‘Rhythms of the Land’ Preserves the Untold Stories of Black Farmers | Black Farmers Tell Their Stories in New Film ‘Rhythms of the Land’

‘Rhythms of the Land’ Preserves the Untold Stories of Black Farmers

Filmmaker and cultural anthropologist Gail Myers discusses the making of her documentary, the oppressive history of sharecropping, and power of seed saving for Black farmers.

In 2012, Gail Myers received a somber phone call: An elderly Black farmer she had known for 20 years had passed away. As a longtime advocate for Black farmers who kept in touch with dozens of farming families, it wasn’t uncommon for Myers to receive these calls. Many of the farmers in their 80s and 90s were dying, and their valuable inherited knowledge was also being lost.

At that moment, something clicked in Myers. An esteemed sustainable farming organizer and a cultural anthropologist of agricultural history, she spent time interviewing Black farmers while writing her doctoral anthropology dissertation at Ohio State University  Then in 2004, she co-founded a nonprofit for underserved sustainable farmers called Farms to Grow. In the intervening years, she had continued teaching, writing, speaking, and organizing events aimed at connecting Black farmers and educating the public about their work.

Gail Myers, filmmaker, sustainable farming organizer, and cultural anthropologist of agricultural history.

The 2012 call mobilized her to act, and she decided to spend nearly two months that summer traveling across 10 Southern states, documenting Black farmers’ stories and generational knowledge for the documentary Rhythms of the Land. She applied for grants and fellowships to make the film, which she shot herself. The documentary, which acts as a powerful document of a pivotal time in U.S. history, was released in 2022 and has been screened so far at the New York Botanical Garden, Cornell University, and The New School.

We spoke with Myers recently about the making of the film, the oppressive history of sharecropping, and the power of seed saving for Black farmers.

Your film comes at a time when the struggles of Black farmers are finally attracting more mainstream media attention and advocacy. What has led to that groundswell?

The work started long ago, and this is the natural progression, but we’ve been pushing the rock uphill to tell this story. Initially, Rhythms of the Land was supposed to come out in 2013, but I think it was too early and there wasn’t the appetite then; 2022 was the perfect time for it to come out. George Floyd’s murder had a lot to do with people wanting to open their eyes to the Black community and Black farmers, who after Pigford [v. Glickman] are still trying to tell their stories.

In 1997, there were a handful of organizations doing this [advocacy] work. That number has quadrupled, so the ecosystem of support for Black farmers has expanded. Black and brown communities are really coming together to tell the story of BIPOC farmers.

Do you want to name a few of those groups?

There have been some key organizations, like Soul Fire Farm; I can’t say enough about their work, like their summer farming program. Another is Black Urban Growers (BUGs), whose conference I first attended in 2012 or 2013. BUGs has brought together Black growers from all over the world, including more young people.

“Black farmers continue to face land takeovers from developers and local and city governments. There is also local level interpersonal violence Black farmers have to deal with.”

In the film, you feature Arkansas farmer Alvin Steppes, who was denied an operating loan by the Farmers Home Administration in 1986 and lost his farm. He kept records of his own lawsuit, which supported Black farmers in advancing Pigford v. Glickman.

Yes, but sadly, Alvin never received a dime from Pigford 1 or Pigford 2. Those who received a $50,000 payment might have put a down payment on a tractor, but Pigford did not benefit Black farmers on the whole as it should have. Black farmers are still losing land without relief.

The recent commitment from Biden was for $5 billion loan forgiveness [later walked back after lawsuits from white farmers claiming discrimination], but not a lot of Black farmers got loans that can get forgiven. What we would have loved and have been pushing for is a foreclosure moratorium.

What other challenges are Black farmers facing now?

Black farmers are isolated and often don’t have anyone to advocate for them. Our farmers aren’t even at the starting line, and don’t know how to ask for support from agricultural agencies. Or they’ve applied for loan services and been denied.

Black farmers continue to face land takeovers from developers and local and city governments. There is also local level interpersonal violence Black farmers have to deal with. There have also been attempts from white neighbors of Black farmers who want to take Black farm land and their animals. Farmers have mentioned livestock being stolen and poisoned.

The film explains how the numbers related to Black farm ownership are deceptive. 

Yes. In 1920, over 920,000 farms were owned by Black farmers. But only 219,000 of these farms were operated by Black families who were independent owners, and 703,000 were farmed by tenants or sharecroppers. Cotton was king, and tobacco was the queen. It was $1.89 per bale for white man’s tobacco and $1.40 for a Black man’s tobacco.

Land sovereignty is vitally important to Black farmers. You explore that historic oppression of sharecropping in the film, and how it’s connected to the current fight for land ownership.  

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The connection to the land is even more vital now for Black farmers, in making sure that they are able to hand the land down to the next generation, that it’s something that represents the family struggle and the family’s investment in the community. Land represented a position in their community where they could have not necessarily a sense of status, but a place. You had to have land to have a sense of independence.

There was Jim Crow violence, and a lot of towns were burned, but we could build our families and our farms right here. Land was very important and is still very important.

Jerry Taylor (left) is a basket weaver who shows how rice plantations in South Carolina used basket weaving in the

Jerry Taylor (left) is a basket weaver who shows how rice plantations in South Carolina used basket weaving in the “fanner basket.” Shirley Sherrod (right) is a former Georgia state rural development director for the USDA who was inspired to work in public service by her farming father, who was murdered by a white farmer. (Photo credit: Gail Myers, “Rhythms of the Land”)

The stories in the film are heartbreaking, like the woman who recollected her childhood experience of farming with her family for an entire year, only to have their profits taken by a white landowner charging exorbitant fees for living expenses.

The plantation system allowed the white families to exploit Black families. The sharecropper system controlled the social and economic mobility of these families. Families worked six months, nine months, a year and then took cotton to the gin to get paid but would get nothing because, according to the white owner, they didn’t have enough to cover rent, seeds, and food expenses for that year. They were left owing the landowner.

The elderly farmers also explain how hard it was for Black children to get an education during the cotton season, because they were forced to work, stunting the educational wealth and upward mobility of Black families.

What I find so interesting about them not being able to go to school is that the quest for learning was always there and continued to grow. The demographic [most likely to get a college degree] is Black women, and it’s amazing where we have come with not having access to education. We were in the cotton fields and on the tobacco farms, not being able to go to school, and yet today we’re able to achieve high levels of education. That just shows the tenacity and the strength in the community of the folks who wanted an education. There were gaps in education in both urban and rural communities, and a lot of these schools are still catching up, while white students were able to go to school continuously. Education is a big piece, and it’s connected to our farming past.

You highlight the importance of Black woman farmers, starting with 109-year-old Icefene Thomas and then moving on to Aunt Rose Hurt, Sarah Buchanan, and Laurntean Garrett, all in their 90s, and Vergie Peacock, who says her family was sprayed with chemicals while working in the field. Why was it important to amplify women’s voices?

Icefene had won so many awards for her watermelons and tomatoes, entering them into the county show, and she would always win. Vergie Peacock’s story is so important, because not many women were independent farm owners, and most were sharecroppers. By the time she got married, she had her own land, and she could take her own cotton to the gin.

Women were in many ways the primary seed keepers and the organizers. As mentioned in the film, women picked cotton, took care of the children, and found ways to stave off starvation. Women knew how to make something out of nothing—they always had canned peaches or pears for desserts. It was women who made sure that communities survived.

Aunt Rose Hurt, daughter of a tenant farmer who maintained her own garden until she was 96 years old. (Photo credit: Gail Myers)

Aunt Rose Hurt, daughter of a tenant farmer who maintained her own garden until she was 96 years old. (Photo credit: Gail Myers)

These women had every right to be angry about how they were treated. How did they portray such grace?

I think there was a certain amount of not necessarily forgetting about it, but they had to forgive and move forward without anger, without cruelty, without carrying the trauma and passing it on. They had to get on with the lovingness. There was no room for that hate. They tried to look for their loved ones who were sold off, tried to find a place to call home. In doing so, they built their communities from all the love that they built for each other.

This isn’t just a discussion around how Black farmers were wronged. It is about what they endured, but it’s really a love story about how they loved, nurtured, and supported each other. It’s about those principles of natural farming with no pesticides, and those collective stories of raising, cooking, and sharing food together.

The farmers in the film speak with reverence about seed saving. What stories did you find?

Seeds are our connection to not only the food, but also the culture and legacy of the stories that go along with the food. Yes, it was about resilience and making sure that we had the inputs for the next season, but it was also about the memories.

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Bill Chambers, who is 89, told me about a pepper seed his grandmother had, and he was so regretful that they lost that seed. He said that seed was so hot that if you put your hand in the bag, you would get blisters. Seeds were continuity for food, but also culture and identification with the ancestors.

Elders would say, “You put seeds in your mouth and roll them around in the saliva, so that the seeds will know you. Once they know you, they will grow for you.” I heard from an elder that if you move into a house and there’s something growing there and you didn’t plant it, there’s someone in that house who will need that, and it was planted by your elders. If you have lobelia growing around your house, you can use it for congestion issues, or if you have mint, then it’s for allergies. There was a lot of wisdom around plant knowledge, seed knowledge, memory.

“These Black farming communities were able to nourish each other and combat the trauma. The food was the salve.”

What is the lesson in your film for our current times?

Right now, there are maybe a handful of Black billionaires, quite a few Black millionaires, and we have resources available we didn’t have before. But back then, we had a really tight community—we had the trillion-dollar community investment account, which is the investment from everyone in the community. Black farming families bought into the collective, and we’ve gone away from that. We have to figure out how we support everybody in the community.

One of the beautiful things I love about these farm stories is that they didn’t have much, but they had a responsibility to help. That commitment to a larger community is missing in our rugged individualism stance. There’s a lot of competition, and competition is OK, but what about collectivization of our resources? How do we spread it around so everyone can have it?

That is what this story is showing: You don’t need a million dollars, just the intentionality that gives everyone enough to eat. These Black farming communities were able to nourish each other and combat the trauma. The food was the salve. It wasn’t OK, but they knew they would have something to eat. With all this money we have, we have too many children going to bed hungry. They had big gardens, and everyone knew there was no shame in asking.

What are your plans for the film?

Currently, we are hosting local screenings across the country. These local screenings really engage communities and the networking that takes place in these screening spaces, in person and virtual, is incomparable. By spring of 2024, we plan to have the film available for broader distribution.  Please refer to our website to request a screening in your local area. 

I also definitely want to do part two—there’s a sense of another film. I do hope that I’m able to go around the world and translate this film into many different languages. There’s not enough of a footprint of the Black farming experience. We say: “Black lives matter,” but let’s see the images. A film like this can soften the hearts of a lot of people who just don’t know all the details when Black folks say we helped build this country, and we’re the originator of a lot of the foods of this country. They need to see these stories, so I’m very thankful I was able to share this particular narrative at this point in our existence.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Dakota Kim is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, NPR, and elsewhere. Read more >

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