When Keisha Cameron and her husband Warren first started farming their five acres of land in Grayson, Georgia, in 2014, they worked the soil with what little they had: their arms, backs, shovels, and rakes. They didn’t have the money for fencing or a motorized lawn mower. It took them two days just to cut the grass.
Last year, Cameron signed up High Hog Farm—which sells herbs, fruits, vegetables, poultry, and pork—to an online mapping tool, created by Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm, a community farm in Albany, New York focusing on tackling racism and injustice in the food system. The tool connects farmers of color across the U.S. who are calling for reparations to organizations and individual donors who pledge to support their work.
Using the tool, Cameron posted a call for a tractor, something she said would be “monumental” for the farm; they are still relying on their push mower and grazing goats and sheep to keep down the weeds. Lack of seed funding for essential equipment, she said, is just one example of how pervasive systemic racism prevents Blacks from creating profitable farms.
Cameron and her husband bought their property in 2010 and started High Hog Farm a few years later. She has since honed her skills at a training program for farmers of color run by Soul Fire Farm.
“As a young person, it never occurred to me that you could be a Black farmer, which is sad because my grandmother was a gardener and a homesteader,” said Cameron. Her family moved north and separated from the land during the 70s. When she returned to the South as an adult—moving first to Virginia and then eventually further south around a decade ago—she felt like she was coming home: “It has been very healing.”
Cameron remembers a time when just mentioning reparations would make a person sound radical or militant, but things are changing.
“There have been systems and structures put in place to ensure that Black people are either excluded [from agriculture] or exploited,” she said. “It’s important that the descendants of those who were enslaved receive some acknowledgement—that we say, ‘these are the harms that have been done.’”
The idea of reparations isn’t new. The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America and activists like “Queen Mother” Audley Moore have long been on the frontlines of the issue. A series of lawmakers—including Michigan Representative John Conyers, and more recently Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker—have filed bills in Congress in an effort to “to right the economic wrongs of persistent racism, white supremacy, implicit racial bias in our nation.”
Now, reparations have become a cornerstone in the 2020 presidential election, which could hinge on Black voters. Senator Booker as well as California Senator Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke, Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, have all put forward the idea of reparations. But the reparations rhetoric has yet to be framed around a more specific population: Black farmers.
There were just 45,500 Black farmers in 2017, up about 2 percent from five years earlier, according to the agriculture census released in April, but a far cry from the 950,000 Black farmers who worked the land in 1920. But the census also found that Black land ownership dropped 3 percent in the last five years, while white farmers only lost 0.3 percent of their land. The data also showed that most Black farmers made up only 1.3 percent of the overall farming population and owned between 10 and 49 acres of land—much less than today’s average farm size of 441 acres.
While Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 essay The Case for Reparations was widely read and discussed, Dara Cooper says she’s never seen a national conversation like this before. The co-founder of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, Cooper hopes the reinvigorated discussion focuses on “actual harm this government has never acknowledged or reckoned with.”
Cooper points to the Great Migration, where, over the course of much of the 20th Century, 6 million people migrated north from the southern U.S. While the move north is often framed as being about a quest for better economic opportunity, it was also about fleeing physical violence, she said: “There was a violence of separation from our identity and our identity is always connected to land…there needs to be some reckoning with that if we’re even half-way serious about justice.”
Hundreds of years after King Cotton and the Reconstruction Era, and decades after Jim Crow Laws, distrust and discrimination continue to stymie Black farmers’ presence in the U.S. agriculture industry. Advocates and historians often point to the ways Black farmers have been systematically pushed out of farm ownership due to prejudice, violence, poverty, the lack of a legal structure to help them hold onto their land, and discrimination on the part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For Cameron, who has decided not go into debt to make her farm work, it has been a matter of growing slowly and maintaining jobs outside the farm; her husband is an engineer and she runs diversity trainings in addition to farming full time.
Going to conferences and meeting other farmers, Cameron said “I’m surrounded by wonderful [white] people who farm and work the land and I’m aware that their access to structural resources is very different than mine … Everyone wasn’t given bootstraps or has a family history or a cabinet of bootstraps to pull themselves up with.”
In 1920, Black Americans owned an estimated 16-18 million acres of land. Now that number is down to 1 million. Black farmers’ land loss and the debate on reparations is intertwined because “who owns the land controls what the political change and shifts will be in localities,” said Savi Horne, director of the Land Loss Prevention Project, which focuses on helping Black farmers in North Carolina keep their property.
“You’re not seeing the more graphic abuse of power by local agents of the USDA … but you’re still losing land,” said Horne. “There needs to be a national dialogue and call for reparations that includes front and center the land question, because even where there’s been some stability the fact that you’re still losing land speaks volumes.”
Advocates watching the reparations debate unfold on the presidential campaign trail have pointed to the Pigford v. Glickman settlement as a potential litmus test for how reparations could play out for Black farmers. The 1997 class-action lawsuit found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against Black farmers in its allocation of farm loans and assistance between 1981 and 1996. The case was settled in 2010 and allowed Black farmers affected (and their descendants) to collect $50,000 each. More than 15,000 farmers had their claims approved.
However, several thousand Black farmers filed their claims too late, which turned into Pigford II. In August 2013, compensation payments totaling $1.25 billion were approved for 17,665 Pigford II claims out of over 39,000 submitted. But food justice advocates including Cooper have criticized the long-term impacts of the settlement, citing the lump sum as arguably nominal considering the continued land loss and larger debts Black farmers incurred.
Part of the problem with the way presidential candidates have framed the reparations conversation is no one has offered a real structure to how it might work, said Jillian Hishaw, an attorney and founder and director of F.A.R.M.S., a legal and education non-profit that provides services to small farmers and rural youth in the Southeast. She supports the idea of reparations, but adds that there needs to be a reimagining of what it could look like, such as providing stock options and dividend payments that go into a fund that grows over time. She pointed out that part of the reason Black farmers lose their land is because they don’t always have legal documents such as wills, deeds, and trusts in place to keep it in the family.
“[Reparations would] need to be based on a wealth-building model,” Hishaw said. “Handing out a check is not sustainable,” she adds, pointing to the fact that most recipients probably didn’t use the Pigford settlements to acquire new land.
Giving Black farmers agency is what Soul Fire Farm’s Penniman hopes to do. Her reparations mapping tool aims to help guide foundations and individual funders looking to invest in Black farmers. But, as she told Civil Eats last year, “it’s not just about money. It’s about power and control. It should be the people who are directly affected who have that power and that control.”
For now, Cameron is looking to continue growing her family’s farm and building up production, while creating something she can pass along to her two sons. And she’s cautiously optimistic about how the reparations debate might play out in the election.
Her family has received help from groups including the Food Well Alliance and the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network (SAAFON).
But she’s still waiting for that tractor.
This feature is the result of a partnership between HuffPost and Civil Eats.
Top photo: Keisha and Warren tend to their garden at their home. Photo © Lynsey Weatherspoon.