Black Farmers: A Vanishing Breed

By Robert M. Press

Vol. 1, No. 6, 1979, pp. 5-7

Bolivar County, Mississippi-Mary Coleman hunches over, shucking corn on the wooden porch of the small crossroads grocery store she runs here. Weedcroppers from the cotton fields will stop in around noon to buy cold bottles of sodapop, crackers, and Vienna sausage.

Houston Coleman, her son, has come by to talk to this reporter about the problems he and other Black farmers are having. He is a big man, dressed in gray slacks, a long-sleeved shirt, and mud-spattered black street shoes. He wears a straw cowboy hat and talks in a booming voice.

"At one time we had too much rain; next it was dry," he says, recalling the past several years.

"That puts you in the hole. You keep borrowing and borrowing. Then you have a bad crop and next year you have to go back and borrow again."

In 1976 the Coleman family could not get a bank loan or a federal farm loan, even though they had been consistently paying off their old debts. They were told their "payback ability" was not good enough, says Mary Coleman. "But it was all because we were Black," she contends.

Just when things began to look desperate, the Atlanta-based Emergency Land Fund (ELF) loaned them $12,000 which the Colemans have since paid back.

The aim of ELF is to help Blacks keep their farmland a challenge that is becoming increasingly urgent.

During bad times, a lot of Black farmers in the area have quit or rented out, says Coleman, who now owns about 300 acres, which he farms in cotton and soybeans.

He swings into his pickup and we drive down a gravel road, then turn onto a dirt track bordering his cotton field.

Several adults and a few children - including his nephew - are hoeing weeds among the long lines of green cotton plants. Coleman lifts a big jug of ice water from the pickup and sets it down for the workers - all of them Black.

It is in the upper 90s. No clouds.

Houston Coleman picks up a hoe and starts chopping at some weeds among the cotton. "A lot of Black folks have sold their land," he says. "Now they're up North and they want to come home and they ain't got no home to come to."

Black farmers are a vanishing breed in the U.S.

A new federal analysis shows the number of Black farm operators declining by 90 percent since 1950, compared to a 54 percent drop among White farmers.

In the same period, the amount of Black-owned farmland has fallen by some 70 percent to less than one-half of 1 percent of total U.S. farmland. The amount of agricultural land owned by Whites has increased slightly since 1950, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) analysis based on 1974 Census Bureau figures.

The number of Black farm operators, according to the analysis, dropped from about 550,000 in 1950 to 53,000 in 1974. The number of tenant farmers also has been falling.

In 1950, Blacks owned some 12.5 million acres of farmland, almost all of it in the South, compared to 3.8 million in 1974. Whites, in the same period, increased their


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farm holdings from 825 million to 887 million.

The federal figures reveal an even greater loss of Black-owned farmland than ELF has been citing.

ELF steps in when other loan sources, such as banks or the federal government, refuse to take the risk of lending to Black farmers. It also offers legal aid to help Black families keep ownership of land.

In Mississippi, the state with the most Black farmers, Blacks got FmHA operating loans (for seeds, fertilizer, and equipment) of $2,746,000, while Whites got $21,029,000, in fiscal year 1975, according to USDA figures cited by ELF.

The total FmHA loans for the same period for purchase of land and for development were: Whites $9,852,000; Blacks $662,000.

Department of Commerce statistics for 1974 show that in Mississippi there were 32,061 White-owned farms and 6,387 Black-owned farms.

Edward Pennick, ELF director, says the Carter administration's "rhetoric" on helping Black farmers has been good, but tangible action is missing. He wants more Black lending agents in the FmHA, but the FmHA's Pickinpaugh says there are few positions available.

And the problem is not limited to loans.

Some Black farmers in South Carolina suspected prejudice when graders at a White-run packing shed kept giving them less than the top grade (and hence less money) for their tomatoes. When they formed their own packing cooperative, other certified graders gave their tomatoes top rating, says Edgar Jordan, of the Southern Cooperative Development Fund in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Poor farm management. Many Blacks fail to look at farming as a business, says Jordan. They have "poor record keeping, poor farm management," he says.

Many of the South's Black farmers have not learned new technology," he adds. This is also true of poor White farmers in the regions, he says.

One thing that would help, he suggests, is formation of more cooperatives for sharing equipment and marketing.

Sale of land by inheritors. Farmland in most Southern states is inherited under a legal arrangement that gives each heir an interest in the entire farm rather than a piece of land for himself. But any one heir can sell his interest or petition a court to order sale of the land so that proceeds may be divided up equally among heirs. It is one way to turn an asset into cash.

The problem arises when not all the heirs agree to the sale - or are even aware of it. This situation occurs most commonly among Blacks.

Often heirs have the false impression nothing can be done to their land unless all the heirs agree. But that is not the case, says ELF director Pennick.

Attorneys' fees in Alabama for handling such sales can be as much as 10 percent of the value of the sale.

Inheritances often are further complicated by lack of a detailed will, says Joe Adams, of the ELF branch in Mississippi.

A case now before the Alabama Supreme Court challenges the constitutionality of such proceedings. In that case, one of more than 75 heirs to the English family farm of some 300 acres, much of it in timber, asked the court to sell the land and divide the proceeds. The other heirs objected to the sale. (A White attorney bought the interest of the selling heir before the sale but asked that the sale proceed.)

Behind the Black exodus from the farm lie the voluntary decisions of many rural Black families to search for a better life in the city. But it is argued that many Black farmers would have stayed on their land if they had been able to improve their income.

Median income among White farmers (in constant 1975 dollars) increased from $9,730 in 1970 to $11,237 in 1975, but Black median farm income rose only from $4,278 to $4,857, according to USDA figures.

Blacks, much more than Whites, tend to have smaller farms and fewer outside sources of income. They are more vulnerable during periods of sharp increase in farm operating expenses and during periods of bad crops.

"The problem is the bad years," explains James Carmicle, a Black Mississippi delta farmer. "Just when you've met the high production costs," he continues, prices for crops drop "and you can't make it."

Carmicle owns 53 acres and rents another 70. One 40acre plot he works carries three deeds his own and those of his two sisters. "I work hard all year, then at the end of the year I can't meet obligations," he laments.

ELF and others point to these problems contributing to the Black departure from the farm:

1. Prejudice in making loans to Black farmers.

2. Poor management of Black farms.

3. Sale of Black farmland by one of the heirs without consent, or sometimes even knowledge, of the other heirs.

4. Sale of Black-owned farmland for unpaid taxes.

What is needed, they say, are fairer lending practices, including appointment of more Black lending supervisors in the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), more technical aid to Black farmers, and a change in state laws to make sales of farmland fairer to all involved.

Some help for small farmers is pending.

Congress is in the final stages of approving a bill to allow the FmHA to make loans to small farmers at 5 percent instead of the current interest rate of about 8 percent.

And the USDA is sponsoring several conferences over the next few months at which top department officials will meet small farmers and become better acquainted with


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their needs.

But on the main problems outlined by ELF, progress is slow:

Prejudice. Although its contention is difficult to prove, ELF asserts that Black farmers with small landholdings have a harder time getting loans than White farmers of similar circumstances.

"In some cases we've found this to be true," says Lynn Pickinpaugh, new director of the FmHA's production loan division. Complaints are investigated, but no large-scale discrimination against Blacks has been found, he asserts.

"Many times they say it is discrimination and it is other reasons," says Pickinpaugh.

Speaking of what he has seen in the Mississippi delta, cotton farmer Houston Coleman says: "Most of the White folks are in the office - and they know what's going on. Even if you qualify, a White man can run in there and grap a stipulation and twist it the way he wants to."

Sale has been blocked until the appeal is heard.

Attorney Michael Figures, of Mobile, Alabama, representing the other heirs, contends such sales should not be allowed until any heir who wants to retain the land has been given first chance to do so. The same person should be given the right to buy out the others, he adds.

Tax sales. If a Black family living in Chicago, for example, inherits farmland in the South, the Southern county tax office might have lost track of them. An heir still living on the land may falsely assume he does not have to pay the entire bill until he is notified of long overdue taxes and forced to sell.

Notice for tax sales in some states is made only in the local newspapers, so distant heirs may never hear of the sale.

Once sold, owners often "redeem" the land. This means they can repurchase the land during a redemption period under conditions that vary from state to state. In Mississippi, for instance, the conditions include paying back the taxes, the cost of the sale, and interest on the unpaid taxes.

The redemption process is not always easy and takes time and added expense. One improvement, says Figures, would be to assure that any inheritor living on the land be given immediate right to repurchase it by himself, to the exclusion of the other heirs.

ELF has been operating a tax watch to alert heirs of pending sales. In Mississippi, says Adams, fewer Blacks are losing their farmland today as a result of tax-sales.

Robert Press is a staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.

Reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor. c 1978: The Christian Science Publishing Society. All rights reserved.