God Made a (Black) Farmer



One of the most well-executed and highly-discussed commercials of Super Bowl Sunday was another turn in nostalgia-as-promotion as Dodge used a haunting speech by Paul Harvey over a series of moving images of farmers to advertise their Ram trucks. I thought it was pretty cool stuff, and coming from a family and part of the country where this life is still part of the mainstream, I was happy to see farmers get some shine in such a big spotlight. It’s part of a larger usage of old-school Americana to sell American cars, a tack that worked before with sister brand Chrysler. Apparently, Dodge has partnered with Future Farmers of America, and given that American pickups still sell like hotcakes in rural areas, gas mileage be damned, the partnership and the spot will probably pay big dividends. Here’s the commercial.

The biggest outcry from a lot of the Black windbag journalist establishment came the morning after the Super Bowl, when many were concerned that only one Black farmer was shown. But given that the latest Agricultural Census tells us that only one percent of all people in the country who list “farming” as their primary occupation are Black, and a quick run of 2011 Current Population Survey data shows that less than three percent of all individuals who list agriculture as their primary industry of occupation are Black. Given that there were 19 or so total images, Black farmers are technically over-represented by the images.  So in this respect, the images that seemed a bit too nostalgic of a white-washed reality are actually correct. The more salient concern that many of these journalists missed was if Latinos were represented fairly in the image. Given that about 30 percent of legally reported farm workers are Latinos, we can probably safely assume that between migrant and seasonal workers and undocumented immigrants, nearly half of the American farming workforce is Latino. Clearly, they aren’t represented properly in the ad, and their existence (and their treatment and wage depression) is a thorn in the side of those who would believe in such a nostalgic image. This is something we should shed light on, and those who have the loudest voices on immigration should probably be cognizant of who actually raises a lot of the foods the eat before voicing further input.

But in addition to those concerns, the small sensation the ad has caused are unearthing a much larger and serious problem that has been experienced by my family; one that I’ve seen growing up; and one that I didn’t realize I cared about so much until yesterday. What happened to all the Black farmers? Blacks used to be the (unpaid) backbone of the agricultural industry of the United States, and even after Emancipation, most were still beholden to the sharecropping system. While a good portion of the decline of Black farmers is probably due to the Great Migration out of the South and away from the institutions of sharecropping and Jim Crow, there have to be other reasons to account for why only about 70,000 Black agricultural workers exist in the whole country, per the Census.

I guess it’s something I’ve been cognizant of since I was a kid. My family is from a rural (mostly Black) town in Eastern NC. Even when it wasn’t the main source of income, farming was at least always on the periphery of our lives. We had fields of corn and melons, raised chickens and hogs and ducks, and I grew up with a very intimate knowledge of things like the unpleasantness of accidentally squishing big fat worms between my fingers when shucking corn. But then, every year there were less corn fields, and less rural hallmarks and most importantly, less farmers. When my great-uncle passed away last year, he was the last person I knew who still pursued farming as a primary source of employment. When I was little, I thought everyone in that town was a farmer! And of course, as the hallmarks of small farming passed on, large farms took over. While there are still plenty of picturesque endless fields of corn and collard greens and tobacco throughout large swaths of the state, most of them are owned by big corporations and worked by poor folks making illegally-poor wages. There simply aren’t any more people that I know like my Uncle Lonnie.

A lot of this is probably just a microcosm of the slow, prolonged death of the small farmer in general. Although the “glocal” food movements are placing emphasis on local growers, it’s going to be really tough for small farmers to stick around beyond niche markets in the future. Low volumes are simply becoming unsustainable with food and supply prices going the way they are now and farming practices such as insecticides that allow higher yields and profitability becoming unpalatable. But why did it happen for Blacks first, when Blacks have a history so intricately intertwined with agriculture? The answer (of course) is racism. Cold racism. For those familiar with the Pigford Case, the Federal Government agreed in 1999 to settle with Black farmers for sums of around $50,000 apiece for unspecified (and officially, still unadmitted) acts of racism in the 60s and 70s, for a total of $1.2 billion. To this day, much of the settlement has yet to be distributed. Many of the original plaintiffs in the case are long dead, and many are well into their 80s and 90s. Justice? Hardly.

For those of you who harp on COINTELPRO and such, I’ll tell you a secret: the USDA, often times with the explicit backing of higher ups, administrated perhaps the largest Federal campaign of open discrimination and racism in the 20th century. With the advent of Big Agriculture, the USDA initiated a large campaign to offer loans and subsidies to small farmers, especially those who made technological advances to increase yields and productivity. Only, at local levels where the money was actually distributed, USDA officials often openly denied loan applications for explicitly racial reasons. Sometimes officials used less explicit rationale (length of time owning the land was questioned…..and since Blacks had only been land-owners for a small period of time, they were screwed), but the results were the same. They simply couldn’t afford to farm, and often sold the land to bigger farms for ridiculously cheap, while white farm operators were at least given credit lines and the chance to regroup. Since much of Black land ownership in the South was based in agriculture, what we saw was in essence a devastating blow to the largest Black asset pools, with implicit cooperation from the good folks at the USDA.  And without even having to apologize or even admit wrong-doing, they are offering a settlement to a small percentage of victims, people who will mostly die before they can even use it.

So why aren’t there any Black folks in that commercial? Because there aren’t really any Black farmers. There are about 40,000 Black operators of farms in the entire country today, fewer than the total amount of people who attended the official Inaugural Balls a few weeks ago, so it’s probably going to be hard to find a whole bunch to put in a commercial. And the story of how we get here is part of the larger story of inequality and loss that shaped us. That’s some real Black History. But I’ll send them a photo of my uncle so the next commercial can have two.



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