Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Black farmers, living shorelines, & a carbon tax

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. 

Stories worth your time

The Appalachian Mountains are home to about 10 percent of all species of salamanders. Mongabay dives into a new study that says the animals may be better able to acclimate to warmer, drier conditions related to climate change than previously believed.

Florida homeowners are investing in living shorelines, like marshes, instead of expensive sea walls to protect their yards from the creeping ocean. Climate Central examines one community in Destin: “‘We’re clawing back land here,’ Jennifer McPeak said, standing on sandy lawn near the end of a fence, where it used to hang over the water. ‘I’m loving rough water events now, because I think, ‘Hoo hoo hoo, free sand. So excited.'”

The world’s first sustainable highway could be along I-85 in rural Georgia. U.S. News & World Report tells the story of this solar-powered 18-mile stretch of road and visitor’s center in West Point.

Many North Birmingham residents live on a Superfund site, where the soil and air are laced with toxins from the coal and steel industries. spoke to some of them about the ongoing trial of an attorney and executive who allegedly bribed a former state representative to push back against expanding the Superfund site. “I am hurt and my community is hurt. We are the ones suffering every day,” one woman said. “That was the main thing before that situation happened. Even when the trial is over, we will still have the same issues.”

News flying under the radar

A Miami property owner is challenging the city’s decision to designate the area as historic, saying that the designation ignores the threat of sea level rise and how homeowners prepare for rising water.

A Florida Republican plans to introduce legislation that would pause federal regulations on climate change in exchange for a carbon tax. House Republicans, led by Majority Whip Steve Scalise from Louisiana, are already moving to kill it.

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit asking the state to stop all emissions of GenX and related chemical compounds released by Chemours plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina.