In 1920, the number of Black-operated farms peaked at nearly a million, accounting for 15 million acres of farmland—the size of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New Jersey combined. They made up 14 percent of the country’s farmers.
The height of Black farming didn’t last. Faced with the economic and social barriers of the time and decades of racist and discriminatory policies, Black farmers spent the next century in decline. By 1982, their numbers were down to about 30,000—just 2 percent of the nation’s total. That same year, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights predicted that no Black farmers would remain by the year 2000.
But today, the number of Black farmers in the United States is suddenly growing again. In 2012, there were more than 44,000 of them, up about 15 percent from 10 years earlier. Nationally, they were still less than 2 percent of the country’s farmers, but their growth is noteworthy after such an extensive decline. Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Florida all show gains, while Texas takes the lead with a gain of more than 2,500 Black farmers.
Policy changes at the USDA seem to be driving the recovery. Those changes come after decades of criticism. In 1965, the Commission on Civil Rights studied the USDA’s contribution to the sustainability of Black-owned farms and found that the USDA and its agencies excluded African Americans from programs that had raised the economic and educational levels of thousands of rural farmers. Despite the commission’s recommendations, subsequent reports found that discrimination persisted.
Dr. John Boyd, Jr., founder of the National Black Farmers Association, which now partners with the USDA, remembers what it was like to work with the department in decades past. “The government really treated Black farmers worse than the dirt that we worked,” he says. Boyd, a fourth-generation farmer, owns 400 acres of farmland in Virginia, where he says his seed bill alone—to plant soybeans and corn—is $15,000 a year. An annual farm-operating loan was crucial to successfully plant and harvest his crops, but it was hard to come by.