Driving his Ford pickup truck, Bill Bridgeforth roams fields of silt, clay and silt in northern Alabama. On either side of Bridgeforth Road – named after his father, Darden – corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton grow in rotation.
Bill, who farms with his two sons, Kyle and Carlton; his brother Greg; and Greg’s son, Lamont, join other farmers who worry about weather, markets, weeds and pests.
Like his ancestors, however, Bill Bridgeforth faces an additional challenge. He is black.
Greg and Bill’s great-grandfather, George, was a freed slave after the Civil War. A white family, the Bridgeforths, gave him farmland in Tennessee on which he began to raise his family and took the name Bridgeforth. George’s son Isaac – Greg and Bill’s grandfather – took the train from Tennessee to Tuskegee University. During a whistle in Tanner, Alabama, Isaac fell in love with the rich farmland of the area. Discovering that there was land for sale, George acted quickly.
“He had a better chance of supporting family farming at the bottom of those rivers than in the rocky hills of Tennessee,” Bill says. “The white Bridgeforths helped him sell the land in Tennessee and buy 600 acres in Alabama.”
The Bridgeforths have been farming there ever since. Since the legacy of George Bridgeforth, each successive generation has deployed good judgment, the latest technology and a solid reputation as good farmers to expand the farm to nearly 10,000 owned and leased acres. This increase in size and scope has not been easy. The Bridgeforths say the injustices and prejudices they face as black farmers are many, including spending months paying incorrect invoices from input suppliers and waiting over a year for payment in the event of US Department of Agriculture Farmers Home Administration critical disaster.
Prejudices still exist
In the black farming community, the list of discriminatory behaviors is long: cornfields paid to be fertilized, but left hanging; excessive charges for input supplies; getting approval from local banks or USDA for agricultural loans too late in the growing season, if at all.
Are these just honest mistakes? Dewayne Goldmon doesn’t think so.
“When it first happens to you, the inclination is yes, it’s a mistake and it’s OK. Maybe it won’t happen again. But in the end, another ‘honest’ mistake happens. product,” says Goldmon, who in 2020 became executive director of the National Black Growers Council. “And when our farmers sit around the table and talk about these coincidences, it becomes really critical. You start to understand that the impact of these coincidences increases a lot when we are dealing with black farmers. This is all of a sudden, not a coincidence.
After the Civil War, freed slaves who wanted to farm were promised 40 acres of farmland, only for the U.S. government to return that land to its pre-war owners. Many of these farmers became sharecroppers, under conditions advantageous to the landowners. Later USDA programs designed to help all farmers largely hampered the ability of black farmers to increase their acreage. White farmers often prevented black farmers from buying land. If black farmers were successful in acquiring land, they were often unable to participate in USDA programs designed to help farmers improve their property. Each hurdle pushed more black farmers out of farming, Goldmon says.
Members of the National Black Growers Council (NBGC) are multi-generational and tend to be full-time farmers who focus on growing staples on larger farms. It’s a coalition of more than 250 black farmers from Virginia to Texas, says Goldmon, a retired agronomist and government affairs specialist with Monsanto and Bayer Crop Science and a farmer of 1,200 acres of row crops near Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
The number of black American farmers has fallen from 926,000 in 1920 to less than 46,000 in 2017. About 2% of the American population is engaged in production agriculture, and less than 1% of them are black, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Of these, it is estimated that only 8% are full-time, row-crop farmers.
“All of these farmers are in very isolated situations with respect to the presence of another black farmer in the community,” Goldmon explains.
In the case of PJ Haynie, no black farmer who farms more than 500 acres lives near his family farm in Reedville, Virginia.
“I thought for a very long time that I was here alone,” says Haynie, who belongs to NBGC, which serves as a peer network where black farmers can exchange information and advice.
Goldmon challenges NBGC members to keep moving forward.
“If you look in the rearview mirror, you can see the bad stuff,” Goldmon says. “We want to look through the windshield and see what we can accomplish.”
Among these achievements? Congressional Momentum for Justice for Black Farmers Act, a November 2020 bill introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that addresses discrimination passed within the USDA. One of the provisions of the bill is the Fair Access to Land Service, which would allow the USDA to acquire farmland and provide 160-acre land grants to black farmers. New farmers would have access to USDA operating loans and mortgages on farmer-friendly terms.
The bill will likely be reintroduced this year. This gives some hope for reversing the downward trend in the number of black farmers, says Bill Bridgeforth.
“Whatever it takes to get black farmers onto good land is what we have to do,” he says. “To help strengthen the few black farmers we still have and get us started more, make federally controlled land available to black farmers first.”
Today’s black farmers are only a few generations away from slavery and the oppression of being sharecroppers for years after the slaves were freed. Many do not have the same financial means which often come from several generations of farmers, many of whom received 160 acres from the government for free through the Homestead Act of 1862.
The Justice for Black Farmers Bill passing the Senate may be a big ask, but it’s a great way to start a conversation between black and white farmers, Haynie says.
“We have the same challenges as them: markets, weather and pests, in addition to pre-existing challenges that were brought before our generations,” he explains. “That’s why the game is really against us, and why we need their help to make it a level playing field, because we want our children to grow right alongside their children. But they need to understand why we have to work so hard and do what we do.
“We have more in common than not in common,” Goldmon adds. “We are farmers like white farmers. They love farming and we love farming.
Christi Bland agrees. The fourth-generation farmer in Tunica County, Mississippi, is convinced of the rightness of their decision to join their family farm after years of off-farm employment.
“I love doing something my ancestors fought for the right to do,” she says. “I want to continue the legacy for my cousins, for my children and for their children’s children.
“When you are in the field, you have this feeling that you have never had in any other job. You get joy and you can work with people who know where you’re from,” she adds. “Having a black farmer come in front of me confirmed to me that this is what I’m supposed to do.”
As Bill Bridgeforth’s sons and nephew take on more farming responsibilities and have children of their own, the Alabama farmer believes the best is yet to come for black farmers.
“We have the best government in the whole world. Eventually, we will correct discrimination and racism,” he says. “I have no doubt, the next generation, if they choose to cultivate and the Lord bless them, will have the opportunity.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of a multi-part series focusing on the experiences of black farmers in honor of Black History Month. Read it other parts of the story here.