By Hannah Packman, NFU Communications Director
As Black History Month comes to a close, National Farmers Union (NFU) is celebrating its own piece of black history: its first predominantly African American chapter.
It’s no secret that American agriculture – and, by extension, general farm organizations like NFU – is disproportionately white. According to the most recent census of agriculture, 95 percent – or 3.2 million – of farmers in the United States are white, while only 1.3 percent – or 45,500 – are black. The disparity of land ownership among races is even more stark, with black-owned operations accounting for just 0.52 percent of American farmland. Given this vast inequity, it is unsurprising that black farmers on average earn substantially less farm income than their white counterparts – just $2,408, compared to $17,190.
American agriculture hasn’t always been so homogenous. A hundred years ago, African Americans owned an estimated 15 million acres and 14 percent of all U.S. farms. But decades of systemic discrimination and the abuse of legal loopholes have robbed black families of millions of acres of farmland worth billions of dollars. The effects have been pervasive and lasting; many experts attribute the modern racial wealth gap in large part to black land loss.
The issue of race has long been on National Farmers Union radar. An early supporter of the civil rights movement, the organization’s progressive views on race contributed the mass exodus of its members from Southern states. Today, NFU officially supports “policies that ensure equal access to credit, regardless of gender, race, or age” as well as “efforts to remedy historical inequities in access to farm programs and other systemic barriers to succeeding in agriculture faced by socially disadvantaged groups, especially farmers of color.” In that spirit, NFU will be featuring a panel on black land loss and voting rights at its upcoming convention in Savannah, Georgia.
Despite these efforts, Farmers Union membership resembles that of the American farm population at large – that is to say, it’s mostly white. This homogeneity inspired Donna Pearson McClish, an African American food advocate from Wichita, Kansas, to start her own chapter. After attending National Farmers Union’s Fall Legislative Fly-In in 2018 with her daughter Keisha, Donna was struck by the lack of diversity. “There were 350 farmers there and Keisha and I were the only two African Americans!” she noted. “We have so much work to do.”
In the months following the fly-in, McClish got busy gathering support for a local division for other African American Farmers Union members. After several months of work to meet Kansas Farmers Union’s (KFU) bylaw requirements, she hosted a meeting in October and formally requested a charter. During its annual convention in December, KFU chartered the chapter, known as the Creative Grower Connections Chapter. Most of the chapter’s members are African American fruit and vegetable growers, and many are associated with Common Ground Producers and Growers Inc., a non-profit mobile market founded by McClish that provides locally grown produce to seniors and those living in low-income areas or areas with limited access to fresh food.
Though Creative Grower Connections is the first predominantly African American chapter in modern Farmers Union history, we don’t anticipate it will be the last – as we continue to work together towards an equitable and just food system in which every African American who wants to farm has the resources and support they need to do so, we hope to see those changes reflected in the makeup of this organization. In McClish’s words, “we have so much work to do” – but we are very much up to the task.
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