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  • Writer's pictureAria Johnson

Taking Back the Power of Agriculture

field of wheat under a blue sky

When considering the history of American agriculture, it’s not a surprise but by design that the historical influence that the black community and especially black woman, have had on the creative ideas of agriculture have been left out. Historically and culturally the black woman has been recognized as the primary farmers, seed-sowers and caregivers of their families.

Farming ability and access as a family-owned and independent practice, has been a highly important factor in the social and economic development of the United States since its founding. Driven by racist policies, inequitable social practices (theft), and systematic racism, the black community has gone from accounting for approximately 15 million acres of farming land in the U.S. in 1919, to holding merely one million acres collectively in farming land today, in 2023.

According to the USDA, it is estimated that there are nearly 19 million residents living in a food desert. These residents reportedly live in low-income, low access areas, and have trouble getting to a grocery store. In Cleveland, Ohio, about 50% of Cleveland residents find themselves in this predicament, with approximately 60% of them being described as “non-white.”

Currently, urban/community gardening and local food production has become a global trend, with society increasing its awareness and consequently increasing the need and desire for healthier food options. Historically, such access has repeatedly been denied to black families and communities. Practices to combat food shortages in the black community, can be traced back to African women braiding seeds in their hair before being forced from their homelands, to keep hold of their native crops when coming to the new land. Today, many black farmers see nutritious food access as an important strategy to be liberated from social, political, and economic oppression.

portraits of black farmers
From left: Fannie Lou Hamer, Henry Blair, George Washington Carver, Leah Penniman, Dr. Jewel Bronaugh

Throughout history the women in our black communities have ended up farming, not out of desire but out of necessity. We cannot fully understand the possibilities of modern agriculture and how to address these food insecurities in our own neighborhoods, without the documentation and knowledge our people have had on American agriculture. There are several accounts of black leaders and black women who have contributed to the social, scientific, industrial, and political progress in agriculture, and the history of American agriculture cannot be told without the recognition of some of these contributions:

  1. Fannie Lou Hamer - A dedicated Civil Right activist and lifetime farmer, she founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969. The work of this group helped create opportunities for poor black sharecroppers, like the pig bank and other land, housing and voting opportunities.

  2. Henry Blair in 1834, his first invention was patented as a “Seed-Planter” designed specifically to make the process of planting corn faster and simpler.

  3. George Washington Carver is one of the most notable agricultural scientists and inventors of the modern American era. Realizing that soil in many southern states had been stripped of essential nutrients like nitrogen from repetitive cotton planting processes, he developed a new method for crop rotation.

  4. Leah Penniman co-founded Soul Fire Farm and is the author of the novel, Farming While Black.

  5. Dr. Jewel Bronaugh, the first black woman to serve as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, leading agency efforts to diversify its workforce and provide relief to farmers of color.

The list goes on and I encourage you to take the time and get to know these trailblazers throughout history and the dedication these leaders had and have in making nutritious food accessible to our people. An important and strategical part of true liberation.

Aria Johnson is an avid gardener and a diversity, equity and inclusion professional.


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