Reckoning with Racial Justice in Farm Country

Rural communities and agriculture groups are divided over George Floyd's death and the resulting protests. As some stay silent, others express solidarity or hold rallies in support.



Since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd on Memorial Day and massive protests have swept across the country, Davon Goodwin has struggled with the muted reaction to the historic civil unrest in his rural farming community.

Davon Goodwin on Farm

Davon Goodwin. (Photo by L.L. Gingerich, courtesy of the National Young Farmers Coalition)

As the only commercial Black farmer in Scotland County, North Carolina and the manager of a local food hub whose clients are all white farmers, Goodwin has had very few conversations with co-workers, customers, and other local residents about the outrage and sorrow streaming daily on newscasts and social media feeds.

“There’s mostly silence about it. Like it never happened,” he said. “Part of me feels like, damn, I know you’re not Black, but you’ve just seen a murder on TV.”

But Goodwin says he’d like to have conversations with his fellow farmers, since discrimination by police and hate crimes are just as present in rural areas, though less visible than they are in cities. “Not talking about it is not going to help,” he added.

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Goodwin has also been buoyed by the thousands of people who have been denouncing police brutality and standing up for Black lives in small towns across the U.S.—many of them in Republican strongholds with predominantly white populations, former “sundown towns,” where African Americans were not welcome, and some towns with Ku Klux Klan histories.
“For us to have long-lasting change, white people must understand that they have to do the work and we as Black people cannot do it for them.”

“It shows me that people in rural areas are not going to stay silent anymore when it comes to racial issues in America,” Goodwin said. “For us to have long-lasting change, white people must understand that they have to do the work and we as Black people cannot do it for them.”

Rural America, Farm Country Slow to Respond

As heated Black Lives Matter protests have taken place in hundreds of cities in the U.S. and abroad over the last two weeks, countless individuals, organizations, and corporate brands have come out publicly in support of racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The agriculture industry has been much slower to respond. A few farming organizations—mostly those supporting small and mid-size family farmers—initially spoke out against anti-Black racism and police brutality. It took the American Farm Bureau Federation—the country’s preeminent farming group, which represents large commodity farmers—10 days to issue a statement. As of last week, more farming and rural groups had spoken out, but the voices of individual farmers have remained conspicuously quiet.

Ninety-six percent of farmland owners are white and 95 percent of U.S. producers—about 3.2 million—are white, while there are only 45,500 Black farmers. It’s a far cry from the 950,000 who worked the land in 1920 and owned an estimated 16-18 million acres of land. Today, Black farmers own just 1 million acres and the vast majority farm in the rural South.

Given this legacy, the silence of agricultural groups seemed deafening.

The National Farmers Union, the first farm group to call for racial justice in the wake of Floyd’s death, said it had a “moral obligation” to address America’s legacy of racism. “If we stand idly by while our friends and neighbors suffer—as too many of us have done for too long—we are complicit in their suffering,” President Rob Larew said in a statement. The group, which was founded in 1902, underlined its legacy of championing social causes, including the women’s suffrage and Civil Rights movements.

Beyond police brutality and discrimination in the justice system, Larew sees systemic racism in agriculture play out in a way that includes lack of access to health care, land, credit, and other services. The rural South, which most Black farmers call home, has the highest and most persistent poverty rates.

The silence of agricultural groups seemed deafening.

From slavery to Jim Crow laws and intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan—rampant in rural areas—to sharecropping and tenant farming, Larew points to the long history of racism in agriculture. The most recent example is the 1997 class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which found the agency had discriminated against Black farmers in its allocation of loans and other assistance. And while the agency has since made some efforts to minimize discrimination, Larew said Black farmers continue to be harmed and much remains to be done.

“This isn’t a Minneapolis story alone . . . we know these problems persist throughout rural America as well,” Larew said.

The group, which lobbies for family farmers and ranchers and works to promote strong rural communities, has received a mix of comments on social media in response to its statement. Most were positive, Larew said, but a few members asked the union to “stay in its lane, to stick with agriculture” or to focus on “all farmers,” not just Black ones.

Larew said his group won’t be deterred and will continue to speak out for social justice. It’s now sharing toolkits to help educate white farmers about the historical context of racism in agriculture. The group also held a panel about the legacy of Black land laws at its most recent national convention.

The National Young Farmers Coalition also underlined agriculture’s troubled past and present in its official statement. “Our food system is rooted in stolen land and stolen labor,” the group said. “A just and healthy food system for all people will not be possible if we don’t reckon with legacies of harm to people of color in the U.S. and confront the systemic racism and oppression that continue.” The organization is also offering a Racial Equity Toolkit for white farmers who want to deepen their understanding of the issues.

Others groups who have spoken in support of the protests include the National Family Farm Coalition, the National Rural Health Association, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the Land Stewardship Project, and the Women Food & Ag Network.

Black Farmers ‘Have to Work Harder, Run Faster’

One of the most common and most offensive comments Devon Goodwin has heard from white farmers is, “We work hard, you need to work hard, too.” That sentiment, he said, ignores the fact that many white farmers have worked their land for generations (and in some cases, on the backs of Black slaves) while African American farmers, already impoverished through the legacy of slavery, have too often been dispossessed of theirs.

A Black Lives Matter protest in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo CC-licensed by Phil Roeder)

Photo CC-licensed by Phil Roeder.

That legacy continues to shape their current reality: The latest census of agriculture found that most Black farmers owned between 10 and 49 acres of land—much less than U.S. average, which is 441 acres. It also showed that Black land ownership has dropped by 3 percent in the last five years, while white farmers only lost 0.3 percent of their land.

“You can’t tell a bootless man to pull himself up by the bootstraps,” Goodwin said.

An Army veteran who grew up in Pittsburgh and served a tour of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Goodwin did not inherit his farm. He had to live apart from his wife and son for several years and go into debt to buy the 42 acres in Laurinburg. On Off The land (OTL) Farms, he grows muscadine grapes, blackberries, and vegetables for a large CSA program. He also works a full-time off-farm job as the manager of the Sandhills AGInnovation Center.

“My grandfather told me, ‘You’re Black, so working hard isn’t going to be enough. If they have one degree, you have to have two. If you’re running a race, you need to run faster.”

Goodwin said he also worries for his own safety, especially given the fact that violent crime and the number of people killed by police are on the rise in rural areas. The 31-year-old said he frequently gets pulled over by police. And he’s careful about what he says around white people so as “not to rattle the cage too much,” he said.

“Out here . . . we’re so isolated, if something happens on one of these back roads nobody lives on, nobody will videotape it and nobody will know,” Goodwin said.

He continues to farm, he said, because “it’s liberating and gives me the ability to be the person in control now,” he said. “Owning land is very powerful for me. Sometimes I have to pinch myself because it’s almost not real.”

He’s unsure whether the current protests will lead to permanent change. “America has a hell of a bill to repay,” he said. “But changing the system means some people are going to lose their privilege. [When it comes to agriculture] that means land reform, land reparations. In rural America, people are definitely not ready for that.”

The Changing Face of Farm Country

But something may be shifting in America’s farm country. Protests over the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans have erupted in a number of small agricultural communities including: Madera, California, population 64,000 and 79 percent Hispanic; Havre, Montana, population 9,800 and 80 percent white/15 percent Native American; Hermiston, Oregon, population 18,400 and 60 percent white/37 percent Hispanic. McCook, Nebraska, population 7,700 and 97 percent white; Huntington, Indiana, population 17,000 and 96 percent white; Sandpoint, Idaho, population 8,700 and 92 percent white; and Mankato, Minnesota, population 42,000 and 88 percent white.

These protests have taken place despite false rumors in many small towns that outside agitators and Antifa, or anti-fascists, would be coming by busloads to cause mayhem. The rumors, spread on social media and in some cases stoked by local sheriffs, caused panic in some towns and may have intimidated people interested in joining the protests. At least one Twitter account posing as Antifa was later found to be run by white nationalist groups. Whether in response to the rumors or for other reasons, at many of the small town protests groups of white, visibly armed men showed up to counter-protest and “protect” the protesters and the town’s property. In many cases, they harassed and even attacked those marching.

Protests in farming communities are possible because rural America is changing, said Jane Kleeb, the chair of Nebraska’s Democratic Party. Kleeb, author of Harvest the Vote, How Democrats Can Win Again In Rural America, said that despite the stereotype, not all rural communities are racist or backward. In fact, racial and ethnic diversity is increasing in rural America.

In many rural communities, Latinos and other immigrants and refugees now make up more than 20 percent of the population and white people are a shrinking percentage of the population. Rural farming areas also have more adults over 65 than urban or suburban counties and have experienced population loss over the past decade.

The increase in diversity, coupled with the fact that rural communities are faced with population loss and may be more willing to welcome young people of color, is slowly changing hearts and minds, Kleeb said.

“There’s a lot of reckoning and soul searching the agricultural community needs to do if we’re serious about addressing this.”

These communities, Kleeb said, are working hard to figure out—some more successfully than others—how to bring together people from different cultural and racial backgrounds. And although white farmers continue to dominate, “some bridges are being built,” said Kleeb. In Nebraska, for example, some farmers and ranchers have helped their Latinx employees who can’t secure bank loans buy homes.

White farmers are also realizing that they share in many of the same problems that are shouldered by people of color in rural areas. Most recently, the pork plant in Worthington, Minnesota had to shut down after experiencing a major COVID-19 outbreak. The plant’s immigrant workers said conditions were unsafe and the company refused to slow down. As a result, local farmers didn’t have a place to sell their hogs, said Brian DeVore with the Minnesota-based Land Stewardship Project.

“If the packing plant didn’t weaken its safety rules for the immigrant workers, maybe the farmers would not be in a bind,” DeVore said. “There is a connection. Enlightened self-interest, this will impact the farmers.”

DeVore said his organization, which runs a soil health program as well as a farmer training program, promotes racial justice and immigration reform as part of its mission.

“We’re inoculating them with these ideas,” he said. “Sometimes I see farmers rolling their eyes. A few don’t renew their membership. But you do it enough, they keep coming to the meetings . . . and there may be a little more acceptance.”

But, said Kleeb of Nebraska, a lot of work remains to confront rural racism: “There’s a lot of reckoning and soul searching the agricultural community needs to do if we’re serious about addressing this.”

And while rural voters helped elect Donald Trump in 2016, Kleeb said the George Floyd protests don’t have to turn into another element of the urban-rural divide to define the November election. Democrats can win rural areas if they address issues such as land justice, fading infrastructure, and social justice, she said.

“We need major investments to put land back into the hands of young Latino, African American, and Indigenous farmers and ranchers,” she said. “And we have to make sure financial resources are going into these small communities and not just the big cities.”

Some Farmers Want to Support Communities Impacted by Protests

While dozens of farming groups representing big and small farmers have now come out in support of racial justice, farming advocates say real action is needed to move agriculture toward a more just future.

“The people who want to do something when this is over, to build new systems—whether in criminal justice or the food system—are critical,” said Cornelius Blanding, executive director of The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a group that represents Black farmers, land owners, and their cooperatives.

Blanding, who won the 2019 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award for his work strengthening cooperatives, said, for now, his group is mobilizing its member farmers to support urban communities impacted by the protests by feeding folks on the front lines “who put themselves in uncomfortable positions.”

The hope, Blanding said, is to do something similar to the USDA’s Food Box program, which has suppliers package food products into family-sized boxes and transport them to food banks and organizations serving hungry Americans impacted by the pandemic since May.

The effort goes back to the Federation’s roots in the Civil Rights movement, when farming cooperatives in the South helped support protesters who were marching and boycotting. “If there is a way to support the Black Lives Matter movement in a similar way, we will be there,” he said. “People pick rural versus urban, but when we realize we’re all in this together, we can make a quicker impact and a bigger impact.”

Over the long term, Blanding hopes the agricultural community can compensate those who have lost land, as that dispossession has often lead to generational poverty and other problems.

“When you can’t feed yourself as a community, it creates problems. So, Black people and communities are not really the true owners of the country and this allows for inequities to perpetuate themselves,” Blanding said.

The outpouring of response and attention has left Blanding hopeful. “This sort of attention could lead to real change,” he said. “The Civil Rights movement took a turn when protesters were attacked by dogs, it was shown on television and the world saw it. The world has to see these injustices, and this is what’s happening now. Our hope is to break the cycle of oppression, not just repeat it.”

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View Comments (12)

  1. Donna Wright
    Wednesday, June 10th, 2020
    Excellent article.
    • Gosia
      Wednesday, June 10th, 2020
      thank you, I appreciate you reading and commenting!
  2. lori harms
    Wednesday, June 10th, 2020
    Dollar Harvest by Samuel Berger is a history of the american farm bureau federation . the afbf assisted white southern landowners in stealing land from black farmers .
  3. Mary Anderson
    Thursday, June 11th, 2020
    Eye opening. And informative. Thank you.
  4. Susan Felton
    Saturday, June 13th, 2020
    Thank you so much for this well-written article. I appreciate the research and your including information from across the country.
  5. R. M. Lee
    Sunday, June 14th, 2020
    'White people are the root of everyone's problems.' Thanks, message received.
  6. Ramaka Lara
    Tuesday, June 16th, 2020
    What needs to be addressed is land purchases for all minorities no matter the race. Whites included. Putting the power in the people’s hand is the only way. I personally would firm a nonprofit or not for profit organization as a platform to raise funds and find banks who will join in and give low interest loans and easier qualifications. Owning the land will greatly improve the small farmers to succeed. Thank you for you article.
  7. Wednesday, June 17th, 2020
    The Agrarian Trust, a national nonprofit, has just launched 10 regional "Agrarian Commons" that offers us a bi-partisan solution for securing agricultural land for future generations and regenerative stewardship, and enacting levels of justice and repair to return land to black and indigenous tenure and stewardship.

    I especially appreciate the emphasis on the question "how do we build intersectional, inclusive movements to foster a just and equitable food system?" No small feat if we pull it off given the legacies of racism and injustice this food system is built on.
  8. Micheal Dean
    Wednesday, June 17th, 2020
    There is a lot to unpack in this article, one of the better, more over-arching on many subjects. 'Sundown Laws' did not exist JUST in townships, but entire counties. My father was born in 1929, and raised in south-west Missouri. There were at least 3 contiguous counties that had 'Sundown Laws' until at least the 1960's.
  9. Robert Kluson
    Saturday, June 20th, 2020
    Having had the privilege of a career as a Sustainable Ag Extension agent in FL, I’m very appreciative of the even-handed tone of this article. The necessary changes & reforms for Racial & Food Justice can and are happening but, I feel, it’ll require constant vigilance and creativity for a long while from us to make it a reality, even when our hearts feel broken. Your article gives voice to hope and constructive ideas on how we need to get there. Thanks . . .