Minnesota's Black farmers working to reconnect to land
Farmer Angela Dawson is trying to help others overcome obstacles and make a living from the land.
ST. PAUL -- Angela Dawson has been farming for three years on land near Sandstone, Minn. She describes herself as a fourth-generation “reclamation” farmer, getting back to her ancestors’ agricultural roots.
“Part of my family is Black and the other is Native American,” Dawson said. “Our history over the last 150 years is layered with a lot of separation and forced moving.”
It was in the mid-70s that Dawson’s father’s family lost their farm in southern Iowa after falling into debt on the rented land.
“It was a bit traumatic,” she said. “A lot of my family at first thought I was crazy for wanting to get back into farming because of the trauma that most Black farmers have experienced in the United States.”
Black farmers have experienced discrimination in the United States for the last 150 years. That’s decimated the number of Black farmers in the country. But some African American farmers are still trying to connect with their agricultural roots, and at the same time, build a more sustainable and equitable agricultural system.
Her family’s experience is part of what inspired Dawson to start up the 40 Acre Co-op, a reference to the never fulfilled promise from the Union army that people freed from enslavement should get 40 acres and a mule. It’s a cooperative that offers farmers from socially disadvantaged backgrounds support and resources to succeed in the field. As of now, the co-op has about three dozen active members across the country and many more on a waiting list.
Dawson said it’s time for people in the state, including those involved with traditional agricultural co-ops, to start taking issues of equity seriously.
“Let’s find a better way to talk about quality of life here in Minnesota for all of us, and to find ways to address some of these systemic issues that have long kept us from all achieving the same quality of life that we all deserve,“ Dawson said.
Discrimination built into the system
What Dawson’s father experienced wasn’t unique. The number of Black farmers in the country has plummeted from about a million a century ago, to just about 45,000 now, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. That accounts for just 1.3 percent of farmers in the country.
This wasn’t just a coincidence, said historian Pete Daniel, who authored a book called “Dispossession,” which documented the struggles of Black farmers to hold onto their land. After slavery was officially abolished in the United States, he said Black people overcame prejudice, terror and discriminatory policies to actually control significant tracts of land.
Since 1920, Black farmers have lost tens of millions of acres of land. A study released this year put the value of this lost land at $326 billion.
Part of the loss is due to how the agricultural system started to change in the 1930s. And the New Deal was a major influence, Daniel said.
Whereas before, Black farmers could sue in court for inequitable treatment. The New Deal created county committees made up of local elites in each county, who were typically white. Those committees controlled land and federal loans.
“They had the power to manipulate the county acreage, to give more acres to the people who they favored and to take away acres from the people they didn’t favor, who were a lot of times, the Black farmers,” Daniel said. “African American farmers had no representation and very little chance to appeal anything, so they were vulnerable to this system.”
At the same time, the Department of Agriculture was prioritizing the modernization of American agriculture. So their policies emphasized the use of things like chemical fertilizers or mechanization, which were out of reach of smaller farmers who didn’t have access to large amounts of money or federal loans.
Daniel said mechanization of farms meant large landowners no longer needed as many workers on the land, so sharecroppers were thrown out of work, moved into town or even moved north, further decimating the numbers of Black farmers.
And this trend didn’t slow after the New Deal. These systems continued on for decades. Until they resulted in a class action lawsuit from Black farmers in the late 1990s. The farmers won the case, which is known as Pigford v. Glickman, but the terms of the consent decree limited only to farmers who could provide evidence of discrimination by the USDA between 1981 and 1996, severely limiting the impact.
More debt relief funding for Black and minority farmers in the recent American Rescue Plan was blocked after lawsuits from white farmers.
“I can’t hardly find anything that’s not profane here,” Daniel said of the lawsuit, “but it’s just chicken****.”
These are some of the systemic policies that contributed to a drastic decline in the number of farmers both across the country and in Minnesota. As of the most recent state agricultural survey, there were only 38 Black-owned farms in the state.
Black on mostly white farmland
It wasn’t just the official systematic discrimination that Black farmers faced, especially in the heavily white rural Minnesota of decades past.
Henry Mitchell grew up picking cotton in Mississippi, started a blues singing career in Memphis that brought him to a ski resort out west. That’s where he met his future wife, Maren Mitchell, who came from a farm in Minnesota.
Mitchell and his wife moved to a hippie commune in northern Minnesota, but after being converted by evangelicals, they started a farm in Wadena County.
As a farmer, Mitchell specialized in mushrooms. He said the first season was a “booming success.” He had fans of his mushrooms coming up from the Twin Cities suburbs just to get them: “I mean, I couldn't raise them fast enough.”
His daughter Peace Mitchell remembers what it was like growing up on that farm.
“My mom loved horses, so we had quarter horses. We had chickens and ducks and pigs, I mean, we had all kinds of animals,” she said. “It was pretty cool.”
But growing up, Peace Mitchell remembers feeling slightly tokenized in the mostly white, rural community.
“I, and my brothers, were the only brown kids in my school,” Peace Mitchell said, noting that the people in the area were always very nice. “I think that we were always like mascots, but in a way, you’re always like a novelty.”
Henry Mitchell said his farm did well. He and his wife picked up jobs in town to supplement their income. But it wasn’t always easy. He said he’d largely learned how to shrug off racial slurs, but one day a man in a bar threatened to kill his family. Mitchell said the man was motivated by racism.
“I was minding my own business when I went to get just a cheeseburger and they started talking,” Henry Mitchell said. “Nobody is going to tell me what they’re going to do to me or my family and walk away.”
Mitchell shot and wounded the man, and was later found not guilty. But he said he learned to find peace with people in the mostly white community, and insists that there were way more good people in the area than bad.
Even now, Henry Mitchell said he can’t wait to get back to farming. He’s hoping to do that at his old farm, where his daughter and her family have started a tree farm with plans to do more farming. They’re envisioning it as a retreat for people who want to learn about agriculture.
Carrying on the legacy
The experience of Black farmers in the state isn’t uniform.
Eugene Sublett and his family moved to a farm in 1970 when he was a young teenager. His father, who is also named Eugene, retired from the railroad, and had always been interested in farming.
Sublett remembers what it was like moving from a Black middle-class family life in south Minneapolis to a rural farm with ducks, pigs, chickens and cows.
“Twice a day every day milking cows and all the things that go with that: cleaning the barn, doing the crops, harvesting the crops, baling hay, getting everything ready,” Sublett said. “So it was a lot of work, and I think for the four of us, it was quite a transition.”
Neither Sublett nor his sister Luella Williams remember any overt discrimination at the time, which they chalk up partly to the fact that their father, who was a minister, was famously gregarious.
After their father experienced health problems, more of the farm chores fell to the children and their mother. After the elder Sublett died in 1983, they sold off the final animals.
But Williams said she still carries lessons from her time on the farm.
“I learned how to value and cherish things. Where today, kids don't like to value,” Williams said. “We worked for everything we got. And that's one thing I can say that came out of the whole ordeal.”
Sublett and Williams bring their families to the land now, and still do some gardening there, sharing the farm they grew up on and their experiences with younger relatives.
Angela Dawson, who said she still experiences discrimination in trying to get resources like federal loans, said her father was traumatized by losing the family’s Iowa farm and lost touch with her family for years afterwards. She said her dad only ever really wanted to farm.
“He can’t be in the city too long, he’s not really into the trappings of urban life,” Dawson said. “I think there were a lot of people who never really adjusted to urban living.”
But Dawson’s father, who was the last member of his family to be removed from their Iowa farm when their family lost the land, is planning to stay with them at their farm later this year. She’s hoping to learn from her experience, as she carries on the family legacy.