Black farmers plant the seeds for change

Dr. Tammy Gray-Steele was featured as one of the agricultural specialists on the panel for the virtual event “Tilling the Soil: Black Farmers, Sustainability and Uplifting Community” that took place on Wednesday night.

On Feb. 3, the University of Connecticut Foundation program hosted the virtual “Tilling the Soil: Black Farmers, Sustainability and Uplifting Community” event in collaboration with the School of Social Work and the BH365 student organization in recognition of Black History Month. 

Since the rise of agrarian societies, farmers have been the backbone of human civilization. Nourishing communities with food and goods, farmers are also characterized by a tirelessness that is matched only by their benevolence. The United States, however, has a history of not providing farmers with fair recognition for their labor. This is explained by the high concentration of Black farmers, who have been forced to toil the soil of a land that still won’t duly nourish them as they have their country.  

“This loss of generational wealth among black farmers is estimated at 350 billion dollars.”

The program commenced with Dr. Joanne Corbin, a social work professor at the university as well as the associate dean for academic affairs for the School of Social Work, describing how this came to be: Black farmers once accounted for the majority of the farming community during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, but as the ideals of emancipation deteriorated with Jim Crow era violence and discriminatory land lending practices, so did the ideal of independent Black agriculture. Black farmers lost their farms, and consequently, their economic stability. The monumental losses faced by Black farmers have ramifications felt by the Black community to this day, such as food insecurity. Institutional racism not only corrupted the hospitality traditionally of those in the farming profession, but also Black farmers’ very livelihoods. 

“With the loss of land came the inability to use the land as collateral to obtain loans, send their children to college or transfer land and resources to children and relatives,” Dr. Corbin said. “This loss of generational wealth among Black farmers is estimated at 350 billion dollars.” 

George Roberts (pictured above) was featured as one of the agricultural specialist panelists during the Tilling the Soil event. The event hoped to demonstrate how to look to a hopeful future in our present by engaging in activism. Photo provided by author

Though the history may seem bleak, the “Tilling the Soil: Black Farmers, Sustainability and Uplifting Community” program demonstrated how we can look to a hopeful future in our present by inspiring attendees to engage in activism after listening to agricultural specialist panelists Dr. Tammy Gray-Steele, Lauren Little and George Roberts. 

“What we’re looking to do is really have participants recognize the work and contributions of Black farmers to the agricultural industry — not only historically, but also in the present — ways that they’re working to assist their communities in living healthier lives, while also understanding the systemic oppression that Black farmers still continue to face to this day, and having the same access to resources of state and federal programs administered by the USDA,” Milagros Marrero-Johnson, the director of Strategic Programming at the UConn School of Social Work, said.  

The act of farming materializes itself into a sort of philosophy that counteracts the difficulties of racism for the guest panelists and paves way for an aforementioned healthy future, noted by the panelists’ use of animistic, hortative language to describe the farming practice and its relation to the mind and body. 

“Everything you plant a seed in the ground, you gotta have faith that that seed is gonna come up.”

For example, though the panelists were in agreement that Black farming was among the most toilsome jobs in the country, third generation farmer Roberts implored the audience:  

“Always have faith,” Roberts stated. “Agriculture is nothing but faith … Everything you plant in a seed in the ground, you gotta have faith that that seed is gonna come up.” 

These sentiments were echoed by Dr. Steele, who is also the founder of the National Women In Agriculture Association. 

“Our environment … is really about our bodies,” Dr. Steele said. “We have to take care of our environment to have a healthy soil. I cannot stress more enough about healthy soil, healthy soil, healthy soil, because from the cattle, to the plants, to the fruit — all that is recycled, and it comes back to us.” 

This optimism catalyzes Black farmers into doing whatever they can to make up for the losses felt by their communities due to the dramatic decline in Black agriculture. A significant consequence of the decline of Black agriculture is the correlating loss of Black health and longevity to non-agricultural, highly processed foods — a problem of which the panelists remain determined to eradicate by supplanting these unhealthy modes of consumption and engaging their communities in agricultural education.  

Lauren Little, one of the panelists for the Tilling the Soil virtual event on February 3rd, participates in community outreach and gets her students intrigued and curious in agriculture. Photo provided by author

“[I] get the students intrigued and really curious, because they’re already smart. They already know that they want to gain knowledge, and that doesn’t go away for a while, and we can take the opportunity to cultivate it. I really let them know, ‘Hey guys, we’re gonna have snacks!’ Students like vegetables. If it’s something that they’ve grown, that tastes good, that isn’t slimy, then they’re really open to trying new things,” Lauren Little, a farmer and educator local to Connecticut, explained regarding her agricultural instruction to students. “I don’t tell [the students] what to do … I want them to take the reins, and as I guide them, they’re interested!” 

Black farmers are harnessing their agricultural power, no matter how diminished, to nourish their communities through health, wealth and education. Because of their Blackness, this humble benevolence is not only long-established farmers hospitality, but also the reclamation of what was taken from their ancestors throughout American history. Farming is inextricable from Blackness, and Blackness is inextricable from farming, for Black history is American history. 

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