Cara Hackett

Black farmers are filling food voids

Cara Hackett
Black farmers are filling food voids

America has a long history of farming, but Black farmers hold a special place in this story.

90-year-old Curtis Bennett said his grandparents taught him how to farm, and he kept up the tradition.

“They gave you a little spot and that was your’s to plant whatever you want, and that’s your own little garden,” he said. “When I grew older and had children, they also had a spot that they considered their garden.”

But it hasn’t always been so simple. The future of Black farmers has remained in limbo for several decades as they struggled for land ownership and federal assistance. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights predicted that they would cease to exist by 2000, on the account of Black farmers losing their land three times the rate of other groups.

Even with smaller numbers, they’ve seemed to beat the odds and are back on the rise. There were nearly 45,000 Black farmers in 2012, which was a 12 percent increase from 2007, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture.

The decline in black farming could have serious implications. For some neighborhoods plagued with being in a food desert, local farmers tend to be the primary sources of fresh produce.

"You give away what you can because there was a time when I used to have lots of food that we couldn’t eat for ourselves,” Bennett said. “We would give to our neighbors and anyone that could use it.”

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But these issues run deeper than not having access to spinach and grapes. Some Black farmers say they have faced decades of discrimination from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“A lot of farmers that I hear of losing their land, they’re being bullied off of their land,” Mosadi Rondell Pooler, owner of Rooted and Sustained, said. “But also a lot of their children and grandchildren aren’t interested in farming, so those two things coupled together, it’s going to be a decline.”

This has lead to a 14 million acre loss for farmers since the end of the Civil War. Pooler believes this is why land ownership is more important than ever.

“If you don’t have land, you don’t really have anything for your family to own,” he said. “You don’t have anything for your family to own, then you’re not really going to have anything to build a nation.”

The resurgence of farmers and land ownership for agriculture is especially important in Wards 7 and 8, where more than half of the city’s food deserts are located, according to the D.C. Policy Center.

It wasn’t always this way. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 sparked a 4-day riot where thousands of businesses were set ablaze and rioted in the district. Grocery stores were destroyed and were never rebuilt. Now big box grocery stores, like Walmart, are hesitant to open in these areas due to high crime.