Conversations in North Carolina

Farming While Black

Revolutionary Worker #1123, October 21, 2001, posted at

The RW received the following correspondence.

For the past few months I have been traveling with a team throughout the South, taking out the RCP's Draft Programme. When we found out about a conference held by the Black Radical Congress in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, we headed over there with stacks of the Draft Programme and the RW. There were workshops on various topics dealing with the oppression of Black people and I decided to go to the one on the plight of Black farmers led by leaders of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA).

Gary Grant, president of the BFAA, opened the workshop. He said that in 1910 there were almost one million Black farmers who owned 15 million acres of land. Today, there are fewer than 18,000 Black farmers, owning less than one million acres. And Black farmers are failing at a rate five times that of white farmers.

Most farmers go to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for loans to buy seed, fertilizer, and equipment. Gary said that when a white farmer applies, he generally gets the loan fairly quickly, but when a Black farmer applies, he waits and waits. He is told that his application has a "flaw" in it, so he is either denied the loan altogether or it goes through so late he can't plant on time and loses the entire crop for that season. As Gary put it, the so-called claim of "flaws" are just another kind of Jim Crow tactics. While this practice goes on year after year, many Black farmers, sooner or later, throw in the towel and sell their land. They get out of farming, not because they want to, but because they are forced to by the workings of a racist system.

Gary also talked about how the Consent Decree is being used to put Black farmers out of business. The Consent Decree is an agreement made between the USDA and Black farmers in 1996, under which Black farmers can sue the USDA for unequal and discriminatory treatment. The unequal treatment many times involves discriminatory delays in getting government loans to buy seed, fertilizer and equipment. If a Black farmer files a Consent Decree suit, he can only get the $50,000 award one time. And win or lose, the farmer can never again file a discrimination suit against the government. Black farmers filing a discrimination suit under the Consent Decree are required to get statements by two white farmers saying they were not discriminated against in the same situation. Gary recounted one instance in which a Black farmer misspelled the man's name on one of the statements so his case was thrown out.

After the workshop, I talked with Gary and L.C. Cooper, president of the North Carolina Chapter of the BFAA, and told them I would like to learn more about the struggle being waged by Black farmers.

Later in the month a few of us drove out to L.C.'s home in northeastern North Carolina. It was a beautiful summer day, sun glistening on farm ponds and lakes. We passed fields of corn with healthy green stalks, fields of wheat, soybeans and other well-tended farmlands. Between the long rows of growing crops, we could see the dark brown soil.

Cases of FWB

We met with two farmers, L.C. Cooper and Jeff Hawkins, who is the secretary of the North Carolina chapter of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA). They were both anxious to talk about what they call "Farming While Black."

We sat down with L.C. and his wife, along with Jeff, in their living room and L.C. began telling us his own story of being discriminated against as a Black farmer. He said a few years ago, he decided to grow organic peanuts to sell to Holland. At the time, Holland was paying much more for organic peanuts than the United States.

A huge smile went across L.C.'s face as he told us about his peanut crop. "They were excellent peanuts. It was a bumper crop! One of the most gratifying things was that the crop--it was beautiful." He laughed and laughed, just thinking about what a great crop it was, and then continued: "When you turn the peanuts out, we have a machine called a digger, it digs and then with a roller, it turns the vines and the peanuts over. The vines go to the bottom and the peanuts to the top and that is for drying purposes [the peanuts are still on the vines in the fields]. When you look down the row you see all those beautiful peanuts, you know, from one end to the other. The vines are down and you see the peanuts. Yeah, beautiful! This is not a peanut county up here where I am and that's why you had people come up from another county where peanuts is a premium. They were surprised to see this crop. Professors and students from North Carolina A &T also came to see the crop."

But then the story took a turn from one about a beautiful crop of peanuts to one about the intrusion of capitalism and the USDA. As he went on, I started getting angry--so this is how it works!

According to L.C., peanut production, like many crops, is controlled by the USDA in order to keep the supply limited and market prices high. He explained that there is lots of demand for organic peanuts, so there was no reason to restrict production except that the USDA did not want him to get into the foreign market. L.C. said, "I was severely restricted."

Before planting the seeds, L.C. contracted with the USDA to plant 100 acres of peanuts. He bought a specific amount of seed after carefully computing the distance between rows and then how far apart each seed would be planted. Then just before the harvest, a USDA inspector came out and found that instead of 100 acres, 110 acres had been planted. The inspector promptly fined him $15,000. L.C. said he thinks the USDA people probably thought he bought extra seed on the black market and was cheating. He told us he was confused about the 110 acres, checked his calculations and found his error. Mistakenly, L.C. had the seeder set up in such a way that it added a few more rows of peanuts--up to 10 extra acres. Although he reported his error, the agency would not withdraw or reduce the fine.

After growing the beautiful crop of organic peanuts, L.C. headed for the Virginia border to have a sheller shell his peanuts. In his car, L.C. followed three 52-foot trailers loaded with peanuts. When he arrived there, a USDA agent told him he couldn't shell a single peanut until he paid his fine. L.C.. tried to negotiate with the inspector to get rid of the fine altogether or reduce it--but the agent would not back down. For weeks and then months, L.C. negotiated to no avail with the USDA. Because he did not have the $15,000 to pay the fine, a substantial amount of the peanuts got moldy sitting in the trucks.

L.C. recounted, "They got moldy because of the dampness. You see the hull will easily contract moisture, the hull sits there so long that the moisture comes all the way through the hull into the peanut. The peanuts were in the trucks from October into February. The reason they sat there was I didn't have the $15,000 to pay the USDA. And when the USDA tells the sheller not to shell, he can't touch them. Once I paid the $15,000 they shelled them right away. Well, we lost about 50% from sitting. We lost about 40 tons."

I asked L.C. what most outraged him about this situation. He said, "There was another way you could use the quota system to avoid penalty, but I was not aware of it and they wouldn't make me aware of it! They were supposed to make you aware of all the other options, but they didn't. They could have showed me how to deal with the 10 extra acres without even being penalized! Well, the thing that really got me was they penalized me for excess acreage and I'm the only Black farmer growing peanuts in the county, so why you come measure mine? And this was a good opportunity to develop the market and they crushed it. I think it was more like a prejudice... This was discrimination against the Black farmer, that was the main factor. If it had been a white farmer, they wouldn't have even touched it, they would push you over. They would just change the accounting to deal with the 10 acres. Besides, I was the only Black farmer around here doing peanuts at the time, and there were some white farmers doing it, too." L.C. said that he thought the USDA also came after him because he has filed a discrimination lawsuit against them for over $1 million.

Speaking about the depth of discrimination against Black farmers, Jeff said that for some of his life, he accepted it as the norm. He said, "I thought I was a bad farmer until I went to a meeting and saw 500 Black farmers had the same problem. The main problem was that we were Black and the cases were similar. One problem I had was that I needed to buy an irrigation pump so I could pump out a lagoon. The Farm Home Administration said NO. Then my lagoon burst and then the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) was all over me about it. They gave me an extension but then because I couldn't get a loan I still couldn't fix it. So the EPA said if I didn't fix it by the next deadline, they would fine me $10,000 a day. So I had to borrow money from my grandfather."

L.C. and Jeff told the story of a Black tobacco farmer--they both knew this case from start to finish, each chiming in with all the ugly details. L.C. said, "This fellow had--you don't find a row of tobacco from one end of the warehouse to the other like he had taken there. And this Black farmer had these long rows of tobacco, beautiful tobacco. And the government grader put a good grade on them. And the farmer and his son came back to the warehouse and the grader was on the other side of the warehouse doing grading. They saw the grades on their tobacco and they were thrilled. They were there rejoicing over that tobacco. They went down the row and saw it, oh man they were happy about it. The grader came over and asked them if that was their tobacco. They said,'Yes, sir.' And he changed every grade right then. The Black farmer filed discrimination on this case through the Consent Decree and the case was thrown out of court. The court threw it out. They said he didn't qualify. That was so obvious--all the cases are obvious!"

Crushed by the Market

I asked if L.C. felt like others in the BFAA, that discrimination is intensifying in order to crush the remaining small number of Black farmers. He said, "Well, yes it is that extreme. You would think this discrimination could not happen, would not be happening today, but it's gotten worse as I speak. They fittin' to start foreclosures on a lot of farmers... Right now they can't foreclose on a farmer who has a case with the Consent Decree but that could change. Now say the farmer has been delinquent in repaying his debt to the Farm Home Administration. Right now they can't foreclose on him, they let him go through the litigation, get debt relief and he go and restructure his farm. Now, if they lift the moratorium you can't get these reliefs.

"Tobacco and cotton, if the price drops, there will be a drop in cash flow. And you out of it as far as other crops are concerned. You got to have 2,000 acres of wheat if you are going to cash flow [make a profit] on that. Now say I have 100 acres of wheat. By the time I pay the expenses, the wheat is selling for $2.76 a bushel. I got to take out debt owed and pay on the debt to the government agency. I sell the crop, but according to today's prices, I'm not going to make any money, not enough money to pay them. I am not going to come out ahead because of depressed prices, got to pay for seed, fertilizer, machinery costs, fuel, labor whatever. No, to make any money you going to have to make a lot of wheat. You can make it, but most farmers only have about 100 acres, but you got to have 800-1000 acres of wheat to come out and make some money. Automatically, the Home Loan will get their money. A lot of farmers go to friends or relatives because Home Loan won't lend them no money. But when I sell that crop the money goes to them. Because they got a lien on all the crops I grow. So the farmer is farming but not making anything on that farm.

"I have known a couple of fellows have gone to jail for selling a crop. They owed money to the government from past debts. When they sold the crop, the agency didn't get all the money. So they went to jail because the government is supposed to have gotten it all. Now a method of foreclosure is that if you can't pay the loan they come out and sell the farm and give it to auction. He might not give you even three months to pay up. He might come and put a sale sign on your farm. This is done by the USDA. Let's say you owe $100,000 and he sold your farm for $50,000, you still owe the $50,000. Well, you have no farm, ain't got a way to make the money off the farm. All your equipment is gone but you still owe $50,000. And you go get a job somewhere and he can garnish your check. Yes, I seen it happen."

Looking for Another Way

At one point I brought out how I went to socialist China in 1971--before the coup in 1976 which restored capitalism. I spent a month visiting Tachai, a huge commune farm where hundreds of poor peasants worked on land that was collectively owned. People, not profit, was in command. And the farmers figured out ways to increase production, developing new, innovative ways of terracing and water-control. They were organized to produce food for the people as part of building a whole new society in which the masses of people were mobilized to get rid of all forms of inequality and discrimination.

L.C. talked about how he had spent a lot of time and effort strategizing about how to develop a Black farmer cooperative that would sell retail organic produce. He explained how it could be an alternative to going through supermarkets that put up obstacles to their goods being marketed there. "Now if you are a threat to the corporate farmers, like Cargill, they going to try to crush you from the standpoint that they can lay a lot of rules on you that you can't beat, put a lot of inspection in your way. They have a way of crushing you. I've seen that done too."

I said, "Here you both are. You've spent most of your life fighting the government to just survive as a farmer. You spend a lot of time and thinking dealing with discrimination and the workings of capitalism on the small farmer. What kind of situation is that? With your skills and knowledge of farming: how to raise livestock, how to develop good soil, good seed; with all that you should be developing all these aspects of farming, not figuring out how to pay ridiculous fines." They both smiled, nodding to each other that that was so true.

After lunch Jeff invited us out to his farm. I went with him in his truck, out of town, onto dirt and bumpy roads. We talked about his farm and why he likes farming. He is also raising goats and hogs, hundreds of them, and they are all ranging free. He said, "I treat these animals like pets, I love them and treat them that way." We drove through woods and open fields and then suddenly the smell of farm animals mixed with fresh air came upon me, reminding me of how I used to ride through rural Pennsylvania as a kid.

At one point, I asked Jeff about contract farming. He said that almost all chicken farming is done by a farmer contracting with agribusiness. The farmer gets the baby chicks from the big producer. Then the farmer has to build expensive chicken houses and has to buy all the feed from the contractor. At the end of a specific time, the contractor buys back the chickens for a price agreed to at the beginning. The farmer gets no benefit from the contractor selling the chickens for a higher price. For example, in the case of hogs, a farmer may contract to be paid $7 per head but the contractor may sell for $40 per head--so the farmer only gets the agreed-upon $7. Jeff said that the contractor has incredible control over the farmer.

As the afternoon progressed, the sun was still gleaming, but the air was a bit cooler. I thought about what a great experience it had been to come out and visit these Black farmers. We had such rich discussions and exchanges with L.C. and Jeff and learned so much about what a struggle it is to be a Black farmer under this capitalist system. We said goodby and rode off down the dirt road, dust flying up all around us. Looking over my shoulder back at Jeff and L.C. got me thinking about all the crushed dreams, hurt and anger caused by capitalism--and how this propels people to organize and fight against this unjust system.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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