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Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010 11:42 am

Why are there so few black farmers?

Discrimination case highlights state’s farm demographics


The number of black farmers in Illinois has gone from 893 in 1920 to 98 today.

Urging his fellow lawmakers to release funding for a discrimination lawsuit originally settled more than a decade ago, U.S. Sen. Roland Burris last month pointed to the increasingly homogenous culture that is Illinois farming.

The still unreleased funding would go to farmers, or former farmers, who had been affected by systematic racial bias in the distribution of farm loans by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which also neglected to respond to such discrimination complaints between 1983 and 1997. The incidents are blamed in part for a decline in the number of African-American farmers throughout the U.S. In 2007, fewer than 30,600 farmers in the nation were African-American, compared to the 233,000 black farmers counted in 1920.

Led by North Carolina farmer Tim Pigford, black farmers responded to USDA discrimination with a class action lawsuit, now known as Pigford v. Vilsack, after USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. The government admitted wrongdoing and settled the case in 1999, but many African-American farmers’ claims were dismissed because they were filed late. As of 2004, about 3,000 Illinoisans, some of whom likely migrated from other states after losing or quitting their farms due to discrimination, sought access to settlement funds. Only about 30 of those cases were granted a full review, according to the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy group that opposes farm subsidies and promotes reform in the area of toxic chemical use.

Nationally, 2,131 farmers were granted access to settlement funds, while about 63,800 were denied based on tardiness. Black farmers continued to argue that the government failed to provide adequate notice about the due date for farmers who were discriminated against, and the current administration responded earlier this year in approving a second settlement of $1.25 billion. Congress, however, has yet to release the funds.

During his speech on the Senate floor, Burris stated that the number of black farmers in Illinois “appears destined to eventually hit zero. Probably there will be none very shortly.” Only 98 out of Illinois’ nearly 77,000 farms are operated primarily by African-American farmers who collectively cultivate fewer than 10,000 acres, according to the 2007 census of agriculture – that’s not even close to 1 percent of Illinois’ more than 26.7 million acres of farmland. In 2002, the census counted only 59 African-American farmers in Illinois, a figure Burris placed in contrast with the 893 black farmers working in Illinois in 1920. (Between 2002 and 2007, agriculture census workers built lists of minority farm operators and promoted census participation that might have contributed to the increased count.)

Pointing to 19th century history, Illinois agriculture professionals say 20th century discrimination explains only part of the state’s unbalanced farm demographics. “A lot of farms in the state have been handed down for generations and a lot of farms would predate the civil war,” says Jeff Squibb, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

For the last 15 or 20 years, Terrie Ransom, a volunteer with the Springfield Illinois African-American History Foundation, has studied the migration of blacks to Illinois. He says a wave of African-Americans bought land, much of it in the Alton area, in the 1830s and 1840s, but on the whole whites had more buying power than most blacks at the time. Regardless, African-Americans – both slaves and free blacks – coming to Illinois at that time had backgrounds in agriculture, an area where they looked for employment, Ransom says.

Dennis Vercler, director of news and communications with the Illinois Farm Bureau, says that the agriculture industry still hosts a number of barriers keeping African-Americans, and anyone else, from entering the profession. He points to the intensive capital needs as well as the difficult nature of acquiring land. “Farming has been for quite some time a handed down profession. Fathers, sons, grandsons still do the farming. It’s still a family business. So if your family didn’t enter at the beginning, it’s still very hard because of the capital needs of the industry to make a living at it.”

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.


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