Challenging Racism in the Food System
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives fights for Black lands, agriculture, and equal justice
The 2015 US Food Sovereignty Prize will be awarded on October 14 in Des Moines, Iowa. This year, one of the two winners is the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a network of cooperatives, almost all of them comprised of Black family farmers, across the deep South. The Federation upholds a vision of local production for local consumption, and of defense of their family land needed for that local production.The second winner, the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, has a similar mission and values.
Some of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives farmers continue working land that was deeded to their ancestors by the US government after they were freed from slavery. This is the case with Ben Burkett, president of Federation member organization Mississippi Association of Cooperatives. He farms the 164 acres that his great-grandfather was given by the government in 1889. Burkett still has the land title signed by President Grover Cleveland.
Composed of 35 agricultural co-ops, representing 12,000 farm families in 13 states from Texas to North Carolina - primarily African-American, but also some Latino, Native American, and white - the Federation employs organizing, political advocacy, and legal strategies to defend land. The Federation also helps develop economically self-sufficient communities, assisting member co-ops to purchase supplies and find marketing outlets. Moreover, the Federation offers financial and technical assistance.
The Federation’s work to keep land in the hands of the small farmers is one of the foundations of food sovereignty, a framework of policies, principles and practices through which food systems are controlled by, and serve the best interest of, people instead of corporations.
Taking on the “Last Plantation”
In 1920, one in every seven farmers in the US was African-American. Together, they owned nearly 15 million acres. By 1982, however, African-American farmers numbered one in 67, together owning only 3.1 million acres. 1 Racism, violence, and massive migration from the rural South to the industrialized North caused a steady decline in the number of Black farmers.
Even for those who have long held onto their family’s land, maintaining it today is a constant struggle. Historic patterns of racism, and economic pressures in an agribusiness-driven food system have pushed many Black farmers off their land.
Institutional racism in the agricultural policies of the United States Department of Agriculture - nicknamed “the last plantation” - is also to blame for the loss of Black land. Over the years, studies by the US Civil Rights Commission (CRC), as well as by the USDA itself, showed that the USDA actively discriminated against Black farmers. A 1964 CRC study showed that the agency unjustly denied African-American farmers loans, disaster aid, and representation on agricultural committees. 2
In response, in 1997-98, African-American farmers – organized through the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and other Black organizations - filed class-action lawsuits against the USDA for unjustly denying them loans. The lawsuits were consolidated into one case, Pigford v. Glickman, which was settled in 1999.
However, due to delays in filing claims, nearly 60,000 farmers and their heirs were left out of this settlement. In November 2010, the U.S. Congress passed the Claims Settlement Act, known as Pigford II, to compensate Black farmers who were left out of the first settlement. President Obama signed the Claims Settlement Act a month later, making $1.25 billion available for claimants in the form of cash payments and loan forgiveness. The final settlement allocated about $50,000 each to roughly 16,000 farmers nationwide.
"I never would have thought the government would actually pay anybody any money," Burkett said of the settlement. "At the beginning, I would say, 'You are never getting a dime.' But, I was wrong."
“Not As Good As We Want It to Be”
Over the years, each generation of the Burkett family bought more land, so that the original 164 acres has expanded to 296 acres. On them, under the name of B&B Farms, Burkett – with the help of his family - grows 15 different varieties of vegetables, as well as timber. Burkett says he believes the co-op structure is the only way to survive as a farmer in the rural South.
Speaking of Pigford and Pigford II, Burkett says he would have preferred that the money had been pooled and put into a trust to borrow against or to help new farmers. That would have provided future generations with some seed funding and current farmers a layer of security, he added.
In an interview, Burkett explains the rationale of the Federation taking a lead in the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit.
“The lawsuit was about discrimination in the county office of the USDA. I got a loan to buy my equipment, my seeds and fertilizers. I could not write any checks directly. I had to write a check and then somebody in the [USDA] office had to sign it. They were only treating black farmers like that, not white farmers. For example, if I wanted to buy $5,000 worth of soybean seed, I had to go find the seed from the Forest County co-op and get an invoice. I then had to go back up to the [USDA] office and get the check. They sign the check, I sign the check and then I have to take it back to the store. I’m just one they treated like that.
“A lot of farmers, they go in and get their loan approved. This happened to me too. My loan was approved in February or March, but I didn’t get the money until July 15th. That’s cutting time. Planting is over. It was several things like that, that brought the suit about. A lot of black farmers went into the USDA offices and were denied. They wouldn’t even give them the application for a loan. The USDA officers told them, ‘You can’t make any money farming, so. . .’ In the lawsuit, [denial of your loan] had to happen to you between ’81 and ’96. It was happening before then and it is happening now, after the lawsuit. That’s just the price of doing business, I suppose.
“They can pass a rule in Washington, D.C., [in the] USDA or Congress. Then it comes to the state of Mississippi. If the state says they don’t want to do it, they don’t have to do it. We have a [USDA] county committee made up of five farmers who do the hiring, the firing, and everything else. Those fellows up in Washington D.C. can talk, but they can’t fire anybody. They cannot fire a soul in the state of Mississippi.
“As long as it’s set up that way, it won’t change. I believe that in my heart. There are all kinds of laws about discrimination [that say] ‘regardless of race, religion, creed or color.’ Discrimination, morals, people’s ideologies… you can’t make policy or legislate that away.
“But, it is much better. I remember the ‘60’s, I remember segregation and it is better now. Not as good as we want it to be, but not as bad as it was.”
Because racism persists in the agricultural system, hurting the efforts of Burkett and other Black farmers, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives keeps fighting for equal justice through grassroots mobilizations, in the courts and through state and national legislation.
Burkett said, “Racism is still here in the marketplace and in credit, but we have learned to deal with it and not give up on changing the system. We struggle everyday to bring about a change.”
Public Broadcasting System, “Challenging the USDA (1980s and 1990s),” Black Farming and Land Loss: A History.
Public Broadcasting System, “The Civil Rights Years (1954-1968),” Black Farming and Land Loss: A History.