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Yields are low and debts are high, causing farmers to struggle more than ever beofre. Tim Middagh / Forum News Service

More black US farmers, but fewer own land or earn top income

The number of black farmers in America has gone up, but to look at that number in isolation would be to mask the vast disparities that fall along racial lines.

There were 45,508 black farmers in 2017, up about 2% from five years earlier, the Department of Agriculture said Thursday, April 11, in its first agricultural census since 2012. About 3.2 million farmers are white, or 95 percent. More striking, ownership is declining faster for black farmers, down about 3% since 2012, compared with 0.3% for white growers.

There's also an income gap, with 2,349 black farmers running operations that made $50,000 a year or more in 2017, compared with 492,000 for white farmers. For decades, black farmers have claimed unfair treatment by the U.S. government, saying bias against them in lending contributed to the small numbers in agriculture.

The disparities remain "awful," John Boyd Jr., founder of the National Black Farmers Association, said by phone Thursday. "It's almost disheartening."

Even in terms of internet access, increasingly vital as margins favor operators with real-time information, black farmers lag. About 61% of black farms have Internet connectivity, compared with 76% for white farms, the data show.

The USDA defines farmers, or producers, as a person who is involved in making decisions for the operation.

The number of black farmers in the U.S. peaked at 925,710 in 1920, according to the USDA.

In 2010, black farmers won a $1.25 billion settlement from the USDA for claims of discrimination. A longer view of history paints an disturbing picture when it comes to black people and American agriculture, starting with slavery and going through sharecropping system and state-sanctioned segregation, along with Jim Crow laws that made land ownership harder to achieve.

Historically, Boyd said, black farmers, including his father, have been hesitant to fill out USDA surveys for fear that it could ultimately lead to them losing property.

Boyd's organization has been trying to promote involvement from younger black people to get into agriculture. Some farms are starting to sprout up in urban cities as people seek to produce their own healthier food. Still, in traditional farming communities, black people from farming families may be dissuaded from carrying on after seeing the struggles of elders, Boyd said.

He said he doesn't expect things to get better under President Donald Trump's administration, saying that USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has yet to meet with his group. Boyd provided Bloomberg with letters dating back to mid-and-late 2017 to Perdue, inviting the secretary to speak at the organization's annual conference, as well as for a meeting.

Meanwhile, Perdue, speaking to reporters on Thursday in Washington, said he meets "with black farmers all the time" on the road and other places, and said that he's not aware of any requests for meetings with black farmers that have been turned down.

This article was written by Mario Parker, a reporter for Bloomberg.

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