Minorities in Agriculture
EAST LANSING, MI – Farming is a hard job, but someone has to do it. Right?
In “’We Didn’t Get Nothing:’ The Plight of Black Farmers”, Waymon R. Hinson and Edward Robinson made an interesting revelation: “American agriculture was built upon the backs of Africans who were enslaved upon American soil.” Through the progression of slavery, peonage, and land ownership, working the land became a symbol of tradition, prosperity, and, for some, independence in African American culture. First, in 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Confederacy still in rebellion against the Union, Then, the Thirteenth Amendment, in 1865 freed slaves everywhere. Hence, the celebration of Juneteenth.
June 19, 1865 is the day the good news of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation issued two and a half years earlier on January 1, 1863 reached Texas. At last.
Forty acres and a mule promised to freed slaves through the creation of the Freedman’s Bureau served as a beacon of hope for a better life – a life free of command and control from white slave masters. According to Malcolm X, “Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice and equality.”
Being so, agriculture represents an essential part of African American culture that has slowly become a silhouette in the light. That’s why it is more important now than ever to foster agricultural education amongst ourselves and others. The origins of American history are rooted in agriculture; and agricultural beginnings are the roots of black history. The saying goes: you have to know where you come from to know where you are going. If not for us, for our next generation’s sake, we cannot lose sight of our history.
Juneteenth celebrations like the one held on Phil and Tia Gispon’s 52-acre farm celebrate “African American freedom while encouraging self-development and respect for all cultures”, according to the Juneteenth website. Educating today’s youth of the past and present must remain at the forefront in molding our future generations into healthy, independent, and knowledgeable individuals. Malcolm X said it best: “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”
In addition to fostering African American and agricultural education, agricultural literacy needs to be improved upon as well, especially in youth populations. For example, it is no secret that socioculture barriers exist in the field of agriculture, more specifically in agricultural education. The hot topic to date, “Where does your food come from?” is a perfect example of a misunderstood socioculture dynamic. The reality: most individuals have no idea where the tomatoes to make spaghetti sauce come from or how the chicken gets to their dinner plates. Popular food initiatives such as Farm to School and Farm to Fork are working to change that reality. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, the rising leader in raising a healthier generation of kids, has helped attract national attention to the childhood obesity crisis.
Thanks to agricultural movements in the “good-food revolution” such as Growing Power Inc., founded by Will Allen in 1993, healthy, local food choices are no longer limited to wealthy communities. People in low-income neighborhoods deserve the benefit of eating “real” food as well. In an April 2010 Jet article featuring “The Urban Farmer,” Allen stated: “Much of the poor food of this country is in low-income areas and mostly people of color communities, so it’s good to see people of color start to recognize and get on board. Eating good food was always thought that only rich could eat this healthy organic food and we’ve dispelled that notion.” With the goal of empowering youth, Growing Power Inc. is moving mountains – mountains that have acted as hurdles in obtaining fresh fruits and vegetables.
The Milwaukee-based company is not alone in this challenging endeavor. The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) is a non-profit, grassroots, community organization aimed at changing perceptions about food, where it comes from, and who controls it. In realizing the power of our youth, one of the core purposes of the organization serves to encourage young people to pursue careers in agriculture, and other food related fields. In the South, black farmers banded together to form the Southeast African American Farmers Organic Network (SAAFON). The farmers of Savannah, Georgia partnered with multiracial organizations to assure access to local, organic food for everyone.
In academia, MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences) has built upon incredible history, fostered inspirational excellence, and provided world-class opportunities ensuring that the field of agriculture is weeded diversely. The national society, founded on the campus of Michigan State University in 1982, serves to promote academic and professional advancement by empowering minorities in agriculture and other related fields. With over 50 chapters, the inclusive society acts a networking tool and social forum, amongst other roles in assisting youth to succeed in the minority-bleak field of agriculture and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines.
Since the twentieth century, African Americans have used the land as means of pursuing a better life. African Americans and agriculture are inseparable. Prominent historical figures in agricultural and science fields have paved the way. George Washington Carver, Charles Henry Turner, Ernest Everett Just, Roger Arliner Young, Percy L. Julian, Emmett Chappelle, and Dr. Charles Richard Drew just to name a few.
Presently, minorities in agriculture and related sciences, from all walks of life, are making their mark on agriculture – one cow, one sow, one plow at a time. Agriculture is the food that we eat, the clothes we wear, the land we farm and the animals we produce, but it is often perceived as not a common place for minorities?
Our history proves otherwise.
Shakara Tyler is a Penn State University senior majoring in Agricultural Sciences with two minors in Agricultural Communications and Law and Liberal Arts. During the summer of 2010 she was a research scholar at Michigan State University in the Summer Research Opportunities Program.
This article was originally printed in the September 12, 2010 – September 25, 2010 edition.