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  • Writer's pictureLucas Nava

Black farmers say their agrarian heritage isn't lost but needs support

This story was edited by Columbia Missourian Higher Education editor Gordon Dickson, with photos provided by Zachary Linhares. Click on the link to see the original article.

As Edward Linzie sees it, there’s no separating farming from Black history.

A native Boone County resident and a third-generation farmer, Linzie splits his time between his full-time job working for a lawn care service and his true passion, his farm. To Linzie, farming is something not just integral to him, but to the African American experience as a whole.

“Most African Americans either come through slavery or can trace their past all the way to Africa,” Linzie said as he tended to his horses on his 5-acre farm in southern Boone County. “We are farmers. We have a lot of farming in our background. Who do you think planted the cotton and the corn and the hemp and the different products?”

Linzie is a rarity. Black farmers once made up 14% of all farmers in America, at their peak in 1920. In 2017, they were only 1.7% of all farmers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Missouri, Black farmers are even more rare. The state has only 207 Black farmers, or about 0.1% of producers, according to the USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture.

The reasons for decreasing numbers are numerous, but many of them can be traced back to decisions made by the U.S. government after the Emancipation Proclamation.

“After slavery, the freed people had nowhere to go and no money to go with,” said Kara Brewer Boyd, program and event coordinator for the National Black Farmers Association, a Virginia-based organization that advocates and rallies for land retention, fair loan access and civil rights for Black farmers. “And so they were offered an opportunity to stay on the farm and to work. And that’s how we got into sharecropping.”

Sharecropping is a farming practice in which a person or family rents a plot of land to farm in exchange for a portion of their crops. While this led to many African Americans being trapped in exploitative agreements where they routinely faced eviction and forced removal, some of them were able to make enough money to purchase and maintain their own land, leading to the rise of the Black farmer in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In 1920, more than 925,000 American farmers were Black.

After this period, Black farmers were frequent targets of discriminatory practices by the U.S. government. For instance, in 1933, New Deal legislation that reduced acres of farmland to address low crop prices disproportionately harmed Black farmers.

In addition, the USDA has a long history of denying Black farmers loans, which are crucial to their farms’ success. In 2021, 42% of Black farmers had their direct loan applications by the USDA denied. Only 9% of white farmers had their applications denied in the same year.

Boyd says the impacts of these delays and denials are making it harder for black farmers to get a crop in the ground, let alone make a profit.

“(They’re) very time-sensitive,” Boyd said of the loans, “so when you’re delaying those decisions, or farmers are being denied, it’s going to put them out of business.”

Why support matters

Locally, the Three Creeks Conservation Area, a nature preserve south of Columbia operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation, sits on land that was once farmed and maintained by African Americans after the Civil War. According to the Conservation Department’s website, many families could no longer support themselves on the small tracts of land during the Depression and had to sell their property.

Linzie, whose family farm was near the preserve, has another explanation:

“That was an area that was set aside for ex-slaves after the emancipation, and somewhere down the line, the government ended up seizing it back and turning it into a national forest,” he said. “They didn’t want African Americans advancing toward Boone County.”

In his own family, Linzie was unable to keep the farm intact.

“My siblings weren’t really into farming, so we ended up having to sell the land after the older generation passed,” Linzie said.

Linzie currently runs his farm in Hartsburg on land he rents from his boss at Salter Lawn Service, though he plans on buying the land one day to truly make it his own. Linzie said his farm is a lifeline, something that stabilizes him and keeps him at peace.

Linzie grew up in both his grandmother’s home in the Indian Hills neighborhood of Columbia and on his family farm on Log Providence Road. He said becoming a farmer helped him achieve a better life for himself, as well as honor the life and legacy of his ancestors.

“I spent a lot of time as a dog chasing my tail as a young man, running around with those drugs and stuff,” Linzie said. “I wasn’t taught to be no drug dealer. I was taught all my life to be a farmer, to be a horse man. I ran off pretending to be something that I wasn’t. This is what I am.”

One of Linzie’s personal heroes is Tom Bass, an African American slave born in Boone County in 1859. Bass would move to Mexico, Missouri, at age 20, and he eventually began a horse-training operation that attracted world-renowned clients, including Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers and President Theodore Roosevelt.

He also helped found the American Royal, Kansas City’s first horse show. Linzie has several photos of Bass posted in and on his barn, serving as examples of the kind of man he’d like to be.

One of Linzie’s goals is to offer therapeutic opportunities at his farm where visitors, especially those with mental disorders and special needs, could ride and spend time with specially trained horses, including new ones and his current lineup.

In May 2021, Linzie received the first Henry Kirklin Black Scholarship from the Columbia Center For Urban Agriculture, something that the farmer has been grateful for ever since.

Applicants for the scholarship can request an award of up to $3,000, according to the group’s website.

Katie Molitor, assessment manager for the center, said the scholarship grew out of the racial protests in the summer of 2020 following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

“We started asking questions as an organization of, ‘What can we do to make an impact and help with racial justice and equity?’’’ she said.

Following these questions, the organization looked into the local food system and found a USDA farmer census alleging that there were no Black farmers active in Boone County. However, further research suggested that this wasn’t the case and that the census standards may have caused the undercounting.

“We have found that it’s actually not the case that there are zero Black farmers in Boone County,” Molitor said. “They were just not counted because they were not participating in the food system in the way that most farmers would be considered participating.”

The center has given out four scholarships so far and hopes to give three to five more awards a year. Linzie is one of the few recipients who have shared their awards publicly.

The scholarship fund was named after Henry Kirklin, a Columbia native and former slave who would go on to be a greenhouse supervisor and teacher at the University of Missouri, a spectacular feat to accomplish during a time when Black people weren’t allowed to teach indoors. He worked around this by teaching from outdoors through a window.

Linzie said he used the grant to improve his irrigation system and buy supplies.

“It’s a small local grant, but it helps us kind of get supplies and different things we need to farm around town locally,” he said. “It opened up a new avenue. Last year, watermelons didn’t produce so good. I got about maybe 50% of what I should’ve. The Kirklin grant’s gonna help me start up new plants.”

Making up for the past

As scrutiny from both farmers and politicians have increased, the USDA and the federal government at large have made some strides in paying for past mistakes. Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan Act, for example, allows the USDA to pay up to 120% of loan balances for farmers of color, including African Americans.

However, the act has faced multiple legal challenges across the country alleging that only providing loan support to racial minorities is an act of discrimination.

A handful of bills supporting Black farmers have also been introduced in the U.S. Senate, such as the Justice for Black Farmers Act and the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act of 2021. Both bills are currently under review by the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

Lincoln University, a historically Black land-grant school in Jefferson City, is home to one of the largest organic research farms in the United States. It offers consultations and workshop sessions to farmers all across Missouri as a part of its outreach program.

Specifically, its College of Agriculture focuses on supporting minority and underrepresented farmers in Missouri, including Black farmers. Currently, Lincoln University’s Innovative Small Outreach Program aids over 150 Black farmers in four regions across Missouri.

“We started to build a network two years ago where we were focusing on establishing a network for Black farmers in Missouri so they can be connected and share the challenges they’ve been experiencing and also to share the success among themselves,” said Majed El-Dweik, dean of the College of Agriculture, Environmental and Human Sciences at Lincoln University.

One of Lincoln University’s projects is to help Black farmers make their products easier to find online so consumers can buy directly from the source.

“One of the big challenges that Black farmers, that we have worked with, has been reaching out to consumers,” said El-Dweik. “They don’t have the resources to take their products to the market, to launch an industry. So we’ve been helping them to establish online types of stores so they can advertise their product.”

In Kansas City, Adenike AmenRa, a fellow Black farmer and the director of Amen Ankh Urban Farm, also recognizes the lack of public knowledge surrounding Black farming, as well as the need for investment.

“Most people have a misperception in that they have the ‘plantation model’ embedded in their head,” she said, “and they don’t realize that (it doesn’t) truly exist anymore.”

One of the missions of Amen Ankh Urban Farm is “to educate our own children to be leaders in an ecologically responsible and sustainable way of life.” For AmenRa, this mission first came into focus when she was a teacher many years ago.

“I decided to purchase some property four blocks from the school that I worked in … and from that point, I had a garden in my front yard,” she said. “I was a small minority, a full owner. Most of the people on the block were either renting or they were living in inherited property.”

Since then, she’s made it her goal to teach as many people as possible about the joys and the benefits of sustainability and of living off of the land.

“It’s not just the idea of having food, but also relating to the environment, so I practice composting. I practice recycling. I connect with what’s already growing in the community, and I harvest and can tap a tree. They’re already in the yard. I can get the walnuts and harvest the walnuts.”

What we can do

Linzie’s farm includes produce such as pumpkins, honeydew and watermelon, along with his beloved horses and chickens — the latter of which he raises with his wife.

He sells his produce in Columbia on Ballenger Lane next door to Ballenger Liquor Store.

He also relies on and helps support a friendly network of farmers in the Boone County area to get through tough economic times such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, after reaping a poor melon crop, a local farmer who Linzie buys hay from sold him a few of his own melons.

“We’re the little guys out here,” Linzie said, “So, you know, the little guy, he’s gonna look out for the next little guy. One hand shakes the other, and that’s between all races.”

While Linzie doesn’t deny the existence of struggles that are specific to Black farmers, he also believes farmers in general deal with a fair amount of hardship. He cited fuel shortages as an example.

“Whatever politics or war or whatever goes on the outside, it affects us all,” Linzie said. “And if it affects the farmer, it affects the community.”

As for how the average person can support Black farmers, advocates say the public can support loan equality and reimbursement for minorities who have had their money withheld or denied. They can also buy products directly from Black farmers, whether they’re found at a local market or a large superstore.

“Either go to a farm stand or a farmers market and buy directly from Black farmers and Black producers, or, when going to the grocery store, just ask if the grocery store sells any products that are produced by African American producers or business owners or farmers,” Molitor said.

Supporting Black farmers also serves as an extension of supporting Black lives in general. According to Boyd, a lot of hesitation in regards to providing financial aid to Black farmers stems from the false idea that they would be given special privileges.

A large part of advocacy involves convincing others that supporting historically disenfranchised groups is not an act of bigotry, but of equality.

“When someone says ‘Black Lives Matter’, they’re not saying white lives or Asian or Native American lives don’t matter,” Boyd said. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, these farmers matter, and we shouldn’t be foreclosed on. We shouldn’t be treated any differently. They should have equal access.’

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