The Role of Marginalized Populations in American Farming

share of farms by sales class fror minorities 2012Scratch virtually any American and you will find, without going too far back, a farmer. Despite their hunting and fishing activities, most Northeastern Native Americans depended on agriculture for the majority of their calories. Certainly those of us who arrived, voluntarily or not, in the age of sail did as well. More recent immigrants came in waves, often driven from home by persecution or war, but it was access to land, a piece of our supposedly endless frontier, of which they dreamed and for which they saved once here.

Historical Agricultural Demographics

Although early farm population figures are not reliable, we have good numbers from as far back as 1820 giving Americans in ‘farm occupations’ (2.1 million, or 72% of the workforce) and then again in 1850 (4.9 million, or 64% of workers). Once the census started counting the farm population, in 1920, the total was 32 million, or 30.2% of the national population. Careful Department of Agriculture estimates put the farm population peak in 1916, at 32.5 million, or 32% of all Americans.

Despite a general downward trend since World War I to its current level of 3.2 million, the farm population has had a few short surges, including one in 1933 when it grew to 31.2 million, or 24.9 percent of the United States population of 125.4 million. Were some of us driven back to the farm during the Depression, where at least we could eat?

Current Farmer Racial Demographics

minority principal operators 2007 and 2012The numbers of these farmers who are African Americans, however, is particularly low. In 2012, they represented fewer than 2 percent of the total farming population, despite an overall population accounting for about 13% of our people.

Although the farm population has been steadily diminishing for the last century, in 2012 (the last year for which there are reliable numbers) 2.1 million Americans still consider themselves principal operators of farms. This is down 4.3% from the number in 2007 (2.2 million).

Interestingly, however, this decline in principal farm operators is wholly among the white population (see “Minority Principal Operators, 2027 and 2012” table). Principal operators among all the non-white groups are on the increase: Hispanic operators grew by 21%, American Indian by 9%, Black by 9%, and Asian by 22%.

Most of these farms are still smaller than average (see “Share of Farms by Sales Class for Minority Operators” table) although the Asian farms seem to contradict this and actually break out as larger than average even when factoring in white-owned farms themselves.

Most farms operated by people of color also are where you might expect (90% of black farms are in 12 southern states; 76% of Latinx farms are in the 6 states of Texas, California, New Mexico, Florida, Colorado and Washington; 80% of Native American farms are in the 7 states of Arizona, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, Montana, California and South Dakota; and 64% of Asian American farms are in the 4 states of California, Hawaii, Florida and Texas).

Freedmen on Farms

Before the Civil War, abolitionists and those working to end slavery had no clear plans for how former slaves would transition to economic freedom in a non-slave economy. When victory by the North was imminent, however, this issue came immediately to the forefront. To what extent should government provide for a transition to wage labor rather than support the desire of many freedmen to have the means to be independent farmers?

There had been previous isolated opportunities for former slaves to acquire land. As early as 1862, Union generals subdivided some plantations of Confederate leaders for small farm settlements by former slaves. The government sold confiscated land on St. Helena Island and Port Royal, SC, in 1863 to a philanthropist-entrepreneur who produced cotton by hiring freedmen and arranged mortgage payment plans for those farmers to gradually purchase the land.

The first Freedmen’s Bureau Act in 1865 included plans for 40-acre tracts to be sold on easy terms from either abandoned plantations or to be developed on unsettled lands. But by late 1865, President Andrew Johnson terminated further initiatives by the Union Army for small farm settlements. In 1866, a second Freedmen’s Bureau Act was passed that lacked specific terms and actions for implementing 40-acre settlements.

Social scientists and economic historians have considered the government’s reluctance to implement a major land settlement program for the freedmen as a lost opportunity for small, independent farming. There were opportunities to provide small farms on government-owned or unsettled lands, but the extent to which land reform would have required seizure and breakup of plantations may have worked against adoption of such a policy. So the question remained, what to do with large plantations and how would they be farmed? By leaving the plantations intact, a demand for farm-operating wage labor was created.

Despite the early announcements of plans for land settlement programs, the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau focused instead on facilitating a transition from slave to various types of farm operation or labor relationships. During a 4-year period, the Bureau mediated agricultural production contract negotiations between planters and freedmen. In other words, national leaders decided that its appropriate role was to help former slaves become “free” in being able to offer labor and farm operating services. The demise of land distribution plans did not eliminate opportunities for ownership and independent farming, but its future depended on the extent of economic mobility, or what was called moving up the agricultural ladder.

Many freedmen were skeptical of operating as wage-workers out of concern that planters would establish a “free” labor variant of the factories-in-the-field system of slavery. The two general alternatives to wage labor were tenancy arrangements under rental contracts and sharecropping. Several southern states passed laws during the late 19th century establishing the status of payment terms and working relationships as subject to determination by private negotiations between the landowner and tenant worker, resulting in negligible differences between tenancy and sharecropping.

W.E.B. Du Bois estimated 19th century progress in land ownership by African American farmers at: 3 million acres in 1875, 8 million in 1890, and 12 million in 1900. The Census of Agriculture shows a steady increase in the number of farm operators owning land in the South from 1880 to 1890 and again in 1900, but does not distinguish between white and nonwhite owners until 1900. Census figures show 1920 as the peak year in the number of nonwhite owners of farmland in the South.

Increases in land ownership after 1900 were partly due to a significant rise in cotton prices that lasted until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The growth in farmland acquisition by African Americans during the late 19th and early 20th centuries demonstrates a period of economic mobility for about 25 percent of farm operators. In the early 20th century, there were instances of black farmers having achieved the status of landlords and becoming philanthropic community leaders.

During the 19th century there were some opportunities to establish farms on unsettled lands, but over the long run, most black farmers gained land through their working relationships with white planters. Landowners profited by offering tenant farm operators the incentive of having an opportunity to buy certain tracts of land in exchange for increased farming efficiency. The increased land ownership and prosperity of the first two decades of the 20th century, however, were not shared by a large majority of African American farm operators. Enactment of Jim Crow laws in the late 1890s empowered landlords and planters to try to extract more output from tenants and sharecroppers with less compensation. Oppressive farm operating contracts were easier to impose because the voting rights of African Americans were limited. Without the franchise, black tenants and sharecroppers had no legal or political recourse.

The purchase of farm and household supplies was financed by loans secured with crop liens from merchants, which put many farm operators into a persistent state of debt. In some southern states, a peonage system developed from laws on indebtedness that enabled planters to force some tenants to remain as operators on their plantations. Cotton grown by tenants and sharecroppers was usually sold for them or credited to their ‘furnishing’ accounts. So, even when these growers avoided peonage, they likely received lower returns because they lacked the power to monitor marketing transactions.

Census reports from 1900 to 1920 show an increasing number of tenant and sharecropper families in the South. By 1920, there were 369,842 tenants and 333,713 sharecroppers.

World War Two and the Push for Civil Rights

For many African Americans, the war offered an opportunity to get out of the cycle of crushing rural poverty. They joined the military in large numbers, escaping a decade of Depression and tenant farming in the South and Midwest. Yet, like the rest of America in the 1940s, the armed forces were segregated.

The Army accepted black enlistees but created separate non-white infantry regiments and assigned white commanders to them. The Army Air Corps’ African American fighter wing was completely separate, training at the all-black university at Tuskegee, Alabama. The Navy segregated African American units and gave them the most menial jobs on ships. And the Marines, at least initially, didn’t even accept African Americans. At every training base, black and white soldiers were kept apart – despite excellent performance records for black units.

The best known black unit, the Tuskegee Airmen, was assigned to North Africa and later to Italy. They flew 200 bomber escort missions over southern Europe without allowing a single bomber to be shot down by enemy fighters. Their longest mission took them over Berlin where they encountered new, fast jet fighters. They shot down two and damaged another five. The unit received two Presidential citations, and individual flyers received 150 medals.

After the war, when non-white soldiers returned home, they found a country that still did not grant them full rights. But a movement for the expansion of civil rights had been born. Some African American soldiers who had left farm jobs in the South decided not to go back. Instead they moved to cities, looking for work that was similar to what they had learned in the armed forces. This movement represented an intensification of the Great Migration that began around the turn of the century.

Farming Innovation by People of Color

The creativity of farmers in designing useful tools, creating new varieties of crops, finding alternative markets, and engineering ways to reduce labor or save time is well established. Of course many non-white Americans, regardless of their status, contributed to this effort and found ways to make farming more productive, easier, and sustainable. The best known of these was George Washington Carver, whose inventions and writings while a professor at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama are legendary.

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver
Born a slave in 1864, Carver was orphaned at an early age and adopted by the Missouri couple who owned him, Moses and Susan Carver. George showed early promise and was taught by Susan to read and write since no local school would take black pupils. Eventually he left home and received a high school diploma in Kansas. He enrolled in Simpson College in Iowa, where he so impressed his teachers that they suggested he study botany at Iowa State University, where he was the first African American to enroll and stayed on for a master’s degree. Upon graduation in 1896, Carver was hired by Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee’s principal, to run the Institute’s agricultural department.

Tuskegee was founded as a “normal” school for “colored” teachers and aimed to teach the students, ex-slaves, in “skills, morals, and religious life”, as well as academic subjects. Washington urged teachers trained at the Institute “to return to the plantation districts and show the people there how to put new energy and new ideas into farming as well as into the intellectual and moral and religious life of the people”. Since virtually all ex-slaves were now still growing cotton “on shares” for their old masters, new ideas in farming were badly needed.

Carver was ideally suited to encouraging new ideas for southern agriculture. Repeated plantings of cotton, which required lots of nitrogen, had seriously depleted plantation soils. At the same time cotton prices, which had been steadily climbing before the Civil War, had declined. With the blockade of southern cotton during the war, production had been drastically increased in India and Eqypt to supply European mills. Once the war was over these new sources continued to produce and the price of cotton fell. Add to that the infestations of the boll weevil in the monocropped cotton, beginning in 1892, which reduced production by up to 50 percent.

Carver promoted crop rotations to restore the soil, particularly with nitrogen-producing legumes like peanuts and soybeans. To encourage farmers to try these new crops, he devised over 400 products using the peanut, soybean, and sweet potato. By the time he died in 1943 Carver had met with Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt, was friends with Henry Ford and Henry A. Wallace, had been dubbed in 1941 by Time Magazine as a “black Leonardo”, and was a member of the British Royal Society.

Andrew jackson BeardAndrew Jackson Beard
Beard (1849–1921) was born into slavery in Alabama and gained his freedom when he was fifteen. Beard remained on the plantation, becoming a sharecropper. He married Edie Beard (at age 16, by some accounts), with whom he would have three sons; he is recorded as having purchased an 80-acre farm near Center Point, Jefferson County, at some point during this period.

Largely self educated, he invented, among other things, two kinds of specially designed plows, a flour mill, a type of rotary steam engine, and a device for the automated coupling of railroad cars that has been credited with saving many lives. In 2006, Beard was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.

Henry blair

Henry blair

Henry Blair
Henry Blair (1804–1860) is the first black man to be identified on a U.S. patent application. The identification of Blair as “a colored man” was an accident, as the U.S. Patent Office usually didn’t identify patent holders by race.  Blair was a born a free man, but was illiterate, therefore he signed his patents with an “x”. At the time that his patents were granted United States patent law allowed both freed and enslaved people to obtain patents. In 1857 this law was challenged by a slave-owner who claimed that he owned “all the fruits of the slave’s labor” including his slave’s inventions. This resulted in the change of the law in 1858 that stated that slaves were not citizens and therefore could not hold patents. After the American Civil War, in 1871, the law was changed to grant all men patent rights.

Blair was awarded a patent in 1834 for a corn planter that had a compartment that held and dropped the seeds to the ground and rakes that followed to cover them with soil. He was awarded a second patent for a cottonseed planter in 1836. This invention worked by splitting the ground with two shovel-like blades that were pulled along by a horse. A wheel-driven cylinder followed behind which dropped the seed into the newly plowed ground. Blair had been a successful farmer for years and developed the inventions as a means of increasing efficiency in farming.

George Crum

George Crum

George Crum
According to legend, George Crum (1824–1914) was working as a chef in New York in the summer of 1853 when he came up with an all-new way to prepare potatoes. A patron had sent his French-fried potatoes back to the kitchen for being too thick and soft. To teach the patron a lesson Crum sliced a new batch of potatoes as thinly as he could, then fried them until they were hard and crunchy. To top them off he added plenty of salt. To his surprise the dish was a big hit and a new snack was born.

Depending upon the source, his father, Abraham, and mother, Diana, were variously identified as African American, Oneida, Stockbridge, and/or Mohawk. Some sources associate the family with the St. Regis (Akwesasne) Mohawk reservation that straddles the US/Canada border. Crum and his sister Kate Wicks, like other Native American or mixed-race people of that era, were variously described as “Indian,” “Mulatto,” “Black,” or just “Colored,” depending on the snap judgment of the census taker.

Lloyd Hall
Lloyd Hall (1894-1971), an African American inventor with more than 100 patents, is credited with many of the meat curing products and preservatives used in food processing industries today. Hall’s grandmother came to Illinois via the “Underground Railroad” at the age of sixteen. Hall graduated in 1912 from East Side High School in Aurora. After graduating school he studied pharmaceutical chemistry at Northwestern University, earning a B.S. and a Master’s degree at the University of Chicago. After leaving university, Hall was hired by the Western Electric Company, after a phone interview. But the company refused to hire Hall after they discovered he was an African American.

LLoyd Hall

LLoyd Hall

Lloyd Hall devoted much of his life and efforts to food science curing meat. Hall also investigated the role of spices in food preservation. It was common knowledge that certain seasonings had antimicrobial properties, but Hall and co-worker Carroll L. Griffith found that some spices carried many bacteria, as well as yeast and mold spores. To counter these problems, in 1938 they patented a means to sterilize spices through exposure to ethylene oxide gas, a fumigant. Hall also invented new uses of antioxidants to prevent food spoilage, especially the onset of rancidity in fats and oils. Aware that unprocessed vegetable oils frequently contained natural antioxidants such as lecithin that slowed their spoilage, he developed means of combining these compounds with salts and other materials so that they could be readily introduced to other foods.

Frederick McKinley Jones
(1893-1961) was granted patents on more than 60 inventions, over 40 of them for innovations related to refrigeration, including the long-haul system used in trucks and railroad cars. He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on May 17, 1893 to a white father and black mother. At the age of 11, with minimal education under his belt, Jones ran away to fend for himself, taking odd jobs where he could. In 1912, he landed in Hallock, Minnesota where he obtained a job doing mechanical work on a farm.

Frederick McKinley Jones

Frederick McKinley Jones

Jones had talent for mechanics and read extensively on the subject in addition to his daily work, educating himself in his spare time. By the time he was twenty, he was able to secure an engineering license in Minnesota. It was on the Hallock farm that Jones educated himself in electronics. He continued to expand his interests in the 1930s and

designed and patented a portable air-cooling unit for trucks carrying perishable food. In 1944, he became the first African American elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers.

George Washington Murray
(1853–1926) held eight patents relating to farming and was one of the major African American political leaders in the quest for racial justice in the new South following the Civil War. He was born in Sumter County, South Carolina where he spent the first 13 years of his life as a slave, but after the Emancipation Proclamation he enrolled at the University of South Carolina and later continued his education at the State Normal Institute at Columbia; graduating in 1876.Murray lectured for the Colored

In the next 20 years he served as a farmer, school teacher, the Chairman of the Sumter County Republican Committee and as a customs inspector for the Port of Charleston, 1890-1892, a position he was appointed to by the President of the United States, Benjamin Harrison. While a farmer, Murray lectured for the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and participated in local Republican policies. In 1892 Murray was elected to the United States Congress representing the state of South Carolina. While serving in his second term, Murray secured patents for eight inventions, including cultivating and fertilizing equipment and a cotton chopper.

John Parker
John Parker

(1827–1900) owned three of the seventy-seven patents issued to African Americans by 1886. He was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1827, the son of a slave mother and white father. Thus legally born into slavery, at the age of eight John was forced to walk to Richmond, where he was sold at the slave market to a doctor from Mobile, Alabama. While working at the doctor’s house as a domestic servant, John was taught to read and write by the doctor’s family, although the law forbade slaves’ being educated. He asked one of the doctor’s patients, a widow, to purchase him. After taking title to him, she allowed him to hire out to earn money and he purchased his freedom from her for $1,800 in 1845.

He is best known for patenting a portable tobacco screw press, used for cutting tobacco, and a harrow or pulverizer. Parker was also a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. From his home in Ripley, Ohio, Parker helped more than one thousand slaves receive their freedom, despite a $1000 bounty placed on him by slaveholders.

Norbert Rillieux

Norbert Rillieux

Norbert Rillieux
Norbert Rillieux (1806–1894), a Creole inventor from New Orleans, was the natural son of the owner of a large sugar plantation and Constance Vivant, a half-black “free woman of color”. As a boy the precocious Norbert showed an interest in engineering, and his father sent him to France for his education. By the age of 24 Rillieux was an instructor in applied mechanics at the Ecole Centrale in Paris. Around 1830, Rillieux published a series of papers on steam engines and steam power. Widely considered to be one of the earliest chemical engineers, he revolutionized sugar processing with the invention of the multiple effect evaporator under vacuum. Rillieux’s great scientific achievement was his recognition that at reduced pressure the repeated use of latent heat would result in the production of better quality sugar at lower cost.

The success of his evaporator apparently made Rillieux, according to a contemporary, “the most sought after engineer in Louisiana,” and he acquired a large fortune. But as the Civil War approached, the status of free African Americans deteriorated with the imposition of new restrictions on their ability to move about the streets of New Orleans and other draconian laws. While his invention no doubt enriched sugar planters, Rillieux was still, under the law, “a person of color” who might visit sugar plantations to install his evaporator but who could not sleep in the plantation house.

Booker T. Whatley  
Booker T. Whatley Booker T. Whatley, an Alabama horticulturist, author, and Tuskegee University professor, examined efficient farming practices that allow the small farmer to make a decent living.  His book, “How To Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres” (1987), explored his ‘ten commandments of farming’ that assist the farmer in minimizing unnecessary costs, limiting wastes, and maximizing income and farm space with smart crop selection.  He also continued the use of soil regeneration techniques supported by George Washington Carver, a faculty member of the previous generation. His work continues to be a guide for small farmers towards success and sustainability.

One of Whatley’s commandments was the importance of what he called a Clientele Membership Club. Members of this club pay an initial membership fee to the farm. In return, they receive the right to pick  fresh produce.  This ensures a constant cash flow into the farm, while saving on time and labor.  Dr. Whatley identified this as an essential aspect of a successful farm in the 1960’s and 70’s. Today, this marketing approach has evolved significantly but is commonly referred to as community supported agriculture (CSA) and has becoming quite popular.

Urban Agriculture and Social Interaction

Although the Great Migration and other immigration flows in the US were largely away from rural life and farming toward cities, African Americans, like so many other migrants, did not easily give up their attachment to gardening and raising traditional foods. Whether in backyard plots or more organized community efforts, agriculture and food production continued in the city.

In areas of mixed ethnicities these projects can provide an opportunity to bring individuals together. Stronger communal bonds promote healthier, successful gardens, and strengthen neighborhoods overall. Such projects can be utilized to bridge the divide between racially disparate communities. Numerous attempts, for instance, have been made to ease tensions between African Americans and whites. The rift between the two groups is believed in part to stem from a lack of positive contact. Community gardening projects offer a distinct situation for racial integration, as individuals enter freely into this activity, making the environment more genuine. These gardens offer leisure spaces where individuals of diverse races socialize through their own volition. What debunks preconceived notions of “the other” is the opportunity to recognize commonality through shared values, a fascination with nature and making things grow, and a mutual commitment to making communities better.

Urban Farm

South Central Urban Farm, once the largest urban garden in the Unitd States

Additionally, urban farming projects have the added advantage of beautifying urban communities and curtailing crime, all of which has positive effects on a neighborhood’s real-estate value. Research shows that in “New York City gardens had a statistically significant positive impact on residential property within 1000 feet of the garden, an impact that increased over time. More importantly, this impact was highest in the lowest income neighborhoods”.

A study in low-income neighborhoods in Flint, Michigan revealed that the conflation of gardening projects, clubs or neighborhood associations—that facilitate the gardens by developing fundraisers, block parties, etc.—created opportunities for neighborhoods to have greater interaction with each other, since some members actively garden, while others act as administrators. This division secures communal solidarity that keeps the gardens productive, thus greatly benefiting the community as a whole.

Urban Land Rights and Gentrification

Urban agriculture projects are often executed on privately owned land considered of little value in low income, underutilized districts. Communal gardening is employed in poor communities as a system to augment food shortages, and to embellish neglected and depressed areas. Paradoxically once they flourish, the beauty and transformative equality of garden neighborhoods engenders interest by developers, looking to build market properties during periods of urban renewal and gentrification. Despite the sweat equity and guardianship that communities are willing to invest in their gardens, the longevity of these projects often depends on the largesse of local governments or private investors.

In the 1990s New York City’s Giuliani administration took on several gardening communities in a battle over land rights that changed the nature of privatized spaces in the city’s public arena. When the 1970s economic crisis left low income front-line areas devastated and abandoned, community members started grassroots campaigns to convert city-owned vacant lots into viable green spaces, providing a food source to impoverished people. Further, they reduced drug activity and other crimes, and colorful flowers and vegetable gardens became an antidote to urban blight. During the economic boom of the 1990s, Mayor Giuliani made plans to auction off 114 community gardens, and use the land to address a housing shortage. The garden communities contested his decision, citing that their gardens sustained destitute communities during the city’s economic downturn. Further, they engendered urban revitalization.

Giuliani remained recalcitrant, invoking his right to what was legally municipal property. So garden communities throughout the city coalesced and filed a class action lawsuit and advocates from various boroughs formed a coalition, transforming community gardens into “unity gardens.” In the end, many of the gardens were purchased and preserved by private land trusts.

Land rights issues illustrate that during periods of fiscal crisis, marginalized communities turn to gardening projects on borrowed land and become constituents in beautifying the urban landscape. But until these spaces are seen as essential permanent components of urban communities, land right challenges will continue to threaten their life span.

In 2006, Los Angeles’ South Central Farm (SCF) was destroyed. This 14-acre urban farm was cultivated and maintained by a Latinx community for twelve years on vacant but privately owned land, producing vegetables, fruits, and medicinal plants in one of the most impoverished areas in the county. The SCF became the lifeblood of the community and when a heated legal battle between one of the original owners and the local government threatened its existence, the community rallied in an attempt to hold on to what was, de facto, theirs. But a community of poor, many illegal, Latinx immigrants were ill suited to use litigation to further their efforts. In the end the farm was bulldozed for a Walmart distribution warehouse, which was never built.


Urban agriculture creates opportunities for integration between different racial groups in neutral spaces where physical closeness allows these groups to find common ground based on their similar desires to improve their neighborhoods. But successful projects rely on communal dedication and require local governments to commit to their safekeeping.