists and building relationships with people I was meeting at conferences like the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference or Growing Food and Justice for All’s Annual Gathering. After fundraising on IndieGoGo, with the support of family, friends, and other farmers and activists nationwide I raised over $10,000 for the book, which allowed me to get on the road and start collecting stories.
I interviewed over 75 farmers from the Southeast to the Northwest. When I transcribed these stories after five months on the road, I was instantly transported back to the farms where I might have been sitting in the farmer’s living room looking at old family photos, or riding in a truck listening to a farmer tell me why growing food was so important to them, or kneeling in the sunshine harvesting side by side as they told me the history of the very land we had our hands in.
Our conversations would run from family histories to historic discrimination in their communities; land love and loss; barriers to successes; and traditional foodways they are trying to preserve in their communities.
So many topics ran out like roots from these conversations, and this was the hardest part of putting the book together. Each story carried its own power and individuality, but many of them centered around land, power, resilience, community, and culture, which was how I decided to organize the book, with an additional section dedicated to women and young farmers.
The Color of Food takes you on a journey–a journey that started out on a personal note as I worked to understand my place in the food movement, but ended up being far bigger than that. For people of color, The Color of Food is about reclaiming our agrarian identity.
It’s purpose is to remind us of all the less-visible communities that steward the land and the foodways and farming practices we carry. It’s also about digging into the untold stories of the land before we can dig into the soil itself.
Civil Eats will share excerpts of The Color of Food throughout the month of April.