A change is underway. Farmers of color — historically rendered invisible, though permanently woven into the fabric of America’s agricultural heritage — are increasing. The first farmers in this country, that is Native Americans and African-Americans, are the backbone of the nation’s agriculture history. Some farmers of color have endured — cultivating the land with skill that comes from generations of ecological knowledge and animal husbandry practices.
Women of color farmers, in particular, are overlooked, nationally and globally. Yet these farmers struggle with the same challenges any other farmer faces, plus a legacy of institutional exclusion and gender bias. So what are some of the demographic statistics of farmers of color and women farmers in the United States? Who are they, where are they and what do they have to say?
The mothers of Mother Earth
Sandra Simone of Talladega County, Ala., is an award-winning organic farmer who used to be a jazz singer in the San Francisco Bay Area. “It took many years for my husband’s words — ‘We need to own our ancestors’ land’ — to click,” Simone said. “All I wanted was to get out of rural Alabama as a teenager. I never thought I’d return, let alone own land and farm it, organically and sustainably.”
There have always been two faces of farmers in the United States — those of color and those who are white; that is, the ones in the fields and the ones on packages, in the magazines and on commercials. But if farm advocate Cynthia Hayes and farmers Janie Dickson, Beverly Hall and Simone have their way, those faces are about to change.
FARMERS OF COLOR
A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible
Part 2: Female farmers of color
Part 3: In moving pictures, farmers of color talk about their work, challenges and dreams in three short videos
Going organic, in color
Farmers who decide to create organic and sustainable farms might find that the load gets heavier or lighter, depending on their story. Trust is the core issue for Cynthia Hayes, the founder of the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network, or SAAFON in Savannah, Ga.
“Our farmers who wanted to go organic felt isolated and had no hope that local USDA government agencies would help them figure out the loan processes,” Hayes said. She has been privy to too many stories of farmers’ lack of equal access to USDA services. “We had to fill the gap, help our farmers manage the officials, the forms and the bureaucracy.”
Over time, Hayes saw that the majority of SAAFON’s clients were women — African-American and Native Americans farmers who wanted not only to reconnect to the land but also reclaim the rich agricultural and culinary traditions that indigenous and enslaved people offered.
Female farm operators statistics
Females make up 14 percent of all principal operators and 30 percent of all operators, according to the USDA. But what are the percentages of women of color farmers by race, and where do they farm in the country? Within each racial category (which includes both men and women), the gender breakdown reveals a relatively higher percentage of female operators compared with their white female counterparts. For example, 30 percent of Native Americans are female operators. They are followed by 21 percent of multiracial female operators, 20 percent Asian, 19 percent Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders, 14 percent African-American and white and 12 percent Latinas. Despite obstacles and challenges, many farmers of color, including women, farm and survive despite historical exclusion. Below are a few of their stories.
Sandra Simone: Of voice and vetch
Simone, a jazz singer, returned to the soil of her roots. Her life moved forward once she bought back a fraction of her ancestor’s land in rural Alabama. Watch and listen to Simone tell her story.
Janie Dickson: She’s got the share and the crop
“My parents sharecropped. But often we’d miss a week of school just ’cause the owners did not feel like settling up the bill. That’s the kind of power they had over us,” said Janie Dickson of Dickson’s Organics in Effingham, S.C. Dickson runs her organic farm with her husband, Rocky. Like Simone, Dickson vowed she would never farm. Dickson’s mother reminded her of her sharecropping days, “We got the share and they got the crop,” Dickson said, laughing. Despite her vow, Dickson always had a backyard garden where she’d grow collards, beans, turnips, okra and much more.
Before retirement, she yearned to have folks taste the difference between a jet-lagged, store-bought vegetable and a just-picked one. “This time around I farmed, on my own terms, on my own land, growing what I wanted, harvesting when I wanted, and plowing it under when I felt like it,” she said.
The Dicksons used to farm conventionally. “It got to the point where I’d jokingly tell my friends I was going out to poison the collards.” In 2006, she was rummaging through her attic when she stumbled on an organic farming magazine from 1986. “I got the message,” she said. Today, their six-acre property has a road dividing the land into two parcels. Her husband had no desire to let go of what he called his “miraculous fertilizers and pesticides,” but they decided Janie would go organic. Her plot blossomed. They ditched the chemicals. Then Dickson met Hayes, of SAAFON, got certified as an organic farmer and leased 10 acres of organic land while their property transitioned to organic.
Like other female farmers across the country, Dickson faces daily challenges: negotiating gender bias, finding good and reliable farm help, getting produce to the markets, reworking the business plan and affording farm equipment. However, she faces an extra challenge — the need to persist with local USDA officials to get equal access to information on all aspects of organic farming for small business farmers. “Sometimes persisting just feels like a full-time job,” Dickson said.
Beverly Hall: High heels sinking into the dirt
Beverly Hall, a Native American farmer in Shannon, N.C., started the nonprofit group American Indian Mothers to take care of the elders. “It’s not right when your people are choosing to buy medicine over food. I grew up farming and canning, and I had strayed from the circle and my values,” Hall said. “I returned to self-reliance and to the land in 1995. And I marched myself right into the fields, with my high heels sinking into the dirt, to get advice about how to start farming.”
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“My mother could not talk about our native traditions, it was forbidden; but we still had to farm, so we held onto some of our farming ways of corn, beans and squashes,” Hall said proudly.
An ingrained self-sufficiency — a do-it-yourself, take-care-of-yourself-because-no-one- is-going-to-do-it-for-you attitude — are what permeate Simone, Dickson, Hall and Hayes’ thoughts and actions. “My ancestors’ blood and sweat courses through this Southern landscape,” Simone said. Resolute, she looked out the window from her self-designed and self-built log cabin and declared, “That’s why I returned, for good.”
Hayes and SAAFON are not going away anytime soon, nor are the spirited Simone, Dickson and Hall. Each woman educates children in their communities by creating farm programs, inviting experts to lecture or organizing local farm co-ops that bring together like-minded farmers to share ideas about what niche crops to grow, how to get rid of a particular pest or just help one another.
Dickson wishes that when she was growing up she had asked her sharecropping mother more about the secret garden she tended deep in the middle of the woods, far from the sharecropper’s eyes. “We’d visit it, quietly, and tend to it,” Dickson said. Now, though, Dickson’s garden is out in the open for all to see and learn from, on her own terms.
Main photo: Sandra Simone. Credit: Sarah Khan