Editor’s Note: This story comes from an episode that Gulf States Newsroom reporter Shalina Chatlani produced for the Living Downstream podcast entitled “Health, Wealth and Race in Today’s Louisiana.” You can listen to the full episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you listen to podcasts.
Iberia Parish lies on the southern coast of Louisiana and wraps around the Gulf of Mexico, creating a tropical environment of humid air, zig-zagging bayous and wet, pliable land — perfect conditions for sugarcane.
Here, Eddie Lewis III, a Black man and a fifth-generation sugarcane grower, can be found diligently tending to nearly 2,000 acres of crop.
“I’ve carried on the same traditions as my great-great-grandfather, my grandfather and also my father,” Lewis said.
But the amount of land his family is leasing is shrinking. Lewis said his family once farmed nearly 4,000 acres of leased land, which is double what he farms now. And he says he’s not the only Black farmer or landowner who has taken a hit in this parish over the last several decades because of what he claims are racist policies.
This region has a long history of slavery and plantations that has served as the backbone of the sugarcane economy. Lewis says his family acquired this land over the last century by creating leases with white property owners and entering into sharecropping contracts.
“We maintain a lot of generational wealth through the leases on the land, we still have those relationships with the landowners,” he said. “With all the new white farmers in the area and the competition, you become automatic bait whenever you’re an African-American farmer in a predominantly white territory or white community,” Lewis said.
Now those leases are vanishing.
In fact, across the country, Black farmers represent only 1.4% of the more than 3 million farmers in the U.S, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since the 1920s, the number of black farmers has dropped from nearly a million to around 50,000. Today, they own just around half a percent of the country’s farmland.
Like many farmers, Lewis believed he might find the money he needed to pay off debts and buy equipment to stay competitive through the USDA. Buried within the 2021 American Rescue Plan is a debt relief initiative for disadvantaged farmers. But those payments have been stalled while a lawsuit filed by 12 white farmers against the USDA program works its way through the courts. The lawsuit, filed in June, says the program that helps only farmers of color is discriminatory.
With only 250 acres of owned land, Lewis says he’s worried that he will continue to lose leases with white property owners who would prefer to work with new farmers, often white, who have better equipment and more resources. Lewis says he could become the next Black farmer in Iberia Parish and the Gulf South to go out of business.
“Black farmers ain’t going to exist in about another four to five years. And I’m talking specifically about what I know, which is sugar cane,” Lewis said. “This is my ambition. I want to become the best sugarcane grower in America. This is all I know.”
A massive loss of land and generational wealth
Property lawyer Thomas Mitchell, of Texas A&M University School of Law said through “sheer determination and effort,” many formerly enslaved people gained land after the Civil War through war grants, becoming sharecroppers, or working multiple jobs and slowly earning enough to buy property.
Black landowners have been most highly concentrated in the South. But by the end of the 20th century, the land they had amassed went down from a peak of about 20 million acres to between 2 and 7 million acres. Mitchell says preliminary estimates show that the loss of land itself is worth about $300 billion.
“They have lost [land] involuntarily, whether it was through extralegal means in terms of lynching and violence and intimidation or a variety of discrimination from the public sector, in the private sector and then other kind of legal means,” Mitchell said. “There’s just been an incredible sapping of generational wealth from those communities.”
Mitchell says land loss can happen for Black farmers in various ways.
Several Black farmers and landowners in the area say they’ve dealt with harassment, vandalism and fraud and have had to get involved in litigation to protect what’s been in their families for generations.
For example, Lewis claims in a lawsuit that a white farmer, Ryan Doré, improperly took over one of his leases, with about $230,000 worth of crop on it.
“He [Doré] went up to the landowner, told him he was going to pay me well for my crops,” but didn’t, Lewis said. “[He] put his name on my crops and stole it.”
Doré declined to be interviewed but during a recorded phone conversation said, “There’s a reason why they [Black farmers] are losing the land and we’re taking the land. And I don’t need to respond to anything.”
Lewis says the financial hit from this loss has had major consequences. It’s meant that he can’t buy that piece of equipment that could help him get a better yield. That could then lead to the loss of another lease with another property owner who thinks they could do better with someone else.
Lewis says there isn’t an easy fix for financial setbacks like this. He claims the USDA hasn’t been helpful and has contributed to his losses.
“It all starts with the USDA,” he said. “When you go down to borrow money, and you’re supposed to be borrowing a million dollars and they give you $200,000, you start losing land. Yields go down.”
The USDA did not respond to email and phone requests for comment in time for this story. But, there is a long history of lawsuits against the organization for racial discrimination in lending practices. In a March interview with NPR, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the debt relief program is an acknowledgment of that past and the need to fix it.
“Because of prior acts of discrimination, farmers of color, in particular, were put in a position where they were disadvantaged in a system that basically is based on production,” Vilsack said. “In order for us to have an equitable and a fair USDA, it’s necessary for us to address that gap.”
Is this still a Black-white issue?
Just down the street from Lewis, June and Angie Provost live on the small amount of farmland they have left. They once had leases to farm 5,000 acres of land. Between what they own and what’s contracted today, they now farm fewer than 100 acres.
“It still hurts to see farmers right now in the field planting sugar cane and I don’t have that opportunity anymore because it was taken from me,” Provost said.
June Provost is a fourth-generation farmer. He and his wife have even won awards for it. Now that legacy is all but gone.
He says they have faced vandalism, fraud and bad contracts, and he has even filed a lawsuit against a local bank for fraudulently tampering with his loan applications so that he would get less money than what he asked for — leading to much of his land loss. The parties reached a settlement in June that the court said must remain confidential, and they are still involved in a state lawsuit against a local sugar mill.
Angie Provost said a lot of white farmers will argue that farming is just hard…