Earlier this year, a group of black farmers in Mississippi planted more than $100,000 worth of certified soybean seeds they purchased from Stine Seed Company. Not long after, they noticed they were getting a much lower yield than other farmers, with some of the soybeans 40 percent shorter.
When they contacted Stine about it, the farmers said a representative told them they were probably overspraying. They had the seeds tested at the Mississippi State Seed Testing Laboratory, which revealed zero percent germination ability. Some of the farmers allege they lost $1 million on more than 2,000 acres, rendering them unable to pay back credit they owe on seeds or keep up their farms.
Now, they’re suing the seed company, alleging it sold them “inferior” soybean seeds because of racial discrimination.
“Mother nature doesn’t discriminate,” Thomas Burrell, President of Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, said to a Tennessee news station. “It doesn’t rain on white farms but not black farms … why is it then that white farmers are buying Stine seed and their yield is 60, 70, 80, and 100 bushels of soybeans and black farmers who are using the exact same equipment with the exact same land, all of a sudden, your seeds are coming up 5, 6, and 7 bushels?”
The seed company denies the allegations and plans to try to get the case dismissed, so it’s unclear how the lawsuit will move forward. But systemic racism built the foundation of this region, this country, and its agricultural systems, and what is certain is that this is not an isolated problem.
For four decades after the Civil War, freed slaves and their descendants acquired millions of acres of land in the South. By 1920, there were 925,000 black-owned farms, making up 14 percent of U.S. farmers. But by 2012, black farmers made up only 1.4 percent of the country’s 3.2 million farmers. Census data also shows black-owned farms are smaller, less valuable, and have less internet access.
There are a multitude of historical reasons for this power imbalance. Sharecropping played a major role for years, as black tenants worked as laborers for white landowners who kept them indebted. Many were kicked off the land they lived on in the 1960s during the voting rights movement in Lowndes County, Alabama (here’s a 1965 press release from SNCC about it). Years later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s racist lending practices came to light. By 1982, black farmers received 1 percent of farm ownership loans. In 2010, more than 13,000 black farmers proved they were denied farm loans or subjected to longer waits for loan approval because of racial discrimination and were awarded a total of $1.5 billion. Many of them were in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Georgia, and the legal battle lasted more than a decade. The Nation reported last year that there was another, lesser-known reason for land loss: a legal loophole that allowed the forcible buy-outs of thousands of acres owned by black rural families by developers and realtors.
The gap in land ownership extends far beyond farm land, and it is inextricable from the fact that black Americans have always been at a systemic social and economic disadvantage. Some organizations for black farmers say farm ownership could help in the fight for equality by reducing hunger and increasing food sovereignty.
In May, when I was reporting this series for Southerly on tropical diseases in the rural South, I spent some time with an older black man who lives in a trailer in a remote corner of Alabama. Soft-spoken and kind, he took me on a tour of his large property one sweltering afternoon, pointing out various things he’s done to upgrade it, to make it comfortable for his kids and grandkids. Before I left, I told him and his wife how beautiful it was — the clay dirt stark and orange against the lush surrounding forest, the quiet countryside one of the most peaceful places I’ve been.
Their faces lit up, as if they haven’t heard those words in too long. They excitedly told me about its history, how this place was the most beautiful place on the planet, how much God had blessed them, why they would never live anywhere else. They swelled with pride about the land — their land — despite the expensive bills, the lack of proper infrastructure, the constant flooding. The man said there was one thing he wished he could change about the property so he would be able to address those problems: he wanted to own it.
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