BRATTLEBORO — Systemic racism in the world of agriculture is being fought on a daily basis with an eye toward returning people of color to roles in operating farms and getting more nutritious foods to low-income communities.
"The amount of farmland controlled by African Americans has consistently declined from a high point around the turn of the 20th century," Amani Olugbala, raptivist, spoken word artist and abolitionist, said Thursday night during "Farming While Black: Uprooting Racism, Seeding Sovereignty" in the Sanctuary of Epsilon Spires in the First Baptist Church in Brattleboro. "Right now, the folks who own the land are overwhelmingly white. It hasn't always been that way."
More than 20 attendees came out for the event. Olugbala told them millions of people occupied the local area before colonizers ever thought about arriving here.
"We're on stolen land right now and this is land folks are still every day fighting to maintain," she said. "Really there's no words or actions that are big enough to honor the loss of all of the land, all of the people, all of the history, heritage."
Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, N.Y. — where Olugbala serves as community educator — is dedicated to ending racism and injustice in the food system by increasing the number of people of color who are stewarding farmland, restoring Afro-indigenous farming practices and bringing nutritious foods to communities that lack them. It offers a sliding scale, community-supported agriculture farmshare, a skill-building program called Black-Latinx Farmers Immersion and Youth Food Justice leadership training.
Mostly vegetables are grown on a few acres of the farm, Olugbala said, counting about 80 families who are delivered produce through the farmshare to help end what she described as a segregationist and racist food system or "food apartheid." The term refers to restricted access to healthy foods in low-income communities.
Olugbala showed a slide listing agricultural contributions from African people to involve black-eyed peas, coffee, cotton, sesame, okra and more.
"Some of our most cherished sustainable farming practices have roots in African wisdom," states farmingwhileblack.org, which is dedicated to the book "Farming While Black" written by Leah Penniman, co-director and program manager at Soul Fire Farm. "Yet, discrimination and violence against African-American farmers has led to their decline from 14 percent of all growers in 1920 to less than 2 percent today, with a corresponding loss of over 14 million acres of land. Further, Black communities suffer disproportionately from illnesses related to lack of access to fresh food and healthy natural ecosystems."
Olugbala estimated about 13 farms have been given or leased to people of color as part of land reparations in recent years. Working with other organizations, Soul Fire Farm is seeking more projects to be included on the Reparations Map for Black-Indigenous Farmers.
The call for reparations dates back to the federal government's failure to keep its promise to provide "40 acres and a mule" to newly freed slaves after the Civil War, states "A Reparations Map for Farmers of Color May Help Right Historical Wrongs" published on civileats.com. "The money generated from farming that land gave Black families the opportunity to create financial mobility and economic security. By 1920, Black Americans owned 925,000 farms or 14 percent of the farms in the U.S. at that time. Yet, the promise didn't last. Over time, millions of farmers, including 600,000 Blacks, lost their farms — often because they lacked legal deeds to the land. By 1975, just 45,000 Black-owned farms remained. The 2012 Census of Agriculture estimated that Black farmers now make up less than 2 percent of the nation's farmers and 1 percent of rural landowners."
It is important to recreate opportunities for people to connect with their rights to land, said Olugbala, who described herself as being very surprised to hear so much talk about reparations from candidates in the 2020 United States presidential election.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.