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Farmers of Color Find New Allies

By Randy Mueller
A new digital map facilitates person-to-person reparations throughout the country.

Over 150 years after emancipated slaves were denied their promise of 40 acres and a mule, Dallas Robinson received her own reparations. A self-described separatist, Robinson was looking for help to cover some initial costs of her new farm, then be left alone to till the land. In January 2018—over a year before she will begin to farm part of her family’s 10 acres in Whittaker, North Carolina—Robinson received a check for $7,000 from another farmer she had never met.

The check came via a connection on the Reparations for Black-Indigenous Farmers map, a new online resource built to facilitate “person-to-person” reparations. After decades of racial discrimination in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and outright land theft, many believe farmers of color in America deserve reparations.

In a country in which 95 percent of farms are owned by White farmers, reparations represent a radical strategy for Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian farmers to gain access to land, capital and farming skills.

Doug DeCandia, a farmer who runs five community gardens throughout Yonkers and White Plains, New York, is one out of a dozen individuals to donate to projects listed on the reparations map. He met Robinson from a distance at the Stone Barns Center’s Young Farmer’s Conference in Tarrytown, New York in December 2017.

During the conference, one audience member asked a keynote speaker how he “holds himself accountable” to communities of color in the agriculture industry. According to DeCandia and Robinson, the speaker’s response in a room that was roughly 90 percent White was dismissive and contemptuous.

“These two White panelists were talking about agro-equity, and you could smell the privilege in the room,” Robinson said.

In response to this incident, Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York, launched the Reparations for Black-Indigenous Farmers digital map. Soul Fire Farm, according to assistant director of programs Amani Ogubala, is “committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system.” Penniman’s goal in creating the map was to connect farmers of color with people who were sympathetic to the idea of reparations.

Today, over 50 farmers have listed requests for resources on the map. “We need land, we need more money, we want mentorship, and we have people with these resources,” Robinson said. “So the map worked hand-in-hand to bring that all together.”

 

An Unlikely Connection

After learning about the food system in college, Robinson went on to work with underserved youth. As she grew disenchanted with the nonprofit setting, she became interested in learning more about farming and creating her own community space.

Robinson enrolled in Soul Fire Farm’s Black-Latinx Farmers Immersion program in the summer of 2017. The program taught her “basic skills in regenerative farming and whole foods preparation in a culturally-relevant environment.” When the reparations map went live, Robinson’s colleagues encouraged her to list her project back home in North Carolina on the map.

DeCandia immediately saw the listing for Robinson’s Harriet Tubman Freedom Farm on the map and felt compelled to donate some money he had inherited from his grandparents. How they accumulated that wealth and passed it on to DeCandia always bothered him.

“I’m pretty sure that wealth was built upon Black people, Indigenous people and poor people,” he said. “So I thought there was nothing better I could use my money for, to support a young queer woman of color working to grow food.”

Yet DeCandia is part of a stark minority of White people who support reparations for Black Americans. According to a 2014 poll, only 6 percent of Whites believe African-Americans should receive reparations from the government for historical injustices like slavery.

DALLAS ROBINSON SPENT A SUMMER LEARNING HOW TO FARM AT THE BLACK-LATINX FARMERS IMMERSION PROGRAM HOSTED BY SOUL FIRE FARM

DeCandia justified the check he wrote for Robinson with a simple idea: “The U.S. is built on stolen land with stolen labor,” he said. “Today, people are still living the effects of chattel slavery and Indigenous genocide.”

Soul Fire Farm’s Amani Olugbala links the need for reparations to a racialized food system. “Food-related illnesses are the number one killer of Black and Brown people in America,” she said.

According to the Center for Disease Control, African-Americans suffer from higher rates of hypertension and obesity than White Americans. The American Diabetes Association reports they are also 1.7 times more likely to have diabetes. Activists argue these disparities originate from a lack of access to affordable, healthy food in communities of color.

Robinson likewise sees a broken food system as cause for reparations, and she connects it to the residual effects of white supremacy. “Black and Hispanic people are suffering because of the food industry,” she said. “And white supremacy is a psyche—a form of psychic terrorism—so what are we going to do to change that?”

Reparations activists have had the most success with litigation compared to other strategies. Pigford v. Glickman, a 1996 class-action lawsuit that accused the USDA of systematic discriminatory practices, won $1 billion in redress for 16,000 Black farmers. And in 2010, Pigford II won a $1.25 billion settlement for 18,000 more farmers. Claimants received around $62,500 each.

The USDA reported the number of Black farmers increased 12 percent between 2007 and 2012, yet they still make up less than 2 percent of total farmers in the U.S. These farmers own and operate 3.6 million acres, or only 0.4 percent of the nation’s total farmland. In 1910, Black farmers had over 15 million acres of land.

 

Building a Movement

Person-to-person reparations require a grassroots movement to reach scale. But despite their limitations, Robinson and DeCandia still see value in them.

“When I give reparations, I’m not giving solely because of past wrongs. I’m giving with an understanding and intention as part of a movement to address the ongoing effects of colonialism and slavery,” DeCandia said.

“A one-time monetary payment in no way stands up to the monster that is white supremacy, and the exchange taking place on the map isn’t going to save us,” Robinson said. “But it’s about reciprocity as much as it is about repairing. Reparations need to be a holistic movement, and that means your heart and values must understand what’s possible for it to work.”

Robinson said she will keep her listing on the reparations map active because she thinks it might help her meet like-minded peers. With DeCandia’s money, she was able to buy a pickup truck and pay some tuition for the business courses she’s taking. Young farmers like Robinson often face uphill battles in remaining financially self-sufficient in a low-profit industry, so familiarity with agribusiness can be key to their survival.

Robinson was one of 12 farmers to receive a donation through the digital map in 2018. Her first harvest of medicinal herbs, mushrooms and other crops will take root in the spring of 2019. The long-term goal, she said, is to grow fruit trees and earn money through agritourism.

“Harriet Tubman is my hero and I want to honor her,” Robinson said of her farm’s namesake. “I’m in love with that land. In high school I spent so much time out there just stargazing.”

ART BY DANIELLE WATERMAN