Saving next generation of black farmers

Many see encouraging young people as key to stopping steady decline of black-owned farms.

Joe Bryant Jr. peers across his farm from the grassy edge of a two-lane highway, and shakes his head in wonder.

"I never thought I would be back living and working only half a mile from where I was born," he says, recalling his long journey back home.

Even more astounding to Mr. Bryant is that his son - Joe Bryant III or Joe Three as his family calls him - tills the soil beside him.

After a stint in the US Navy, Joe Three had several industry job offers. But like his father, he felt the tug of the land. Now together, the two farm 4,500 acres of winter wheat, soybeans, and rice.

Clearly, Joe Three is a rarity - African-American, young, and farming. In an age when keeping the next generation on the farm is difficult enough, keeping young blacks has been almost impossible.

Indeed, experts say, unless drastic steps are taken, black farmers will become an American relic by 2001 - a serious blow to agriculture as well as to the culture and social fabric of the South. Already, they are losing land three times faster than other farmers. Fewer than 1 percent of US farms are now black-owned - down from 14 percent in 1920.

African-American farmers could get a boost this week. The US Department of Agriculture is expected to settle a $2.5 billion lawsuit with some 600 black farmers, who charge that the USDA tried to put them out of business by denying or delaying loans routinely given to white farmers. Subsequently, the lawsuit claims, many were forced into debt and foreclosure.

But many African-American farmers, especially in Arkansas, believe the future of farming cannot be brightened solely by the lawsuit's settlement - no matter how large the amount. The future, they say, depends on the next generation.

Future farmers

Encouraging black youths to pursue farming careers is critical, says Calvin King, executive director of Arkansas Land & Farm Development Corp. (ALFDC).

"If we teach about agriculture and what it represents to the economy, then farming can be a viable future for African-American youths, especially in the Delta," he says.

Mr. King knows firsthand the troubles facing minorities in farming, an often complicated, always changing, and certainly declining business. In the early 1980s, King applied for a loan to buy land, but the bank denied his application. That same year, he started the ALFDC.

African-American farmers often have to inherit land or find a retiring farmer who will lease them acreage. In addition, new farmers, especially black, continuously struggle to receive loans and federal funding.

Cleophus Mills is one of the many who didn't inherit the land he cultivates. Through farming connections, he found land to lease in Marvell, Ark.

Mr. Mills decided on farming as a career after meeting King and becoming involved in Youth Enterprise in Agriculture, an ALFDC program that teaches teenagers the importance of farming.

"It taught me to respect the land," says Mills. "I never thought much about farming as a way to make a living."

Youth Enterprise in Agriculture introduces high school students to farming and agriculture-related careers.

Initially, the two-year program was designed specifically for Arkansas students. But in 1993, the USDA recognized its importance and held it up to other institutions as a successful school-to-work program. Today, students from Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences and the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi reap the program's benefits.

Agricultural schooling

In their first year of the program, students are introduced to agriculture at camp. Then they work for six weeks beside mentor farmers in Arkansas. In their second year, students spend six weeks working in various public agriculture agencies and private businesses.

"Students get to see what agriculture is like at the grass-roots level," says Barbara Valerious, principal at Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences.

"Some of the youngsters who are seniors have been to a 3,000-acre rice farm," Ms. Valerious says. "Where would they see that in Chicago? Where would they get the idea for what a complete farm is in Chicago?"

The USDA is also trying to encourage younger generations to pursue careers in farming, but its hope is that many will turn to niche farming, like raising organic produce.

That is causing a great deal of angst among black farmers who want their children to continue growing traditional crops like soybeans, cotton, and rice.

"The challenge in farming, regardless of race, is that farming is changing," says Dallas Smith, USDA deputy undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services. "And that challenge is causing farm operations to change from what they used to be."

Still, many African-American farmers believe the strong potential of a hefty settlement proves the government still values the traditional farm - and the black farmer.

"We have a future in farming," says King, who routinely speaks about the importance of farming at high schools. "If we ever lose the sensitivity of being tied to the land, especially in the South, we will lose our capacity to be a caretaker of the land. No one wants that."

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