Arkansas Black Vitality Cover: This Land is My Land
By Dwain Hebda – A farmer’s family tree isn’t like most peoples’; it stops where the trunk breaks the earth’s surface and flattens out over acres and seasons and years. Over there, the parcel Grandpa bought during the Great Depression, wheat billowing in the sun. Closer by, the plats where Mom and Dad raised their kids, tended their herds and grew cotton. And across the road and half a mile yonder, new ground extends the story into the future, a legacy for those yet to come.
Every day, John Lee works and walks his family tree, 960 acres of Lee County ground from which he coaxes soybeans, corn, cotton, wheat, grain sorghum and yellow peas. He is the fourth generation to work here, a privilege bought by his forefathers’ experience — slavery, drought, sallow prices and epic floods.
Family history inspires Lee to keep moving forward, even as current times land one roundhouse after another. The good news is market prices are up, which means he will recoup much of the extra cost of getting a crop out of the ground. The bad news, as every producer knows, is how much can happen between planting and harvesting, any one of which can damage or wipe out a crop before it can be sold and the bills paid.
“You’re always at the mercy of Mother Nature,” he said. “That’s been a bit of a challenge; this year has been unusually hot and also fairly dry for a certain portion of the farming season. The past several years, we’ve had some early, wet springs that delayed planting in my operation. We felt the effects of tariffs a few years ago, too.”
Arkansas’ agriculture, a $16 billion economic engine per Arkansas’ Farm Bureau, is sputtering. Coming through the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak relatively stable, the waves set off by the pandemic have tossed the industry onto rocky shores as of late. Sky-high costs, labor shortages and supply chain issues have hamstrung many producers, thrusting the nation’s food supply into the spotlight.
In June, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported the number of real row crop acres planted was down from March’s reported intentions by about 155,000 acres across all commodities. Peanuts and corn led the decline, both in March-to-June differences and year-over-year, while rice was in line with 2022 projections but down from 2021 acres. Overall soybean and cotton acres were both up over last year but were trending to be below 2022 intentions come harvest time.
Analysts pointed to drought conditions in some regions of the state as well as high operational costs as primary factors in the reductions.
“It’s been a very challenging last few years; we’ve had a lot of unanticipated impacts in farming,” Lee said. “In previous seasons, we were spending about $350 for a ton of fertilizer. This year, fertilizer was over $1,000, somewhere around $1,100. The high cost of diesel and the high cost of fertilizer were not in our plans this year.”
Lee said Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds and wider access to SBA loans helped sustain his operation in 2020, but industry-wide the difficult economics of farming have steadily gained the upper hand. Black producers, as a market segment, have been particularly susceptible.
“Statistically, two percent of the world’s population are farmers,” said P.J. Haynie, a fifth-generation farmer with ground in Phillips and Lee counties. “Then you go find 100 farmers and line them up, only one of those men and women is going to be a Black farmer. And when you find 100 Black farmers, only about eight of those men and women are going to be full-time row-crop farmers, growing corn, cotton, peanuts, rice and soybeans. Realistically, that’s where a lot of the money is, in production agriculture.”
Haynie, who manages his family’s ancestral ground in Virginia as well as thousands of acres in Arkansas, said the decline in headcount hastens declines in land ownership, and therefore generational wealth.
“In 1920, there were a million Black farmers in the country who owned 16 million acres of land,” he said. “Fast forward to present day, USDA statistics show less than 15,000 Black farmers in the country actively engage in farming, with two million acres of land in ownership. That’s something we cannot get back.”
This phenomenon underscores the importance of protecting family lands, especially where it pertains to Black families. The Arkansas Department of Agriculture supports a number of programs to register and recognize land that has been in families for a century or longer, but Lee said producers need to take proactive legal steps to help ensure succession of holdings.
“Our land is in a limited liability company,” he said. “When we put the land in the limited liability corporation, everybody quick-claimed their land over to where they don’t own the land anymore. The LLC owns the land. We’ve also made it where you can sell your portion of the land, but you’ve got to offer it to one of the other members of the LLC.”
Lee said many farmers don’t take these steps because they are unaware of the limits of other means for handing down property.
“I don’t know where we got this false notion that heir property is the best way to protect land; the minute you talk to someone in the legal field, they’ll tell you it’s the worst way to protect your land,” he said. “When we hired a lawyer, we asked him to give us all of the options. I think one of the things that is a problem is there are not enough people who are seeking legal counsel to become educated on what’s the best way to go on this.”
As the number of existing Black farmers declines, Haynie said, it reduces the network each remaining producer can rely upon for help or to inspire the next generation.
“People think farming is just plows, cows and sows and sitting up on an open-cab tractor with a piece of wheat straw hanging in your mouth,” he said. “Well, that’s not going to attract anybody to get in. Nobody’s going to want to do that. But if you show the positive attributes of life — hunting and fishing and working with your family and living on the land — there is something positive to that.”
Haynie said he’s encouraged by educational programs such as what’s offered through the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, for helping increase the number of young people pursuing agriculture careers. And, he said the industry faces additional opportunities thanks to increased attention being paid to minority-owned businesses as a whole in recent years. But he also said the jury is still out on how well that awareness translates to action.
“I do see more attention, but I think a lot of it is lip service and there’s no accountability,” he said, “So many companies have set forth these Environmental and Social Governance goals. They said we want to increase our spending by this much with women- and minority-owned businesses and we want to do this and we want to do that. Everybody came out singing a good song, but now let’s see how much of that has been done.
“We are fortunate to live in a country where we have one of the most abundant, safe food supplies in the world compared to other countries, however, the agriculture industry in general needs to recognize the ways it needs to change in terms of diversity and making the playing field more equitable. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.
“Food is the one item that always moves the needle. I don’t care where you go in the world, there’s no culture without agriculture.”