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Black farmers finding their way in the fields and empty lots of Pennsylvania

The number of African American farm operators nationwide increased by 23 percent between 2002 and 2012, according to the USDA Census of Agriculture.

Ray Chavous and his wife, Gieniene, run Ray-Gien Farm, an 18-acre horse farm in Kutztown, Berks County. They are two of only 140 African American farm operators working on 122 farms in Pennsylvania, according to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture.
Ray Chavous and his wife, Gieniene, run Ray-Gien Farm, an 18-acre horse farm in Kutztown, Berks County. They are two of only 140 African American farm operators working on 122 farms in Pennsylvania, according to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture.Read moreBradley C Bower

A slinking winter sun made Ray Chavous' chestnut and sandy mares glow in the fields of his Berks County farm, and he fished a pinch of tobacco from his flannel shirt, rolled a smoke, and stepped into a weather-worn shed.

Long, thin strips of leather dangled from hooks; one with "God is Here, Amen" embossed on it hung like a banner from the rafters.  A raspy little radio played gospel, and dusty pictures of black cowboys were framed beside tools and saddles stacked shoulder-high.

"There's too many saddles in here. Most of them are mine," Chavous, 63, said in his tack shop. "I don't build saddles, I repair them. I rode English saddle for most of my life. My dad didn't believe in letting us ride in a western saddle."

Chavous and wife, Gieniene, a barrel racer, run Ray-Gien Farm, an 18-acre horse farm in rural Kutztown, Berks County. Their property blends into all the others in the rolling hills beyond its fences. There are barns, trailers, friendly dogs with muddy paws and two cats to catch the mice that eat the feed, but it's the Chavouses themselves who stand out from other farmers in Pennsylvania Dutch country.

Ray and Gieniene are black, two of only 140 African American farm operators working on 122 farms in Pennsylvania,  according to the USDA's 2012 Census of Agriculture. A farm operator, by the USDA's definition, could be an owner, hired manager or tenant, and for blacks, those numbers have been steadily rising since the 1990s, increasing 23 percent nationwide between the 2002 and 2012 agriculture censuses.

Colonialism, slavery, and systematic racism were among the barriers that kept them from owning and managing farms when the United States was young. White settlers had a long head start, claiming and cultivating land for centuries before the Civil War while pushing out Native Americans.

Southern states where blacks sought out their own land after the abolition of slavery, including Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana, still have the highest percentage of black principal operators today. States such as Pennsylvania were home to strong abolitionist movements, but black-owned farms have always been scarce. According to the USDA,  90,248 white operators work on 59,167 farms in the state.

"Many black folks came North not to continue their jobs as a farmer, but to move into the rust belt and fill the factories," said Monica M. White, an assistant professor of environmental justice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of the forthcoming book Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement. "There are pockets of places where black folks have access to land, but obviously, there were all kinds of ways folks were disenfranchised."

A class-action lawsuit against the USDA, filed by black farmers in 1997, attempted to rectify the disparity, alleging the agency discriminated against them by increasing land taxes, and both delaying and denying loans. It was named the "Pigford" case after Timothy Pigford, a black farmer from North Carolina who was an original plaintiff, and its $1.25 billion payout was one of the nation's largest civil rights settlements.

One of those rare, black-owned farms in Pennsylvania belonged to Prince Perkins, a free man who moved from Connecticut to the Endless Mountains of Susquehanna County in 1793. Perkins' 153-acre property became known as Dennis Farm, and it has stayed in the family almost continuously to this day. While it hasn't been a working farm since 1918, Perkins' descendants are raising money to transform Dennis Farm into an educational center.

"Young black children who come here will have something more to connect to than the slavery story," said Denise Dennis, president and CEO of the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust. "This place was owned by black people, who were free."

Dennis, Perkins' great-great-great-great-granddaughter, said the farm produced just about everything, from barley and potatoes to cattle and swine. Her ancestors had been part of the landscape for so long in Northeastern Pennsylvania, where she also grew up, that neighbors simply treated them as fellow farmers and part of the community.

"They weren't up there on that hillside hiding from people," Dennis said.

Chavous' father, James O. Chavous, grew up working on farms in South Carolina and moved north to Bucks County in 1930 and became a produce farmer.

"He usually rented the land," Chavous said. "My father grew tomatoes and sweet corn. He sold tomatoes to Campbell's Soup in Camden."

Chavous, the youngest of nine children, couldn't recall his father experiencing any blatant racism as a black farmer among white landowners. Mostly, he said, they respected his work ethic.

"Everyone and everything worked on my dad's farm, even the dogs. If it didn't work, it had to go. He was tough," he said. "The woman my dad rented land from, he paid her a year's worth of rent up front. She wasn't concerned about the color of the person. She wanted someone who could pay."

Chavous said he had wanted to be a "horseshoer" but fell off a hay wagon when he was 14 and hurt his back. He retired from IBEW Local 98 but always farmed with his father.

Chavous had a carriage business, led by his favorite horse, Poncho, and Gieniene's family also rode. They moved from Perkasie to Kutztown in 2003 to start Ray-Gien, where they board horses and give riding lessons.

"She pretty much runs the show here," he said of his wife. "I'm just a laborer."

Kefeni Kejela, a soil conservationist with the USDA in Pennsylvania, has reached out to the state's black farmers as part of the agency's civil rights program to offer financial and technical advice. Admittedly, it hasn't been easy.

"Actually, when I started doing this in 2014, we didn't even have a single farmer that we knew of in the entire state," he said.

Kejela has visited the Chavous farm but others, he said, are shy. A black hog farmer in Centre County said he didn't want the attention when contacted by the Inquirer and Daily News. The National Black Farmers Association, founded in 1995, did not return numerous requests for comment.

White said it's necessary to reimagine what a farmer is when discussing black farming in America. For many, it has meant reclaiming land in urban settings, not pulling on overalls to roll over a thousand acres on a tractor.

"A lot of us black farmers are returning generations of farmers," said Kirtrina Baxter, manager of the North Philly farm run by the community organizing group Urban Creators. "This is part of our heritage."

Baxter, 48, said the best crop at the farm isn't produce.

"We boast about growing people," she said. "We don't just grow food, we grow people, children and teens leaning how to grow food."

Inside a big barn at the Chavous farm, Gieniene was brushing her horse, Chamberlain, while Ray filled water troughs. She leads all the classes, teaching their neighbors' children and her own granddaughter to ride.

"When we moved here, almost all the neighbors didn't speak to each other," Ray Chavous said as horses ran toward the trough. "They didn't have anything good to say about each other, but we just loved them all, unconditionally."