Black farmer in SC wants new land to be ‘a place to heal’
BY DAVID TRAVIS BLAND, THE STATE THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Sadia Pollard unrolls old billboards at their farm in Lugoff, South Carolina on Saturday, June 19, 2021. Pollard will place the billboards over their tilled field, and the heat under the tarp will kill any remaining weeds. The 24-year-old Black farmer runs Prosper Farm, where they grow root vegetables on part of an acre at Clemson University’s Sandhill Research and Education Center in northeast Columbia. The crops are sold by word of mouth or are given to people. (Joshua Boucher/The State via AP)
Sadia Pollard’s father has a memory.
It’s the 1980s and Pollard’s father, a young man then, drives by his grandparents’ home and farm in the Chesapeake Bay area. The day is hot. He sees his grandmother bent over and digging in the dirt, maybe pulling weeds or taking a vegetable from the ground. He’s embarrassed that his grandmother is working the farm, Pollard said.
He thought farming “wasn’t respectable” at the time, said Pollard, who uses nonbinary pronouns.
In some rural communities like their great grandmother’s, leaving “is the biggest thing you could do,” they said. “To leave and not have to do what your grandparents did.”
Last Saturday, Pollard placed used billboard images over a field in Lugoff. The billboards will trap heat underneath and kill weeds, Pollard said.
A generation after their father felt embarrassed by farming, Pollard is working in a field in the hot sun.
The 24-year-old Black farmer runs Prosper Farm, where they grow root vegetables on part of an acre at Clemson University’s Sandhill Research and Education Center in northeast Columbia. The crops are sold by word of mouth or are given to people.
Now, Pollard is expanding to a five-acre property in Lugoff. Currently, Pollard is in a lease-to-own deal at the property and is asking for help raising $50,000 for startup costs like fertilizer, the repair and transport of a family tractor, mushroom fruiting house, greenhouse, irrigation equipment and larger, more expensive tools.
Pollard’s new farm is being built as unfair federal funding practices for Black farmers are being exposed and battles to right those discrepancies are fought. In South Carolina, several state representatives have introduced a bill that, in no uncertain words, calls out the discrimination against Black farmers in the state and seeks to create a program to mend historical wrongs. Black South Carolina farmers are doing their own work to grow their numbers.
Despite the inequities, Pollard is undaunted. Pollard is tilling earth and readying to put seeds in the ground this summer. They want the farm to teach and inspire Black people and others.
Farming and working the land has been “a form of liberation and healing” and “an essential part of my identity,” Pollard wrote for the online fundraiser.
“That’s the way I’ve always felt as I work land — as accepted by the land and nature and the natural world,” Pollard said.
FACING THE SUNSHINE
Sunflowers have followed Pollard their whole life.
When Pollard was about 6 years old, they stood looking up at a sunflower, enamored with how much taller it was than them. That sunflower began the fascination with plants and growing, Pollard said.
Farming had been in Pollard’s family for generations. Her great grandparents on both sides owned and lived on farms. Some of that land is still in the family, although it’s leased out. Pollard’s grandmother was a prolific flower gardener. Their mother is too, and she cans vegetables, especially the beets Pollard grows.
After studying farming at a North Carolina agricultural school, Pollard came to South Carolina and connected with other Black farmers. Those connections led Pollard to start an incubator farm at Clemson’s research center in March. Pollard grows beets, turnips, carrots and radishes.
Pollard gained another helpful connection after meeting a Lugoff woman who was moving out of the country. The woman didn’t want her land to be converted to commercial or residential use, Pollard said. The owner found a willing steward in Pollard.
Pollard isn’t growing at the new location in Lugoff yet but has started readying the soil. Their focus won’t be crops that have the highest profits but ones that can be stored for months in a pantry, Pollard said. The new farm will grow okra, egg plant, pinto beans, corn, winter squash and cow peas.
The land owner, who is from Puerto Rico, and Pollard also agreed that a farm should provide an opportunity for Black people, indigenous people and people of color to reconnect with nature and farming. Pollard has made this one of the farm’s primary missions.
For some, farming conjures thoughts of enslavement and forced labor in the South, which has caused long-term detrimental effects, Pollard said. Indigenous people were forcefully removed from their homes and farms by colonizing countries and the early leaders of the United States.
Beyond realizing the dream of being a farmer of their own land, Pollard hopes Prosper Farm will be a place to heal wounds for those “that have been historically oppressed through land.”
Prosper Farm will be a safe space for Black people to be themselves, free of expectations about how to act to make white people comfortable and free of being thought of as a danger, Pollard said.
“We have to understand that nature does not judge us. Nature does not tell us what we have to be to be valued and be respected. I want to make sure that’s very clear when people come onto that property in Lugoff.”
At the incubator farm in northeast Columbia, Pollard discovered a sign that their hopes will work out.
In a path, a sunflower grew after being hit with a steamer meant to kill weeds. Now, it’s the tallest plant in that garden and “reassurance and affirmation in my life constantly that working land and growing food is where I need to be,” Pollard said.
‘THE TIME TO TAKE ACTION’
While Pollard is cultivating a space to heal hurtful connections to farming, five South Carolina lawmakers are seeking “to balance the scales of justice after decades of systemic racism ... and encourage a resurgence of Black farmers.”
House Bill 3543 was introduced by Rep. JA Moore, D-Berkeley. The bill would create a Black Farmers Restoration Program in the state agriculture department. The program would use state money and other funding to buy land and give it to Black farmers.
Reps. Jermaine Johnson, Marvin Pendarvis, Shedron Williams and Michael Rivers signed onto the bill.
The bill does not equivocate: it’s a form of reparations.
“The time to take action is long overdue and (the General Assembly) must work diligently and competently to reverse the destructive forces unleashed upon Black farmers over the past century,” the bill reads.
The bill says that millions of acres owned by Black farmers after the Civil War were taken from them by “racist machinations” at the federal Department of Agriculture and that U.S. land grants “effectively precluded Black Americans.”
“The nearly complete wipe out of Black farmland ownership driven by racist federal and state policies represented a transfer of wealth worth three hundred billion dollars,” the bill reads.
At its peak in 1920, the United States had more than 920,000 Black operated farms, according to the USDA. As of 2019, about 49,000 farms were Black owned, including 2,600 in South Carolina. It’s unknown how many South Carolina farms were Black owned in 1920.
Black farmers and organizations that represent them have claimed for decades the reduction isn’t solely from an evolving economy but unfair federal funding. Nationally, Black farmers have been fighting for decades to get what they believe is a fair share from the U.S. government.
In 1997, a coalition of Black farmers sued the USDA for denying them money because of rampant discrimination. The government settled the suit for $1 billion but the damage had been done over the decades and the money was too little or too late to save many Black-owned farms, NBC reported in October.
Federal funding blows have continued over the years.
Nearly all subsidies meant to help farmers after former President Donald Trump’s 2018 trade war with China went to white farmers, according to The Counter, a news organization that investigates food and agriculture in the U.S.
The latest battle for Black farmers concerns President Joe Biden’s COVID relief stimulus package, which passed in March. The package included about $4 billion for disadvantaged farmers, a quarter of which are Black, according to a Washington Post article.
Sen. Lindsey Graham “was at the forefront” of efforts to strip or reduce the package’s money to Black farmers, NPR reported. Graham said he didn’t believe the money for disadvantaged farmers had anything to do with COVID relief. But House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, supported the relief. In May, he and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited an Orangeburg farm to promote the assistance to Black farmers.
“This is to right a wrong,” Clyburn said. “I learned from my history that the greatness of this country is not that we are more enlightened in this nation, but because we’ve always been able to repair our faults.”
Earlier this month a federal judge halted payments and loan forgiveness from the package to Black and other minority farmers. The judge sided with a group of white farmers who sued, saying the relief package discriminated against them, according to the New York Times.
Black farmers in South Carolina are working on new ways to right historical wrongs and encourage farming.
The South Caorlina Black Farmers Coalition, founded in 2020, is calling for the state to financially help its more than 2,500 Black farmers and also assist Black people interested in farming. The coalition wants land put into a state trust for Black farmers and the establishment of Black-led food hubs to get crops to disadvantaged communities.
“We’re putting a lot of energy in new and beginning farmers,” said Bonita Clemons, a regional captain for the coalition, noting that the average age of a farmer in the state is between 60 and 70 years old. “We’re really making sure we connect the two different generations.”
Having a passionate group like the Black Farmers Coalition was a reason Pollard decided to put roots down in the Palmetto State.
“What I really saw was a collection of Black people who were farming who were so motivated to be in community with each other. I was sold on that,” Pollard said.
FEELING A LOT MORE PRIDE
On the farm in Lugoff, Pollard recently spread some quail manure to enrich a field’s soil. Not far from the field, Pollard pets a cat named Lionel on the porch steps at their farm’s house.
Pollard is quick to credit recent mentors like Germaine Jenkins of North Charleston’s Future Fresh Farms and the Black Farmers Coalition and Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, New York, for their help and inspiration.
Pollard also says they wouldn’t be starting a new farm without people like Fannie Lou Hamer, who founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative in the 1960s, as well as Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, Black leaders who furthered agricultural education for their people.
But Pollard also knows they wouldn’t be farming without their great grandparents and the great grandmother who kept pulling weeds and harvesting vegetables.
When Pollard’s father thinks back to that moment he saw his grandmother bent over to work the land, the memory has a new meaning now that his child is farming, Pollard said.
“To see me so passionate and to understand why it’s so important for us to be closer to food that we eat, he feels a lot more pride and he revisits that memory and understands why she did what she did,” Pollard said.