Planting Seeds for More Equitable Farming

Planting Seeds for More Equitable Farming

Photograph by Tom Brannigan / Trunk Archive


Decades of violence and discrimination resulted in the loss of nearly all Black-owned farmland. Today, women of color are reclaiming their right to land stewardship.

As Abril Donea sips her tea in the morning, abundance surrounds her. Multiple streams run through her 87 acres, winding through pear, apple, and persimmon trees. She has spent the past year preparing the soil on her land in Sparta, Georgia, so it is ready to sustain her herb garden and business, building raised garden beds, two compostable toilets, and now, a school equipped with a kitchen. It’s everything she needs to welcome guests onto the farm and begin sharing the fruits of her labor. 


Farming in head wraps and dresses, Donea unapologetically expresses her femininity within a system that excludes women and people of color. A self-proclaimed “girly girl” who knows her way around an auger and a table saw, Donea is showing the world that farmers do not have to fit into certain categories and that everyone has a right to steward the land. 


“There were so many things that happened to try to prevent me from getting this land, and I continued to overcome them and surprise people,” Donea said.


The seeds Donea is planting will provide fresh herbs and medicines for her business, Beauty Herbs & Tea, and the farm will serve as the space for Donea to share what she’s learned in her farming and herbalism journey through her other enterprise, the Tea Business School. Donea, who is Nigerian American and Native American, is deeply rooted in her mission: decolonizing farming and herbalism and making both practices accessible to all. 


“There have been a lot of practices and traditions that have been adopted by Western society, which is not wrong,” Donea said. “But the part that is wrong is that we leave out where we got it from, and we leave out how those things were used before we started using [them].”


Most U.S. farms exist on land misappropriated in colonialism that once profited from the forced labor of enslaved Black Americans. Today, women farmers earn 40% less income than men farmers, and Black farmers take home less than 1% of total U.S. agriculture sales. Altogether, Black Americans own less than 1% of the country’s rural farmland.


It hasn’t always been this way. In 1910, Black Americans owned about 20 million acres—the most they have owned in U.S. history. Between 1920 and 1997, more than 14 million acres of that land would be lost, altogether equating to about $326 billion of wealth. Today, farmers like Donea are reclaiming their right to access farmland, building back that wealth, and returning to the sustainable and regenerative agricultural methods their ancestors practiced before they were kidnapped and enslaved from their native Africa. 

“For me, it’s reclaiming that story and being able to show Black people, you can return to the land and farm in the way your ancestors did,” Donea says. “You are not your history, you are not slavery, you are not the land thefts.”


The loss of Black-owned farmland was a result of various racial terror and land-grabbing techniques, from racism embedded in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that prevented or delayed Black Americans from taking out loans or accessing governmental assistance programs to white supremacists harassing and, in some cases, killing people in rural Black communities, said Dãnia Davy, director of land retention and advocacy at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Incentives within the USDA also prioritized lending for larger corporate farms, neglecting smaller or specialized farms, which were more often owned by people of color.


When farmers filed civil rights complaints against the USDA, they were similarly mismanaged. In fact, the process was described in a 1997 Civil Rights Action Team (CRAT) report as a “bureaucratic nightmare” that “often [made] matters worse.”


“[When] the federal government established programs that were on their face designed to assist African Americans in acquiring affordable farmland, those institutions would play out in discrimination,” Davy said. “For example, African Americans would only get access to the most flood-prone or low-lying lands, or the least likely to be agriculturally productive.”

“There were so many things that happened to try to prevent me from getting this land, and I continued to overcome them and surprise people.”

Abril Donea

In 1999, decades of discrimination in agriculture culminated in a class action lawsuit against the USDA, Pigford vs. Glickman, which was settled for $1.2 billion. However, claimants said the handling of the case—which was later described as “bordering on legal malpractice”—was not advertised to many affected farmers, and about 60,000 cases were filed late. As a result, another bill known as Pigford II allocated $1.25 billion to late claimants in 2010. Still, many farmers said those payments never came either.


The USDA acknowledged its history of discrimination and has attempted to administer reparations through loans specifically allocated for socially disadvantaged groups. An external Equity Commission has been tasked with rooting out discrimination within the agency. And in January 2023, senators introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which would provide debt relief and establish a land grant program to train the next generation of Black farmers.


“[T]he history of discrimination against Black Farmers by [the] USDA [sic] has prevented numerous African Americans, among other people of color, from fully realizing the same level of prosperity and success as their white counterparts,” U.S. secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a statement before the House Committee on Agriculture in March 2021.


But disparities persist, and mistrust is common among Black farmers: The USDA has failed to deliver on promises for reparations time and again. In 2021, 42% of Black farmers were denied loans by the USDA compared to 9% of white farmers. The same year, farmers of color were promised $5 billion in loan forgiveness through Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan, but the legislation was met with resistance from banks and effectively blocked by lawsuits filed by white farmers, who said the legislation discriminated against them.


As of May 2023, the USDA had distributed $1.1 billion to distressed farmers through the Inflation Reduction Act, but the agency has not aggregated data on what portion of these funds was delivered to farmers of color, according to a USDA spokesperson. Many are concerned this “race-neutral” distinction will once again leave out farmers of color. After all, in 2020, 97% of the $9.2 billion dedicated to farmers in the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program went to white farmers.


“There is a full-on attack on civil rights that’s being built upon white folks feeling there is a zero-sum game, and if we try to address racial equity, somehow it’s going to disadvantage whites,” Davy says. “That basically proves the point that they know they’re unequally benefitting from the racist institutions and legal systems we have in this country around land.”


People of color have been disproportionately redlined to industrialized neighborhoods where they are exposed to toxic chemicals at higher rates and become the first to experience the effects of the climate crisis like sea level rise. Meanwhile, predominantly white neighborhoods have more access to healthy, fresh foods compared to Black and brown neighborhoods. Cumulatively, this has led to racial health disparities: Before buying her farm, Donea, who has an auto-immune condition that requires a strict diet, struggled to find fresh vegetables in her neighborhood. She lost her job in the pandemic and was experiencing four-month delays in getting the herbs she needed to heal herself and run her herbalism business. 


Karen Washington, co-founder of the Black Farmer Fund and Black Urban Growers and co-owner of Rise & Root Farm in Chester, New York, coined the term “food apartheid,” to describe how access to food was just one aspect of many systems working together to oppress people of color and people without capital wealth. Ultimately, access to land is intimately tied to access to food.


“When I was first growing food, I was concentrated on just growing food, until I started looking at the intersection food played when it came to social issues around health, housing, the environment, and economics,” Washington said. “I really started to see the interconnection they all play in the social fabric of people’s quality of life.”

“The history of discrimination against Black Farmers by the USDA has prevented numerous African Americans, among other people of color, from fully realizing the same level of prosperity and success as their white counterparts.”

Tom Vilsack
U.S. secretary of agriculture

Dozens of organizations, including the BFF, the FSC, and the Black Family Land Trust have been formed to build community, protect Black-owned farmland, and provide resources to farmers of color. The FSC, which was formed during the Civil Rights Movement, and others are advocating for the 2023 Farm Bill to increase loan limits and the portion of conservation-based loans allocated to Black communities. Even so, Dr. Melissa Bird, an Indigenous author and public speaker who is in the process of launching a regenerative aquaculture farm called the Mermaid’s Garden with her husband, who is a veteran, says she feels the system is not designed for people like them. She was hopeful she qualified for the Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Loan, but only 28% of applicants received funding this year. 


“Without land, you can’t get funding, and without funding, you can’t get land,” Bird said. “People who don’t have access to generational wealth don’t have access to the money it takes—for the 30% down [payment] it takes—to buy a $1.5 million property.”


Donea also struggled to get a loan to buy her farm, even though she had a successful three-figure business. After being denied at seven different banks in person, she was approved on the first try when calling a different bank on the phone instead. Racism and sexism are things she has faced every step of the way: She has been overquoted by contractors and is not taken seriously in hardware stores when buying supplies for the farm. BFF co-founder and president Olivia Watkins said many of the farmers she works with also have safety concerns because of hostile neighbors.


“Even once people get access to land, if they are in an environment or community where they are isolated and there aren’t other community members that support them, it can be a very challenging experience for those farmers to want to continue moving forward and stewarding land,” Watkins said.


LeTicia Marshall, an urban farmer who founded BearFruit & Grow in Louisville, Kentucky, said the racism she has experienced nearly made her consider pursuing another career. But then she met with a genealogist and discovered her family had been farming in the South since shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation, when one family member bought 100 acres. “This is who I am,” Marshall said. “[Now I have] the conviction and confidence to know my people were not only the ones that built this country, but the ones that taught the colonizers everything they knew. I feel like I’m taking my rightful place.”


African and Indigenous farmers developed many agricultural practices widely used today, including permaculture and organic farming. For Donea, stewarding her land is about having a way to sustain herself and her family, as well as Indigenous practices like these.


The idea of land ownership is complicated in itself. After all, we as human beings are a part of nature, and land is a shared resource that could be seen as belonging to everyone or no one. Still, owning land within the U.S. capitalist system is considered an asset, a privilege that has been reserved for mostly white people. Yet the wealth that nature and stewarding land provide go far beyond capital gains. Farming—putting energy into the land and consuming the sustenance that those efforts return—is a natural way to enter into the life cycle of the Earth. And that has the power to be deeply healing.


Soon, the seeds Donea has planted will begin sprouting herbs, and she will welcome other farmers and herbalists of color onto her farm, doing her part to ensure that this connection is something that is available to all.


“There’s a lot of fear behind it,” Donea said. “But you don’t have to let that stop you from being able to live in the way of your ancestors, grow food, and be sustainable. That, honestly, is what this journey has been about.” 

Keep Reading


60 Seconds on Earth,Anthropocene,Art & Culture,Climate Migration,Black Liberation,Changemakers,Democracy,Environmental Justice,Photography,Earth Sounds,Deep Ecology,Indigeneity,Queer Ecology,Ethical Fashion,Ocean Life,Climate Solutions,The Frontline,The Overview,Biodiversity,Common Origins,Fabricating Change,Future of Food,Identity & Community,Movement Building,Science & Nature,Well Being,