Thinking about African Americans in Agriculture


black farmer in corn field

By definition, being a minority means that in most circles and situations I’m among people who are different than me. I don’t mind. In fact someday I’d like to write about how being a multi-racial person has helped (and in some ways necessitated) me to appreciate and be comfortable with people from different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. That’s for another day. Today’s post is much simpler.

February is Black History Month, but the idea behind this post first came to me this past summer. At the time I was looking for stock images to use in promotional materials and I wanted them to be diverse, showing people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds. That was the first time it dawned on me that, in our culture, the title “Farmer” usually means “White guy.” Think about it – when I say “farmer” to you, my guess is that the first image that comes to your mind is a middle-aged white man with a straw hat… maybe sitting on a tractor. There were no farmer stock-images of female farmers. And there were no stock-images of minority farmers of any color.

That brief experience got me thinking about all of the farmers I’ve met in real life and it dawned on me for the first time that none of them are minorities. (It’s not that I’m slow – I promise – it’s just that racial surveying is not high on my priority list when meeting new people.) I could think of one farmer’s market employee who was Hispanic. But as I mentally surveyed the faces of all my new agriculture friends and acquaintances, there was only one face of African American descent in the bunch: Me.

I wondered about whether this trend was consistent throughout the nation. Is our stereotypical idea that a farmer is a white guy based on real probability? And if so, why? Why wouldn’t a career in agriculture be just as appealing to black people as it is to white people?

Some Statistics

african american farmer

So I started doing some research. What I discovered is that agriculture used to be a very significant occupation for the black community in America but as of today (2010 census) black farmers aren’t even statistically on the map. Here are some numbers to paint the picture.

In 1862 when the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) was established, 90% of all American were farmers. By 1920 (nearly sixty years after emancipation) just over 14% of all farmers were black. Fast forward to 1987 and you can reduce that statistic to about 1.5%. Today less than 1% of all US citizens (regardless of race) are farmers. Compared to the entire US population, African American farmers comprise a teeny, tiny .01% of all Americans.

The decline in American farmers overall is shocking – and the numbers for African American participation in that small subset are abysmal. I wanted to get a better feel on the percentage change of farming within the black community itself. Since I can’t find hard-and-fast statistics on a portion of this, let’s make a reasonable assumption. Given the educational, economic and prejudicial hardships newly-freed slaves faced as they attempted to create a living for themselves, let’s assume that half (50%) of the nearly 4 million black Americans emancipated turned to something they had significant experience in: Agriculture. This number obviously could be significantly higher or lower, but it isn’t unreasonable.

By that statistic, nearly 2 million black citizens (50% of African Americans) would be employed in agriculture. According to the 2010 census, today there are approximately 47,000 African Americans employed in agriculture – an unbelievable .1% of the black population, representing a 49.9% reduction in 150 years.

Voices of Agriculture Video

Those numbers certainly paint a picture, but they don’t really answer why. Based on the numbers I think it’s safe to say that agriculture was once an important occupation for all Americans – regardless of race – and is a dwindling group of people – regardless of race. Still, I wanted to know more specifically about the African American agriculture experience. This post doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the African American contribution to and historical impact on agriculture. I have a lot more to learn and investigate. I’m still researching, but I found this documentary that fills in some of the narrative outside of statistics, and I wanted to share it with you. (Interestingly, almost all of the useful information I found on present-day African American farming came from a source related to South Carolina in some way or another.)

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