By Brian Brus
STILLWATER, Okla. – Oklahoma State University teaching associate Courtney Brown wants to ensure the next generation of Black agriculturalists grows with pride rather than shrink from disinterest.
A large part of Brown’s work toward a master’s degree in agricultural communications at OSU focused on the African-American perspective of agriculture. Now she’s in the agricultural education doctoral program with an emphasis on agricultural leadership. Her dissertation is taking shape around educators and Black agriculture curricula.
To that end, she organized and taught a short Black Agriculture class in the fall at OSU which highlighted the historical and recent experiences of Black agriculturalists. In some ways, she was as surprised as her adult students about what they didn’t know – for example, the land ownership gap Black producers still face; the Second Morrill Act of 1890 that helped historically Black schools such as Langston University; and widespread food insecurity that harms Black communities.
“We need to understand our historic culture in order to move ahead,” Brown said.
That culture is shrinking within agriculture as a whole.
The latest Census of Agriculture conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture identified Oklahoma as the ninth largest state in terms of Black producers, with a total of 2,074 as of 2017. Although nationwide the number of Black agricultural producers increased by 5% from 2012 to 2017, the total of all producers, predominantly white, rose faster at a rate of 7%. At the same time, the total number of all farms, Black-operated or not, declined by 3%.
Historic figures from the USDA show the number of black farmers in America peaked in 1920 at nearly 1 million. Of the country’s total 3.4 million farmers now, only about 45,000 are Black. Their farms and incomes are smaller than white producers. Black farmers owned 14 percent of all farms in 1920; today, that figure is about 1.6 percent.
For years, the agricultural community has been struggling with a generational issue as older operators leave with fewer youngsters willing to succeed them. Oklahoma State University student Tre Smith said he’s seen that happen among Blacks as well as the rest of the industry.
“It’s been a real challenge to get young kids into this field,” said Smith, who is working toward a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications in marketing. “Most Black farmers have been passed down to their children just like everyone else. And they’re struggling. I’ve seen the statistics – they believe they can’t compete with the large farms.”
“Black farmers have a rich background. They go way, way down the line of the agriculture tradition,” he said. “But when it comes to young people these days, representation is very important. When you don’t have leaders in the industry who look like you, it worries these kids; they’re afraid they’ll be judged or misunderstood or feel alone.”
The Wynnewood, Oklahoma, junior expects to enter the commercial swine industry after graduation with a focus on social outreach. In the summer he will be an intern with the Oklahoma Pork Council. Smith said he’s going to have to work hard to make sure he doesn’t fail as a role model himself.
However, Smith and Brown said Black agriculture is not a monolithic experience, not even within any particular state. Smith said he’s seeing more Blacks getting into farming in North Carolina and Georgia, but not so much in Oklahoma – at least not yet. He has hope.
Willard Tillman, executive director of the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project, said that following the Civil War, Black farmers owned 1.5 million acres of land in the state. It was a career that helped support the rest of the rural community – Oklahoma had about 50 All-Black towns at the time. Now, however, about three-quarters of Black farmers have second jobs.
“Most of the farmers are just getting by now,” Tillman said. “It’s not as sustainable as it once was, for a lot of historical reasons. Moving forward, though, under this new presidential administration, maybe we’ll see some revamping of federal agencies that will help people of color and reverse those trends.”
The students who took Brown’s class didn’t know about much of Black agricultural history. For example, some had only a passing knowledge of the NFA, or New Farmers of America, a national organization for African-American young men founded in 1935 to help students in states where schools were legally segregated. Ultimately, that group was absorbed into the National FFA.
“They didn’t realize how those black students lost their identity in the merger, and were asking me, ‘Why aren’t we learning this anywhere else?’” Brown said.
Brown recently was named a winner in the Riata Business Plan Competition through the OSU Spears School of Business and Riata Center for Entrepreneurship for her AGSPOSURE concept in the social enterprise category. The 501(3)c nonprofit aims to connect disadvantaged communities to resources and opportunities with an emphasis on agriculture. It’s another step in correcting a longstanding problem, she said.
“We’re at a place where we need to understand the historical as well as current context of Black agriculture. That conversation is growing around Oklahoma, with panels and courses and projects centered on Black agriculture,” she said. “It’s hard to solve a problem in which you have no background. We’ve got to get that dialogue started.”