From building small communities to solving environmental issues, farmers stand at the center of solutions to national problems, says Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, a Georgia-based non-profit cooperative association of Black farmers, landowners, and cooperatives.
“Farmers are at the heart of the solutions of our country,” said Blanding in a Dairy Defined podcast episode released today. “They're probably one of the most important pieces of our nation, and it's about time for us as a country to understand that.”
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Hello, and welcome to the Dairy Defined podcast. Cornelius Blanding, an Alabama native, is the executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, a Georgia-based non-profit cooperative association of black farmers, landowners, and cooperatives that strives to increase income and ensure land retention and development for family farmers, especially African-American farmers. Equity toward underserved farmers was an important goal in the coronavirus stimulus package Congress passed in March, which included debt relief and access to credit. Blanding testified before a House Agriculture Committee hearing on the state of black farmers in March, calling their story one of struggle and perseverance. Sharing some of this story as well as the role that cooperatives have played in helping black farmers brings Mr. Blanding here today. Cornelius, thanks for joining us.
Cornelius Blanding, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund: Alan, thank you. Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Let's go back to that March testimony. I already included the first part of your quote, but I want to complete what you said. After your comment on struggle and perseverance, you said the struggle has been the reality of land loss, discrimination, and a lack of access to credit and resources, and yet a reality of feeding families, anchoring communities and protecting our environment. Tell us a little more about this story.
Cornelius Blanding, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund: Oh, definitely, Alan. No, thanks for the question. And as you pointed out, that hearing on the status of black farmers was extremely important and more importantly, long overdue. It's about time for us as a nation to really talk about the people who are extremely important to the nation for so many reasons, and by that, I'm talking about farmers. This nation is primarily made of small farmers and they not only feed our country, our nation and their communities, but they're at the heart of the environment. And many of the challenges we have as a nation are because of environmental issues, but also in terms of the lack of access or the access to food.
We think that farmers are at the heart of the solutions of our country. They're probably one of the most important pieces of our nation and it's about time for us as a country to understand that. And when we start understanding that from a consumer's perspective, I think it makes it easier for legislators, for policy makers to really address it in a policy format and for farmers to really see themselves as part of the solution. I think they behave differently when they see that.
I talk about that in general, in terms of why it's important for farming, but in particular, to understand about why all farmers are important. Our lands are contiguous and we can't solve a problem by dealing with sub-piece of the solution. You can't deal with a white farmer and not deal with a black farmer and solve the problem or a Native American farmer or a Hispanic farmer. You have to deal with all farmers. And in order to do that, you have to understand the issues, the challenges of all farmers.
And so we, as a Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a federation of black farmers, landowners and cooperatives, we focus on black farmers as being one part of that overall solution. And so the challenges of black farmers are historic and they've had to deal with discrimination. They've had to deal with lack of access to resources. They've had to deal with a number of things that isn't in the whole farming equation. Farmers have to deal with problems in general, the weather, pests, so many other things, and we don't need to make that profession any more difficult than it is. And for black farmers, it has been just that and many other farmers as well, but in particular, black farmers have to deal with some man-made disasters, if you will. And for black farmers to overcome that, it's a story of perseverance and they shouldn't have to.
And I think we're just getting to the point where we're starting to address those issues, but in order to truly address them, you have to understand the root cause, the problem. And that hearing was about laying out: Here's what the problem has been for black farmers historically. And because of this problem, black farmers have lost land. And that loss of land has had some detrimental consequences to their families, to their communities, to the region, but more importantly, to our nation overall.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: In 1910, there were 218,000 black farmers owning 15 million acres of land. By the end of the century, that number was down to 18,000 owning 2.3 million acres of land. Why did this happen?
Cornelius Blanding, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund: Yes, this loss of man has happened for a number of reasons. Three of the major causes: One, discrimination. Two, this issue around heirs property. And three, the lack of access to fair and equitable credit. One, discrimination, so you've had black farmers being discriminated against at the very agency which is designed to set up, to support them, the people's department, the Department of Agriculture, which should be supporting every farmer in our nation, but it hasn't supported black farmers at the same level as it's supported others. And on contrast, it has discriminated against them. The Farm Service Agency within the [inaudible 00:05:11] Department of Agriculture was one of the major agencies that discriminated against black farmers when it came to credit, primarily, but other programs and resources as well.
So, discrimination being one of the major reasons, but the other being something called heirs property, and it's a unsecure form of title. It's basically when a farmer, a landowner passes on and doesn't have a will or an estate plan and that land is passed down to generation to the heirs. And those heirs then control the property, own the property, but it's not a clear form of title. And within the system that we operate in, with the USDA in particular, those farmers who own this heirs property, those landowners, they don't get access to the resources, the programs in a equitable manner because of this unclear title, this what we call cloudy title and it has prevented folks from getting access to resources. And I say, heirs property is a civil rights issue because one part of civil rights is that every citizen of this country has the access to the resources of this country, but heirs property prevents that.
And the third, again, leapfrogging to that, is that access to credit that we talk about. Every business needs credit. Credit is the lifeline of many if not all businesses. But here it is black farmers and their farm operation, they haven't had access to equitable, fair credit and that has caused the problem. It has been another reason for that land loss. So those are the three reasons that we lay out as primary or main reasons for that loss of land over that century that you pointed out.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: But you also talk about how you don't solve or address the problems of black farmers without looking at the problems of agriculture and all farmers as a whole. Declines in number of farmers and farm acreage is not exclusive to black farmers. Dairy farms themselves nationwide have seen a 90% decline in their numbers from the 1970s to the present. Part of it is we're just a more urban nation. Another part is consolidation and efficiency. So you've talked about the issues that are specific to black farmers, but then what are some of the broader issues that agriculture faces? And describe a little bit of the work that you do on those.
Cornelius Blanding, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund: Dairy farmers is a prime example. In this country, we've lost a lot of dairy farmers and you can even look at the black community and see that. It's a tragedy overall, because I would hate to see what this country looks like without milk. Those are problems that we have to deal with as a nation as well. So we recognize that. We understand that. We support all farmers. We deal with it from the perspective of black farmers and then we work in coalitions with dairy farmers. We work in coalition with Native American farmers. We work in coalition with Hispanic farmers. We work in coalition with family farmers because it takes all of us tackling this issue from every different angle. And again, our organization is an organization owned and controlled by black farmers. So we deal with it specifically there, but we deal with the understanding that it's a part of the whole, the whole farming community, and we work in coalitions with others.
And when we do things, and we talked about the black farmer lawsuit, I mentioned that earlier. The black farmer lawsuit was great because it helped support, recognize the problem of black farmers and it helped deal with the issues for black farmers and break and make the problem known to the public. But more importantly, it set precedents. Behind the heels of debt, that was also a Native American farmer lawsuit. That was a women farmers lawsuit. That was a Hispanic farmers lawsuit. It set precedents to deal with all the issues. Sometimes you have to tackle the issues one issue at a time and deal with them and set precedents and then work with others to follow that model.
So, our hopes is that as we solve the problems of black farmers, as we make sure those problems are apparent to all, we also shed a light on all family farmers, the issue and the plight of all family farmers. Black farmers are just a subset of that, but we as black farmers have dealt with it from a angle that it shouldn't be dealt with, and that's in terms of discrimination.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: So when we're looking at the coronavirus stimulus package, which is now being implemented, tangible things, forgiveness of debt, increased access to credit, what does this do for rural communities and the farmers who are affected by these provisions?
Cornelius Blanding, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund: The pandemic, which we classify and everybody probably as a disaster, it was a disaster for this country. It was a disaster just like when Hurricane Katrina came to the South. It was a disaster. Tornadoes, there are a number of disasters that plague our nation and various communities. But those rural communities are always impacted at a larger rate than the others and primarily because the lack of access to many things, whether it be broadband, whether it be health care. And the way the population is spread out, our rural communities in our nation have beared the brunt of many of these disasters at a rate higher than most others, because they don't have access to all the services that others have.
What this is about is about a community, a family, about a region being resilient. Disasters will happen. How you respond to them, how you bounce back is what matters. And when you have the largest portion of your food coming from rural communities, you have to make sure that those communities are able to bounce back at as quick of a rate or quicker rate than the other parts, because you need what's coming from these rural communities: food. When the COVID hit, our farmers were impacted. They were impacted like every one of us in this nation, but they were impacted also by their livelihoods. If a restaurant closed, that farmer couldn't provide food there. If we weren't going to the grocery store, the farmer couldn't provide food there. But also the farmers, if they're not out there farming and farming the right way, our environment is also at risk and we're not seeing those things until they happen.
So, I say to you that we have to deal with this pandemic and every disaster in a way where we understand that farmers are first responders. Farmers are a part, they're right there on ground zero all the time. And we have to make sure that we're dealing with them and we have to make sure they're resilient so that they're one of the first groups of people to bounce back after these disasters and that they're part of the solutions in it. But instead, they're the ones disproportionately impacted; black communities, black farmers disproportionately impacted and they're part of the solutions of our nation.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Your work puts you in touch with a lot of cooperatives. Tell us a little bit about the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund, and the importance of cooperatives to black farmers.
Cornelius Blanding, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund: Thank you for asking that question. So we are a cooperative association. We're a cooperative association of black farmers, landowners and cooperatives all around the South. The Federation was founded directly out of the civil rights movement, and it was founded by 22 cooperatives. It was 22 cooperatives that came together to create what they called a federation, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. And this was important because they needed support from a regional level and they understood the value of them, of their cooperatives cooperating together. But the heart of that, they understood the value of cooperatives.
Cooperatives have always been a tool, a vehicle of dealing with necessity and especially in our community with black farmers. In the '60s, during the civil rights movement and even before, when black farmers faced certain challenges, when they were being discriminated against, when they didn't have access to certain civil rights, certain resources, by necessity they had to pool their resources as cooperatives to deal with those situations. They still have to pool their resources to deal with these various situations, that discrimination is a part of normal day life for black farmers, but also to deal with things like the access to credit or to deal with the issues that you brought up, consolidation. The reality is that black farmers and all small farmers have to compete with larger farmers, with corporations. And many times the only way to do that is if they start creating scale for themselves, they start aggregating.
The average black farmer farms or operates on less than a hundred acres. You can't compete in this country on that kind of farm and that size of farm. So you had the agency years ago talking about, "Get big or get out." And it was because of the trend of our country, where we moved to and consolidation happened all over the place and especially in agriculture. And the only way to move, the only way to compete against that, to continue to thrive and to continue to recognize and keep small farmers farming is they have to have a avenue, what they can aggregate. They can gain some scale and they can compete and continue to stay alive while also continuing to recognize the value of these small farms because again, they play a vital role in our nation.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: So, as you're seeking solutions, what hopes do you have for black farmers looking ahead? And what concerns you most about the future?
Cornelius Blanding, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund: What concerns me the most is we're in a moment now, like all moments. We've had things that happen and they happen in spurts. The civil rights movement was a critical time in this nation. It exposed the challenges of our nation. It dealt with the black community in terms of their treatment in this nation, but it was a pivotal moment for our nation overall. Our nation was better because of the civil rights movement. I think our nation is better because of the things that have happened recently, whether it's the exposure of the pandemic in terms of shedding a light on some of the inequities in our systems and how we have to rebuild. Or it was just some of the protests that were in the street, they exposed certain inequities, certain inequalities and as a nation, I hope we get better because of it.
I think we are getting and have gotten better because of it, but what concerns me is that it ends up being a moment and that when things, when all this, when the pandemic leaves and when the COVID is no longer a major issue, do we go back to operating the way we used to be? And that concerns me, that we don't take full advantage of this moment and really build and rebuild systems that benefit the whole nation, that benefit all of its citizens. And so that's what's concerning to me. That's the fear, but I'm hopeful. And I'm hopeful because of this time. I'm hopeful because of all the new legislation that has gone out there to recognize the challenges.
It might seem like it's about black farmers, like the civil rights movement seemed like it was just about black communities, but it wasn't. It was about our whole nation. It was about: If we can deal with this problem with black farmers, we can deal with this problem for dairy farmers. We can start looking at this nation as a nation of farmers. We can start looking at our challenges as a nation, as a challenge that can be overcome. And so I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful based on, again, these legislations that are passed. I'm hopeful based on the way people have protested in the streets. I'm hopeful based on the way people have supported other people and have started to speak out about things.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Anything you'd like to add?
Cornelius Blanding, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund: I would say that I'm a firm believer that our politics matter. We have poverty in this country because of we have poverty in our politics. And I think when our politics catch up, we start finding solutions. Politics may seem complicated, but it's extremely simple. It is nothing more than the distribution or redistribution of resources of our nation, of our tax dollars. And where we spend our money as a nation really talks about our priorities. I hope that we prioritize small farmers, all farmers, including black farmers and we put the resources of our nation behind that, and making sure that they are a part of the solutions of our country because they are. And I hope that our politics catch up to that.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Cornelius Blanding is the executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund. Cornelius, thank you for joining us today.
Cornelius Blanding, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure and thank you for shining a light on these issues.
Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And that's it for today's podcast. To learn more about the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, go to federation.coop, where you can see more farmer resources and learn more about the organization's history. For more Dairy Defined, we're on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and Google Play under the podcast name Dairy Defined. Thank you for joining us.