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Black Missouri Farmer: ‘We Are A Rapidly Dying Species’

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Paola Rodriguez
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St. Louis Public Radio
Fulton farmer Lorenzo Powell stands in front of his cattle as he is about to move them to a new grazing pasture.

Lorenzo Powell is a sixth-generation farmer. The cattle farmer’s family has held the same land in Fulton, Missouri, since the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

At one point, the family grew up to 400 acres. But like many Black farmers in the nation’s history, they had to sell the land after being unable to maintain its finances. The farm is now 50 acres, and Powell spends his time breeding and selling 25 pollard cows, the same breed his family specialized in decades ago.

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Paola Rodriguez
Powell and his grandfather, Don Glover, prepare to entice the cows with food in order to move them from one pasture to another.

It’s not his only job. His primary income comes from his work at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s registrar office.

Powell feels pressure to continue that legacy not just for his family, but for the Black community.

“We are a rapidly dying species as far as Black farmers are concerned,” Powell said. “So I feel like it is definitely a weight on my shoulders — not only my shoulders, but other young Black farmers as well — to continue on this legacy of Black farming.”

Missouri is home to 207 Black farmers, according to 2017 USDA census data. They make up less than 1% of Missouri producers. In 1920, there were 2,826, according to census data.

That decline isn’t seen only in Missouri. Nationally, the number of Black producers has dropped from 925,889 in 1920 to 45,508 in 2017 — a 95% decrease. Experts blame a number of reasons: industrialization, lack of access to resources and loans, and systemic discrimination.

The Biden administration has sought to undo that discrimination. Section 1005 of its American Rescue Plan would allow the USDA to pay up to 120% of loan balances for an estimated 16,000 “socially disadvantaged farmers” in the Farm Service Agency’s records.

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Paola Rodriguez
Lorenzo Powell and his grandfather successfully moved their cattle into a new enclosure.

“For generations, socially disadvantaged farmers have struggled to fully succeed due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a statement after the American Rescue Plan’s passage. “The American Rescue Plan ensures that we get the economy on track for everyone, especially those who have been marginalized, who are hurting, who have been overlooked or shut out in the past.”

But while supporters say the program is needed to right historical wrongs, critics — including white farmers — allege discrimination.

White farmers across the country have filed at least 13 lawsuits over the program. A suit representing farmers in nine states, including Missouri, led to a temporary restraining order against the program. The white farmers claimed that because they were ineligible “solely due to their race, they have been denied the equal protection of the law and therefore suffered harm.”

"I feel like it is definitely a weight on my shoulders."
Listen as Fulton farmer Lorenzo Powell shares his experience as one of 207 Black Missouri farmers.

In June, a federal judge in Florida issued an injunction to halt the program, writing, “The government can’t allow some people to take part in federal programs while denying others based solely on the color of their skin.” The Justice Department and White House are now under pressure to react to the injunction. They have three weeks to appeal.

As for Powell, he hopes to apply to the program if it can survive the legal battle. Even so, he says Black farmers need more help than one embattled debt relief program.

“I do not think at all that this is a form of reparations towards the Black farmer at all,” he said. “I feel like reparations start with healing and mending, and I don't think that that could have a financial dollar sign on it at all.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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