An interview with Owusu Bandele – this interview is part of the original “Voices that Make a Difference” series written by Andrea King Collier for the Food Security Learning Center’s Race in the Food System topic.
Owusu Bandele, Ph.D., professor at the Southern University Agriculture Center says that if you want look at race and the food system you don’t have to go very far. “The black farmer’s lawsuit speaks volumes,” Dr. Bandele says.
In early 1999, the black farmers’ class action suit against the USDA was settled with a consent decree. According to the ruling, the black farmers who could prove that they were discriminated against would be awarded damages in the amount of $50,000, making it the largest civil rights settlement in the history in the country “The resolution of the original suit was riddled with problems,” Dr. Bandele says.
According to Dr. Bandele, in the original suit, black farmers had to seek out a white farmer with similar circumstances to show that they had experienced a hardship due to the discriminatory lending practices. “Because of the red tape involved, 70,000 farmers got their applications in past the deadlines, and saw their claims thrown out,” he says. “Only 20,000 claims were actually accepted.” And he says that the way the claims were settled caused a lot of internal dissention. “Working farmers were filing claims that were getting denied, while families that never farmed the land were awarded money.”
In September, 2004 the Black Farmers and Agriculturist Association (BFAA) and 11 other plaintiffs filed a new suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, seeking $20.5 billion and class action status for up to 25,000 black farmers whom the organization claims were denied fair loans and farm programs between 1997 and 2004. In June of 2008, more than 800 black farmers, organized by the Black Farmers Association, filed a new lawsuit against the USDA; just two weeks after Congress reopened a 1999 settlement over past discrimination. But Dr. Bandele says that the reopened cases will only address those who filed but were late.
Dr. Bandele says that the issues raised in the suit help illuminate the shrinking numbers of black farmers. “In 1920, there were one million black farmers in this country,” Dr. Bandele says. “That number has dropped to under 30,000 today.” Overall, he says there has been a decline in small farms across the board.
In 1997, Dr. Bandele and his wife, Efuru created Food For Thought, a demonstration organic farm in Baton Rouge, to encourage other small scale farmers to explore organics as a way to sustain themselves. He also became the first certified organic farmer in the Louisiana, growing on four acres. While consumers often decry the cost of purchasing organic produce, Dr. Bandele says that surprisingly, “when I sold my produce at the farmer’s markets, my prices were not much higher than those of traditional farmers.”
With the high cost of fuel, Dr. Bandele says, “things could open up for local farmers.” He anticipates that consumers will start to buy locally, which would not only support the small farmers, but increase food security in communities as well. “When outbreaks from imported produce occur, it causes problems all across state lines and the country,” he says. At the same time that the country was dealing with the imported tomato crisis, Dr. Bandele says that local farmers were selling their tomatoes with no problem.
In his work he has been active in creating and nurturing community garden projects in the South. In the process he has helped cultivate some unlikely black farmers– people living in a homeless shelter in Opelousas, Louisiana. “Working in the gardens helped them appreciate the land,” Dr. Bandele says. “The growing of food also helped them improve their diets and allowed them to sell some of what they grew.”
Our thanks to Andrea King Collier for writing and sharing these powerful stories. For more information about Andrea’s work, visit www.andreacollier.com.
See the notes from Owusu Bandele’s presentation at the 2008 GFJI Gathering:
The Deep Roots of Our Land-Based Heritage: Environmental, Social, and Cultural Implications – A discussion of Black contributions to agriculture – other than labor (so many people only think of labor).