When I was a child, I remember the long, dark drive my parents would make to my grandparent’s old country house in South Georgia. The roads seemed to go on for miles with fields of green, dirt and shrubs. The worst words I could hear were, “Let’s go you guys, we’re going to see Grandma and Grandpa.” Not because I didn’t love and adore my grandparents, but because I knew we would be in the middle of “nowhere” for what felt like days on end. I can still picture the lone driveway and swing on the big oak tree my grandfather made for all of his children when they were growing up. Deep in the country, there was no cell service, at least not for my phone carrier. I would sit on the floor of the kitchen, with the landline stretched as far as I could take it while I wailed into the receiver of my parent’s voicemail, begging for them to pick me up. Back then, I didn’t know any better. I didn’t see the value of the area where most of my maternal family began their lives. I never would have imagined that eighteen years later, as an adult, my work would bring me right smack-dab in the middle of where my roots were planted.
In March, I was tasked with building relationships with farmers, specifically farmers whose voices were some of the least heard: Black farmers. We wanted to tell their stories while elevating the importance of securing climate provisions within the 2023 Federal Farm Bill. In 2022, we secured a historic and critical $20B in investments in climate-smart agricultural practices and conservation efforts through the Inflation Reduction Act. These investments are a chance to make farmers and rural America part of the solution to the climate crisis; reduce greenhouse gas emissions, decrease pollution in our air, water, and lands, and provide farmers with opportunities to diversify their revenue, reduce costs, and be more sustainable overall. With this project, we wanted to prevent funds in the conservation title of the Farm bill from being cut and to secure as much funding as possible for climate-smart and conservation agriculture. Finding the farmers was no small feat. It took about two months filled with dozens of Zooms, phone calls, and email threads for me to finally get connected to a group of farmers who wanted to be heard and trusted me with telling their stories in a beautiful way that they could be proud of. All of the farmers we had the privilege of connecting with are part of the South Georgia Farmers Cooperative, led by their incredible President, Mickeyla Brockington. We wanted the farmers to feel most comfortable while conducting their interviews in a place familiar to them, their farms. Before heading down to South Georgia, I had the opportunity to speak with each farmer and get to know them and truly connect. From there, we headed deep into the heart of Georgia, three hours away from Atlanta to the home and farm of Ms. Bera Samuel in Ambrose, Georgia.
The dirt road to Bera’s home came out of nowhere, and service on my phone was non-existent. An oddly familiar feeling as images of my childhood of country drives with my grandparents flashed across my mind. Kicking up mountains of dirt as I crept down her unfamiliar road with my off-road tires was not on my bingo card, but forward I trekked. Arriving at this beautiful home with a double-ended driveway and lake made me appreciate the beauty, the stillness, and the fresh air. Grateful that she allowed us into her peace, her safe space. I, along with our crew, quickly got to work setting up, and after a few discussions, we landed on the perfect spot to conduct the conversation about her barn under the trees. Bera was joined by her nephew and farmhand. She explained that as she and her husband became older, they were the new backbone of the farm, helping in places she no longer could. She spoke about the importance of investing in sustainable practices and creating a new way of growing produce. She also talked about a dream of hers to have her farm become a learning farm so that new and younger farmers could come and learn how to take care of the land in sustainable ways that would hold its integrity.
We also sat down with a few other farmers from the co-op: Paul Copeland of Living Waters Farms, Robert Jackson, and Sharron Clark, an elderberry farmer. Each of them detailed their history and crops. Mr. Copeland, a rancher in Shiloh, Georgia, spoke about his various initiatives and partnerships with environmental and agricultural departments at Georgia colleges. He was also a second-generation Rancher whose father got him into the business. As an Angus rancher, he was the first Black person to enter into the University of Georgia Bull Test in 2020. The Bull Test is an eighty-four-day exam that gives breeders the scientific knowledge on what is needed to raise bulls quickly and efficiently. As a result, Copeland had the 13th highest-ranking bull in the nation. He also stressed the importance of water conservation and funding for ranchers like himself who need farmworkers to help keep their land running.
The story and experience that touched me a bit deeper was that of farmer Tony Carter. Mr. Carter is one of those people who never meets a stranger. His laugh and tone are always warm and welcoming like a big hug, and he can be quite the jokester. Tony is a retired Navy Veteran who served for twenty-three years and was born on the farm he owns. During his service, he was a part of 9/11 Desert Storm and was on the ground when the Marine Corps Base blew up in Lebanon. As a result of this and other events throughout his service, he suffered from PTSD nightmares. When he retired, he began farming as a way to cope. In 2011, he purchased his farm from his family in Telfair County, Georgia. Tony experienced many trials and tribulations being denied loans and having to buy more farmland to prove himself. An NPR analysis of USDA data found that Black farmers receive a disproportionately low share of direct loans given to farmers, and the percentage of rejections is upwards of 16% while the percentage is a fraction of that at 4% for their white counterparts. Many black farmers also give up on the loan process because of all the steps needed, which can often be confusing and lack of access to technical assistance. Despite these challenges, Tony was able to secure loans to buy all of his family’s farmland, which came to a little over 200 acres. Even after the success of owning all the land, life didn’t get easier. He and his wife gave up their forever home in order to sustain the farm and pay back a large portion of the loans owed, but they still carry a substantial amount of debt. It also doesn’t help that last year, Georgia had record-breaking heat of 106 degrees in the summer. In 2022, Georgia experienced an extremely warm winter, which resulted in the premature bloom of peach trees, triggering them to be ruined in March of 2023 from a partial freeze when temperatures dropped. This devastation affected 18 Georgia counties destroying 90% of the crop forcing the Federal Government to issue a disaster declaration for the counties affected. Farmers across the state have faced disasters whether it’s too much rain resulting in water rot, extreme cold, and extreme heat due to the effects of climate change. Tony has a creek that runs on his farm, but it flows down from a few of his neighboring farms and as a result of the heat, his cattle went to wade in the water. Unfortunately, they contracted parasites, and ten of them died. On a farm that utilizes cattle as a main source of revenue, losing one cow is a financial burden, but losing ten is an astronomical loss, especially for a small business owner. He practices strip-tilling on his farm, which minimizes soil disturbance and keeps 75 percent of residue on the soil surface. They also practice cover-cropping which puts back bionutrients into the soil. He, like all of the farmers we met with, recognizes that the profit margin is so tight in farming that they need financial help from the government.
After our candid conversations, the crew and I headed to Tony and his wife’s farm in Oscilla, which was about twenty minutes away from Bera’s for some extra footage. When we arrived, I was amazed by its vastness. They had this huge open-air garage with a fridge stocked with cold drinks and the cutest little dog running around. He and his wife took us all around the grounds, and the land stretched further than the eye could see, so beautiful and so lush. The most special moment of it all was when they took us to meet the cows. I wasn’t expecting the cows to come right to us when we pulled up beside the pasture like puppies run to the door when you come home. I was afraid to get out of the truck, but with a little convincing from Tony, I finally got out, and I’m so glad I did. It was the coolest thing to see the cows even verbally respond to his wife’s call. She tried to teach me how to do it, but the cows were not in the talking mood when it came to my call and response.
As I stood there between the pasture and creek with big cows all around me, laughing more than I could have ever imagined that morning when I arrived in Ambrose, Georgia, I began to think of how much this all took. How much it took for all of these Black farmers to own the land I was standing on. How many of our ancestors lost their lives in the pursuit of their freedom. How many miles were marched for us as a people to earn the right to own the land of our own. The amount of wealth in land ownership was something I couldn’t even fathom until I stepped foot in South Georgia as an adult. So, before this day, I used to take for granted the weeks I would spend with my grandparents on the land they owned, surrounded by other properties they owned; where my great aunts and uncles also had farmland as far as the eye could see. I now stand eternally grateful for what it took.
It is so important that Congress keeps conservation funding in the 2023 Federal Farm Bill because in order for the farms I visited to continue to be passed down to the next generation, farmers must be able to sustain their land. These investments are our chance to make farmers and rural America part of the solution to the climate crisis, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, decrease pollution in our air, water, and lands, and provide farmers these opportunities to diversify their revenue, reduce costs, and be more sustainable overall.
In loving memory of Apostle Benjamin Knox Sr., My grandfather from South Georgia.