Eddie Lewis III is a fifth-generation sugarcane grower in Louisiana who says the amount of land his family is leasing is shrinking.
Speaking with NPR’s Living Downstream podcast, he says his family once farmed nearly 4,000 acres of leased land, which is currently double the amount of what he farms now. Lewis also notes that he’s not the only Black farmer or landowner who has lost land over the past several decades due to what he describes as racist policies.
Lewis says his family acquired the land over the past century through leases with white property owners and entering into sharecropping contracts.
“We maintain a lot of generational wealth through the leases on the land, we still have those relationships with the landowners,” he said. “With all the new white farmers in the area and the competition, you become automatic bait whenever you're an African American farmer in a predominantly white territory or white community.”
Those leases are now disappearing.
Only 1.4 percent of the more than three million farmers in America are Black, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In fact, since the 1920s, the number of Black farmers has dropped from nearly a million to around 50,000. Currently, they own just around a half a percent of the country’s farmland.
Lewis says he was hoping that he could stay competitive though the debt relief initiative buried within the 2021 American Rescue Plan for disadvantaged farmers, but those payments have been stalled due to a lawsuit filed by 12 white farmers who claim the USDA program that helps farmers of color is discriminatory.
Lewis, who only currently owns 250 acres of land, says he’s worried he will continue to lose land leases with white property owners who prefer to work with new, often white, farmers who have better equipment and resources.
“Black farmers ain't going to exist in about another four to five years. And I'm talking specifically about what I know, which is sugar cane,” he said. “This is my ambition. I want to become the best sugarcane grower in America. This is all I know.”
According to the USDA, by the end of the 20th century, the amount of land Black farmers had amassed went down from a peak of about 20 million acres to between 2 and 7 million. Property lawyer Thomas Mitchell says preliminary estimates show that the loss of land itself is worth around $300 billion.
“They have lost [land] involuntarily, whether it was through extralegal means in terms of lynching and violence and intimidation or a variety of discrimination from the public sector, in the private sector and then other kind of legal means,” he said. “There's just been an incredible sapping of generational wealth from those communities.”
Lewis says the financial hit from the loss of farmland has been substantial and has prevented him from buying a piece of equipment that could help him get a better crop yield. In turn, that could then lead to the loss of another lease with a property owner who thinks they could do better with someone else.
“It all starts with the USDA,” he said. “When you go down to borrow money, and you’re supposed to be borrowing a million dollars and they give you $200,000, you start losing land. Yields go down.”
Similarly, June Provost, a fourth-generation farmer, says he and his wife’s legacy could be wiped out and that white farmers will argue that farming is just hard generally.
“What does that mean? Does that mean that farming is hard for Black people?” Angie Provost said. “I had my own farm and I could barely get any resources.”
The Provosts say this all is taking a toll on the health of local Black farmers, many of whom are dealing with issues such as strokes, hypertension, heart attacks and even contemplating suicide.
“It's a slow death,” said Provost. “I mean, because since we've spoken out, I mean, so many other black farmers around this area came to us literally crying and saying, you know, something similar happened to them.”
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