October 28, 2020
Black farm cooperatives hold a unique role within the food sovereignty movement and cooperative organization history. Last month, NSAC facilitated a virtual panel alongside the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFED) to celebrate the accomplishments, history, and challenges of Black farm cooperatives in the United States. The webinar featured experts in cooperative development and history, farmers, and almost 300 participants who engaged in a robust Q&A session during the latter portion of the event. Together, they shared tools, resources, and examples of how to build sustainable economies through cooperative farming.
Cooperatives, or “co-ops”, are broadly understood as organizations that are owned, controlled, and operated for the benefit of their members. What is less widely recognized, however, is the history of Black cooperative solidarity in the history of the United States as a means of achieving self-sufficiency, resistance, and liberation. Even while enslaved, Black people engaged in cooperative economics to feed families and build community solidarity. During the 19th and 20th century, Black farmers continued to implement collective agency and community resilience strategies, a theory coined by Monica M. White in her book “Freedom Farmers,” as a way to combat racist policies and practices that sought to dispossess them of their land and agency.
The robust economic, social, and organizational models of cooperatives that Black farmers crafted have influenced the present generation of Black farm cooperatives working to build alternative food systems. Still, contemporary Black farm cooperatives encounter both new obstacles–and old barriers that are still present in our food and agricultural system today. Sky-high land and insurance costs and fees, gentrification, disinvestment in communities impacted by redlining, and food apartheid are just a few examples of how inequitable policies reinforce an unjust farming landscape for Black producers. This webinar aimed to highlight these experiences, while giving credence to both the historical and contemporary legacy of the Black farm cooperatives in their pursuits toward economic and political autonomy.
You can view a full recording of the webinar here.
In just the past century, over 90% of Black farmland has been systematically and forcibly lost due to the implicit racism of the United State’s agricultural policies and overt racial violence against Black communities in the South. DeShawn Blanding, Policy Advocacy Coordinator at Rural Coalition, outlined how disparities among Black and White farmers were perpetuated through racist policy:
“Between 1910-1920, you had between 125,000 Black farmers, which made up about 14 percent of the farm population. And how do we go from there to where we are today, where we only have 45,000 farmers who make up 1.3 percent of farmers? The way we got there was racial discrimination throughout the USDA programs that allowed White farmers to continue to build wealth while taking away wealth from dispossessed Black farmers.”
A number of USDA policies and practices have contributed to this staggering drop in Black farmers over the past century, including the racial and economic exploitation of Black tenant farmers and sharecroppers under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, the unequal distribution of Farm Service Agency loans during the New Deal Era, among others. As DeShawn noted, however, racism in federal agricultural is not a relic of the past:
“Even in the 1990s, research found that it took around 60 days for White farmers to be able to have their loans processed, where it took 220 days for Black farmers to get their loans processed. Throughout that timeframe, you have foreclosures, Black farmers’ land being dispossessed because they cannot keep up with White farmers.”
Federal food and ag policy is inherently tied to Black land loss and dispossession in this country. Though some action has been taken to attempt to repair these iniquities, such as the restitutions made to Black farmers in the Pigford settlement, many of broader systemic impacts that these policies have had on Black farmers largely remain unaddressed at the federal level. In response, the movement of Black farm cooperatives have worked to leverage mutual aid and cooperative development as a means of achieving collective solidarity, economic independence, and autonomous communities.
Where Black farmers were denied access to racist agricultural systems, they created new ones as a means of liberation through cooperative organization and economics.
Black farmers have a vast history of pooling resources to support each other amidst an extractive economic system. Panelist speaker Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, professor and author of Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, noted the following in her research of Black cooperative solidarity:
“In every era of U.S. history, in every geographical area, whether urban or rural, I was able to find examples of economic mutual aid and economic cooperation among Black people. It doesn’t really matter where you look, it happened in every era where alternative businesses, alternative economics, and collective solidarity occurred in order to both survive and to thrive in a world that was unthrivable. We were brought here in chains, we didn’t even own our own bodies, we were farming for other people, and often we didn’t have enough food, but we managed to do kitchen gardens together as enslaved people. That kind of mutual aid kind of continued on.”
Dr. Gordon-Nembhard shared several examples of Black cooperatives that formed after the Reconstruction period, noting that the emergence of labor movements, Black populism, and unions heavily influenced cooperative organizations of the latter 19th and 20th centuries. The Colored Farmers National Alliance Cooperative Union, established in 1886, was one of the first cooperatives to emerge from this period, engaging in bulk buying of goods at reduced prices so that Black farmers could afford food, supplies, and equipment to continue their businesses. The Cooperative Union also created the necessary infrastructure for lending exchanges, the establishment of Black farmers markets, and political organization. A similar cooperative from the 1920s and 1930s was The National Federation of Colored Farmers, which sought to increase the viability of Black farms by helping Black sharecroppers establish secure land contracts.
Cooperatives also served as community safety nets for Black farmers dispossessed of their land for political engagement during the Civil Rights Era. Freedom Quilting Bee, a Black woman-owned farm cooperative established in the 1960s, leased Black sharecroppers land after being forcibly removed from their land for voting. Dr. Gordon-Nembhard reflected on the co-op’s impact with the following:
“That independence, owning their own land as a co-op, not having to be beholden to the White landowners who were then retaliating against the political activity, is really important. Increased ownership and control over land, economics, and income, being able to come through with sustainable agriculture, food security. If you own your own business, you can change the nature of work, you can develop assets, you can get wealth development, and you can also create stability and independence which allows you to do other social and political things that you can’t when you’re beholden to White employers.”
These historical examples highlighted by Dr. Gordon-Nembhard in the webinar elucidate the many ways that Black farm cooperatives have become strategies of resistance and of self-determination in confronting the racist forces in our agriculture system.
Black farm cooperatives today face new challenges, but have preserved their predecessors’ vision of food sovereignty. Panelist speaker Sharrona Moore, Founder of Lawrence Community Gardens and Chair of Indiana Black Farmers Cooperative, shared how the collective work of her organization not only addresses food insecurity in communities suffering from the violence of food apartheid, but also promotes community development and fosters the next generation of Black farmers:
“Together, with the cooperative, we found our own farmers markets for our neighborhoods that have low access to food. We also participate in local CSAs and buying programs, and collectively-we do a lot of things collectively- but more important than that, we are all about educating our neighbors and our friends and family on how to grow food and transforming lives through nutrient dense, high quality organic foods, making sure that our community eats well and that we’re able to distribute the food to the people that we grow.”
For panelist Tahz Walker, Co-Founder of Earthseed Collective and Program Manager for the RAFI Farmers of Color Network, creating a farm cooperative was seen as a means of developing a farm business independently run and collectively owned by BIPOC community members. Like many farmers, Tahz explained that the financial aspects of the farm have proven to be one of the most challenging components, especially in recognizing differences in financial capacity of individual co-op members:
“Initially, the barrier was startup money to get the thing off the ground and put money together to start looking at land that suited our needs. We came into it looking at how to pull our buying power together, so we didn’t have too much capital to start off with. Over the first year of our formation we formed a member savings account that we put into, but not a lot because we decided on a monetary amount that was doable for all of us, because all of us were kind of in a different type of class backgrounds, so it was important that it was affordable to all of the households and we continued to pay into that until we paid the first down payment on the property.”
Even after the purchase of the land and years of financial planning, working with alternative lenders and obtaining conservation easements, Tahz reflected that having better understanding of the financial burden that the land acquisition process places on the organization would have been helpful:
“In hindsight it would have been good to know what stress comes with the risk of shouldering more of that burden, because I think we may have done things differently as far as what we can take on so that it doesn’t affect our cooperative and our relationship with each other in terms of the collective.”
Financial obstacles are one of the biggest challenges presented to contemporary Black farmers. Like cooperatives of the past who pooled resources to ensure the survival of the Black farmer community, present- day farm cooperatives offer the same spirit of collective solidarity to uplift and support the Black farming community.
In the panel, Sharrona Moore gave a snapshot of the resources provided by the Indiana Black Farmers Cooperative to beginning farmers:
“We offer resources such as grant collaboration for our member farmers, tool sharing, bouncing off ideas, volunteers for each others’ farms because labor is important, and a start up consultation, so that if you’re coming on as a new member to the farm, we will offer you a start up consultation, come down to your property, walk it with you, talk about companion plants, what your goal is for your farm or garden, and then of course you need that support, that emotional connection which is one of the most important things. It’s a tough industry to be in.”
Currently, the only agricultural programs that target socially disadvantaged farmers are the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (2501 Program) and the Socially Disadvantaged Group Grant. The work of Black farm cooperatives has stepped in to fill the shortcomings of these USDA programs in essentially every aspect, from outreach and education to technical assistance, but it shouldn’t have to. Black farmers should have restored access to the land, tools, and resources needed to pursue successful farming ventures without the same barriers of the past.
Mutual aid is a key component to Black food cooperatives and food sovereignty. It is imperative that federal agricultural policy recognize this history and acknowledge the insightful strategies and technologies that Black farm cooperatives are implementing to uplift their communities. As we strategize ways of shifting power to create more equitable food systems, reparations are a critical piece of the conversation that should be built into new and existing agricultural legislation. Leaders that are at the forefront of this fight include organizations like Rural Coalition, who have been fighting to advance equity in the Farm Bill and are currently tackling legislation that provides relief to immigrant families and farmworkers, and small farmers impacted by the pandemic. The Land Loss Prevention Project is another organization that has been at the front lines of environmental justice, heirs property rights, and predatory lending protections for farmers of color.
It is on the USDA and policymakers to back these initiatives and restore the wealth and land lost by Black farmers. Policies that restore land to BIPOC farmers, increase set-asides to current programs, and support the technical assistance capacity building of cooperatives will ultimately benefit the larger movement to address issues that impact us all.
Q & A (from webinar transcript)
Q: Can you please advise farmers who own their land how to get it registered as farmland, both rural and urban? How does one start a CSA? Do they need a license to sell food produced on the land?
Sharrona: “CSA is really easy to put together. One of the partners on my farm formed a CSA. Grocery stores in the neighborhood and neighbors couldn’t get groceries. So everybody came together and decided that this is what we want: we want to buy local food, so first of all you’re going to have to find distributors for your local foods, and then you’re going to have to find your customer basis. I suggest starting off by looking into senior homes, because a lot of them can’t get out, and they know exactly what to do with the produce that you grow. So start off with going to them and showing them what you have to offer, and you’ve got to have wheels, honey. In order for the engine to move, it needs wheels. You’ll have to have like-minded people to come together to make sure that the food gets out to the communities that we live in. We have to put our boots to the ground and we have to go into the senior communities and apartment complexes and actually talk to these people about bringing their produce there. And I can guarantee you that most of them are going to be welcoming you.”
Q: For a person to start in urban agriculture, what would you recommend I focus on first?
Tahz: “Before EarthSeed got onto a land parcel, we were renting land in downtown Durham, NC. I think there’s a highrise there, now. And we knew that was coming, and that started the push. I think that we realized that the amount of investment that we had in the urban parcel was not equal to the equity that we had in the parcel, so that was a red flag. The lease also said that we could be removed from the land within 30 days, so I think that having a good lease that is looked at by a lawyer is helpful in terms of looking at spaces. I would say that making sure that your investment and equity are at least equal to the property that you’re on.”
Q: What is the legal form in which the cooperative holds its farmland, is it an LLC where each coop member has shares? Do you have plans or guidelines if a member wants to exit?
Tahz: “We are an LLC in terms of how we operate as a cooperative and with our cooperative principles and in our bylaws, and we work with Land Loss Prevention Project, they helped us make sure that we weren’t just copying and pasting cooperative by-laws and making sure they make sense within our structure. And yes, Jim, we have a structure and a process for members being able to come in and to exit and the division of shares and ownership.”
Q: Do you all advocate for shared crop planning in collectives that include multiple farms?
Sharrona: “Yes, absolutely. We strategically grow the same crops and each individually grow a cash crop. When we go to market–we know everybody’s going to have tomatoes, right? So you want to have enough tomatoes for your friends and your family and maybe for your own farm stand, and when we come to market we can’t all bring tomatoes, because then we’ll all just have tomatoes at the market, right? But if I’m growing carrots, you’re growing tomatoes, you’re the best tomato producer in the co-op, we’ve got someone growing the cash crops lettuce and cucumbers, when we come to the market, baby, it’s a beautiful spread. It’s so gorgeous. But now, with that thinking, everybody is eating at the end of the day. At our market, customers don’t have to pick and choose whose tomatoes they’re going to buy. They’re going to buy what they want to buy based off of the selection that we have. And based off of what everyone has, everyone’s going to eat at the end of the day. So yes. Systematically grow the same, and different.”
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