Black farms decline, but some fight trend

December 26, 1990|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Evening Sun Staff

PRESTON -- Dorsey Beasley's handshake is not what you'd expect from a man who's worked the fields of Caroline County for most of his 77 years. Instead of a wrenching, calloused vise grip, it's as gentle as his demeanor.

Beasley wore a flannel shirt, dusty shoes and a smile as he greeted a visitor to his 5-acre farm near this Eastern Shore town. He once rented more land, but in retirement his work is confined to these few acres that rank among the smallest of small farms.

He fumbled with a pocketknife while sitting in the cozy living room of his small country home and said proudly, "I ain't never had much, but I've kept what I've got."

Not so very many African-American farmers have been able to do that.

In recent decades, blacks have left the farming business in bundles, continuing a decline that started earlier this century when children of black farmers fled to seek better lives in Northern cities.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of black-operated farms in Maryland declined by 46 percent between 1969 and 1987, from 682 to 371. They were farming only half the amount of land -- 21,377 acres -- that blacks had farmed 18 years earlier.

That compares with a 14 percent decrease of all farms from 17,181 to 14,776 during that period and a 14.5 percent drop in acreage, from 2.8 million to 2.4 million. As a result, the percentage of farms in Maryland operated by blacks has slipped from 3.9 percent to 2.5 percent.

Nationwide, the numbers are even more staggering.

Blacks have owned and operated farms in the United States since the 17th century, in the years following the 1619 Jamestown settlement. The apex of black farm operation came in 1920, when blacks represented 14 percent of all farmers and tended 15 million acres of agriculture.

But in 1987, the latest year for which figures are available, only 1 percent of U.S. farmers were black and they worked only three-tenths of 1 percent of the country's 965 million acres of farmland, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.

Between 1959 and 1987, 91.5 percent of black farmers left their land, declining from 272,541 to 22,954. The numbers continued to fall since 1982, when the U.S. Civil Rights Commission predicted the extinction of black farmers by the year 2000 if the trend is not reversed.

Between 1982 and 1987, the number of black farmers dipped 31 percent, more than four times the 6.8 percent overall decline of farmers.

And the trend apparently will continue because the remaining black farmers are getting old and their children or others apparently aren't eager to replace them. Sixty-one percent of the black farmers were over 55, according to the 1987 census study. And, a mere 172 of the 35,851 U.S. farmers under 25 -- one-half of 1 percent -- were black, that study said.

The plight of black farmers nationwide prompted Rep. Mike Espy, D-Miss., to sponsor an amendment to the 1990 Farm Bill that Congress passed recently. It provides the U.S. Department of Agriculture $10 million to run outreach programs to help minority farmers stay in business.

In Caroline County, blacks say privately that large landholders who are white have taken advantage of any misfortune encountered by desperate black farmers and have bought their land cheap.

Beasley, the Preston farmer, refuses to discuss that, but acknowledges that it's doubly tough for blacks to obtain bank loans to remain afloat.

"It seems like you have to have a lot of land and big equipment and most people just can't afford to do it," said Beasley. "At one time, if a man had 30 or 35 acres he could do all right. Now, unless you've got 300 or 400 acres, you can't."

KIDS NOT INTERESTED

Phillip W. Thomas of nearby Harmony just got too old to keep up with the 92 acres he used to own, and his three surviving children had other ideas for making a living.

"Wasn't no money made on a farm anymore. They wanted to make big money," said Thomas, 88 and blind in one eye. He sold 90 acres of the land 16 years ago and now is thinking about parting with the remaining 2 acres and his two-story frame house.

Fifty years ago, he saw farm ownership as a profitable enterprise. He jumped at the opportunity to buy the land when he was working on it as a sharecropper and the owner encountered tax problems. For 36 years, the tomatoes, corn, soybeans and cucumbers that sprouted from the fields yielded a comfortable living for his family.

If he were 50 years younger, he wouldn't do it again. Not today.

"Everything is so much harder," he says. "Farmers aren't making much money nowadays."

Some are.

Andrew and Beatrice Kelly still own the 60 acres of land they bought in Preston after moving north from Augusta, Ga., in 1943. And the land appears to be in good hands for another generation if their son maintains the deep interest in farming he has shown, unlike other farm children who have kicked the dirt off their heels and headed north.

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