Michael Stovall’s history with farming has been full of turmoil and trouble. A fourth-generation Alabama farmer with decades of experience raising cattle, he should have been poised for success as he got ready to start his own farm, with about 60 cows, in Tennessee in the early 90s. Instead, according to Stovall, he faced not just systemic discrimination as he worked with the USDA to try to obtain startup loans for his business, but even vandalism of his property over the years as he fought back against the loan denial decisions that he attributed to the color of his skin.
Like approximately 44,000 farmers in the U.S. today, Stovall is black. While farming in this country has historically been the domain of people of color—in 1920, for example, blacks made up 14 percent of all the farmers in the nation and worked 16 million acres of land—that tradition has eroded over recent decades as black farmers have struggled to hold onto their farms, often passed down through multiple generations. Today, black farmers make up less than two percent of the farming population in the country. This is the result, farmers and their advocates say, of active discrimination at every level—but particularly from the USDA, the governmental agency that is key to funding farmers and keeping them in business. The agency has been accused of longstanding bias against black farmers that has challenged the model of black farming in the U.S. and rubbed out traditions that have persisted since Emancipation.
“It’s not right for black farmers, it’s really not,” says Stovall. His story begins in Alabama four generations ago, with his great-grandfather Charlie. The elder Stovall, Michael recounts, was the son of the slave master and, partially due to his light skin, was able to amass 1,000 acres of land after he was freed. At his death, he bequeathed the land to his many grandchildren, leaving each boy 100 acres and each girl 50 acres. Today, though, only about half that land remains in the Stovall family.
Growing up on his parents’ farm in Alabama, Michael Stovall gained plenty of experience, and found that his particular interest lay in raising cows. In 1993, he set out to start his own farm, but the process was fraught from the beginning. A 1994 application for a farm ownership loan of $200,000 filed with the USDA was denied on the basis that Stovall didn’t have enough farming experience—this after many years living and working on his parents’ cattle operation.
“I growed up on a farm my whole life and they say I don’t have farm experience? That don’t make sense,” Stovall recalls.
And that loan denial was just the start of Stovall’s troubles. Two subsequent loan applications, both filed with the USDA in 1995, were also denied. As Stovall spoke out against his perception of the discrimination against him, he alleges, local USDA officials struck out at him, “rustling and stealing” his cattle during the night and vandalizing chicken coops on his property. In 1998, after continued legal action, the USDA officially ruled that Stovall’s 1994 and 1995 loan denials were the result of discrimination.
“The agency decided to take a step backwards and not provide the complainant with the necessary technical assistance,” the decision letter reads in part. “This step backwards can be perceived as nothing more than an indication of the agency’s willingness to allow this farmer to fail.”
In 2011, after more than a decade of litigation, Stovall was awarded a settlement of $250,000 by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. But by that time, his shot at farming was over: over the years, he had been forced to sell all his animals, and his farm has never been active.
Discrimination by the USDA is something that another fourth-generation black farmer, John Wesley Boyd, Jr., can attest to personally. Today the founder and president of the National Black Farmer Association (NBFA), a nonprofit advocacy organization, in the late 1970s Boyd was a city kid living in the New York metro area. When his parents announced that the family would be moving to Mecklenburg County, Virginia to help out on his grandparents’ farm, he was understandably taken aback. But the experience instilled a love of farming in Boyd that he took to the next level when he started his own operation in 1983 after purchasing land from a neighbor, Russell Sally. Inducting Boyd into a life of independent farming, Sally also introduced him to another aspect of the reality of black farming: the callous attitude towards blacks on the part of local USDA officials.
“‘Good luck with them trying to obtain credit,’” Boyd recalls Sally warned him about the local branch of the Farmers Home Administration (FHA), the former USDA agency that provided loans to low-income farmers at the time. “I found out that he was right,” Boyd says. “These people were not interested in making loans to African- American farmers.” Lending officers actively worked against black farmers at the time, Boyd says, hoping to foreclose their farms and sell the land to white farmers. Boyd’s loan officer, he says, “made his living trying to put us out of business so that he could sell the farms for pennies on the dollar to white farmers.”
Initially, Boyd thought that only he and his neighbor were the target of the officials’ discrimination. “I thought it was just me and Mr. Sally,” he recalls. But after speaking with other black farmers in the area, he realized that the bias was systemic: loan applications filed by white farmers were processed within 30 days by the FHA, while those filed by black farmers routinely took upwards of 300 days—and during that time period, many blacks ran out of money and lost their land.
With his newfound knowledge, Boyd began organizing local farmers and filing lawsuits at courthouses across the south, eventually founding the NBFA as a way to formalize the legal efforts. When those suits were dismissed, he began to think bigger, eventually becoming involved in Pigford v. Glickman, a historic class-action lawsuit brought against the USDA in 1999 alleging racial discrimination against black farmers in its allocation of farm loans and assistance between 1981 and 1996. Anticipated to affect around 2,000 black farmers, the 1999 ruling in favor of the claimants actually called for payouts to more than 13,000 individuals, with another 70,000 late filers receiving an additional $1.25 billion dollar settlement 10 years later, in 2009.
“All of this is over the course of a 30 year period, so it’s been a very, very long fight,” Boyd says. “The unfair treatment of black farmers went under the radar for many, many years. It was not taken up by the civil rights movement, and it should have been front and center.”
While the gains made with Pigford v. Glickman were monumental, Boyd notes that black farmers today still struggle—particularly when it comes to holding on to their familial land under mounting financial constraint and the relentless push of huge corporate farms to buy up land to plant more soybeans and corn.
“Right now is the greatest challenge we’ve seen is the mentality of the new administration and their treatment of black farmers,” he says. “They’ve taken the relationship between African- American farmers and the government a few steps back; the dialogue isn’t there. Black farmers’ ability to obtain credit and participate in USDA programs is not where it needs to be. I would say we’re going backwards in time with the relationship.”
Helping black farmers hold onto their land is part of the mission at Family Agriculture Resource Management Services (FARMS). The pro-bono legal assistance organization is headed by Jillian Hishaw, an agricultural lawyer who has provided services to Stovall, the Alabama cattle farmer. She notes that one of the main challenges to maintaining the tradition of black farming is the simple fact that many farmers are aging out of their productive years: today, the average farmer is 55 or older. When those farmers enter nursing homes, the homes can put a lien on the residents’ farms in order to collect payment.
“More older farmers are starting to lose their family farm that way,” Hishaw says. “At FARMS, we want to make sure that the farmers have some type of estate plan in order and that the land is transferred properly so that it stays in the family and is not lost.”
Indeed, as Boyd of the NBFA stresses, black-owned land is black wealth, and it must remain under black ownership through the generations in spite of systemic obstacles. As he’s started involving his son in more of the day-to-day duties around the farm where he primarily raises beef and wheat, he’s urging the next generation to continue working their historic lands.
“When you lose all your land, you’ve lost all your history,” Boyd says. “Just because it’s hard, don’t turn away from it. Farming is very hard work, but it’s very rewarding work. And we don’t give enough recognition to the people who do it.”