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Making Black HERstory: Women in Agriculture

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The month of February is filled with tributes and honors, designed to salute the resilience and contributions of Black Americans. On a quest to overcome oppression, seeking progress, no one hero’s story overshadows another. There are plenty of stories to amplify — they all deserve to be told. When it comes to the role of Black women in agriculture, their stories are underrepresented in the pages of history books, but their impact has been and continues to be transformational. Relentless in the pursuit of justice and equality, Black women on the farmstead, in the boardroom and throughout the halls of Congress deserve a Black HERstory salute.

Fannie Lou Hamer founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969, purchasing prime land in the Mississippi Delta to empower poor black farmers and sharecroppers who for generations had been at the mercy of white landowners. The Farm grew to more than 640 acres, demonstrating potential for prosperity in of the Black farming community under collective growth. Hamer, the daughter of sharecroppers knew the poverty and delayed progress and had a sense of urgency in her vision for Freedom Farm, proclaiming “The time has now where we have to get what we need for ourselves.”

One statistic can set the stage and silence a room when discussing the Black Farmer experience in America. At the turn of the 20th century, Black farmers held 15 million acres of land, but today only 1 million acres are held by this community. It’s a statistic driven by racist policies perpetuated by the privileged through injustice and theft, which  led to the largest Black farmer legal settlement in history — Pigford vs. Glickman (USDA) in 1999. Included in this lawsuit was founder of collective land trust and farm collective, New Communities in Southwest Georgia, Shirley Sherrod. Sherrod’s loss of the collective’s land was the result of discriminatory lending practices uncovered at U.S. Department of Agriculture farming agencies. Sherrod was later appointed by President Obama to serve as Georgia State Director of Rural Development, and today she serves as Executive Director of the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education Inc. and as Vice President for Development for New Communities Inc.

In recent Black HERstory, the agricultural community and media platforms were a buzz at the possibility of Congresswoman Marcia Fudge becoming the USDA’s first Black Secretary. Fudge’s record as chair of the House Committee on Agriculture’s Nutrition Subcommittee included accountability on food and nutrition programs and fighting back against the Trump administration’s cuts to food stamps. Although not selected for the USDA post, the former Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus continues to make Black HERstory as she has been nominated and awaits confirmation for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

As for the USDA, the department’s second-in-charge could be the first Black woman to serve as Deputy Secretary — Dr. Jewel Hairston-Bronaugh was nominated in January. Currently, Commissioner of Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences, Bronaugh is an inclusive and accomplished agricultural leader. Bronaugh has also served as executive director of Virginia’s USDA Farm Service Agency and was dean of Virginia State University College of Agriculture, and 1890 Land Grant Historically Black University. Just as Congresswoman Fudge’s political resume and Dr. Bronaugh’s portfolio include a USDA political appointment and academic leadership, the next generation of women on the rise in agriculture bring even more credentials, career experiences and grit.

Last week, I joined the launch event for the Black Professionals in Food and Agriculture (BPFA), a coalition of leaders in agriculture promoting the advancement and development of Black professionals in the food and agriculture industry. Five of the coalition’s six founders of BPFA are young women leading transformational careers across the agricultural industry and Capitol Hill. House Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn kicked-off the event with remarks on his commitment to improve equity in agriculture. Clyburn, a former commissioner for South Carolina Farm Workers, spoke about the impact his personal experiences with the Black farming community have had on his political and public service career. His message to the men and women convened for the BPFA launch, expressed urgency, like Fannie Lou Hamer in 1969, “…the time is now.”

There are pages of Black women who have contributed to the social, scientific, industry and political progress in agriculture. I encourage you to learn more about the Hall of Fame I look up to as a professional in agriculture. As I reflect on the progress and accomplishments, I acknowledge the distance the agricultural sector must go to reach to equity and inclusion for all. I aspire to affect change like these trailblazers. For me, these women represent the baton exchange in a marathon — each of us must do our part to lighten the load of those who will come behind.

 

Bea Wilson is a diversity strategist and agricultural professional passionate about the next generation of agricultural leaders. She owns IDEATION308, a diversity consulting firm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Twitter: @IDEATION308 

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