As Black farmers dwindle, grower at Temescal market wants public to know ‘we are here.’
on October 5, 2021
Every Saturday morning, Will Scott Jr. wakes at 4 a.m. and drives from Fresno to Oakland to sell his fruits and vegetables at the Freedom Farmers Market in Temescal. Among the Black small business owners at the market this day, he is the only farmer.
At 81, Scott is part of a diminishing group — one of just 429 Black farmers in California. He said he travels 175 miles each week to make a point. As president of African American Farmers of California, Scott hopes to make his community more “visible and audible.”
“We are a small number,” he said, “but we are here.”
Of the approximately 70,000 farms in California, more than 90% are white-owned or managed and fewer than 1% are Black-owned or managed, according to the latest agriculture census, which was compiled in 2017. That disparity extends across the country, where about 13% of the population is Black, according to the 2020 census, but only 1.3% of farm producers were when the agriculture census was taken four years earlier.
Long-awaited change may be coming. In March, Congress approved $4 billion in debt forgiveness for farmers and ranchers who have been “subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice,” as part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package. The program, however, was halted after white farmers filed lawsuits in more than half a dozen states, claiming the program discriminates against them.
“I can attest white farmers don’t know what is discrimination in this country,” said John W. Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association. “It was them getting the debt relief all the time, that is why we are filing suits and going to Congress.”
The association played a major role in Pigford v. Glickman, a landmark 1999 court case brought as a class action by Black farms claiming racial discriminaiton in the Agriculture Department’s loan practices.
Out of the settlement, more than 13,000 farmers have received almost $1 billion, although nearly 10,000 more were eligible for relief. In 2010, Congress approved $1.15 billion to cover many of those excluded from the original case.
The government has a lot to make up for in its treatment of Black farmers, according to Boyd, who said the situation has become critical. “We are facing extinction.”
This wasn’t always the case. The 1920 agricultural census listed 925,708 Black farmers. That historical peak followed emancipation and ended with the spread of Jim Crow laws. The Great Migration saw many trading rural for city life, leaving behind the trappings of the past.
“Kids from the Black community don’t like farming because the legacy is attached to slavery,” Scott said.
Scott’s grandfather Amos Scott was among those who saw their farming dreams frustrated. A sharecropper in Idabel, Oklahoma, he never owned the land he toiled over. That was why his son, Will Scott Sr., left the farm to pursue a better life in California.
There, Scott Sr. worked as a launderer in Fresno. And his son, who was 11 when they moved, was the first in his family to get some college education. Military service interrupted his plans. Scott Jr. was drafted in 1961, but he managed to swap the Army for the Navy, so he could continue his studies for a few years at the Naval Submarine School in Connecticut before he was sent to Vietnam.
He completed his studies upon his return home in 1966 and went on to a career at Pacific Bell Telephone Co. As a hobby, he bought five acres in 1973 in Fresno. But only after he retired in 1994, at age 53, did he start farming full time. Today he owns 45 acres and manages a team of 10 to 15 seasonal contractors.
After starting the farm, Scott began selling his produce in Oakland, setting up his stall on the corner of Mandela Parkway and Seventh Street. The more he traveled across the Central Valley and Bay Area, the more aware he became of the social inequalities.
Scott joined forces with a fellow Black farmer and with the Oakland-based nonprofit Farms to Grow. Together they founded the Freedom Farmers Market, to bring traditionally Black food to urban areas and especially to lower-income families.
Established in 2013, the market was first located in the parking lot of Brothers Kitchen. A year later, it moved to its current location at 5316 Telegraph Ave. Several farmers sell produce there.
Scott specializes in Southern crops like cabbage and okra, a tribute to his ancestors. Every Saturday, at the end of the market day, he donates his surplus produce to Telegraph Community Ministry Center, which distributes it to low-income families or cooks it into hot meals for unhoused people.
As Scott packs up at the Freedom Farmers Market, he thinks about what’s ahead. His four children are pursuing their own careers, as he inspired them to do. His granddaughter Indigo, a teacher, is the only one with any interest in farming. He encourages her, believing,
“We have a responsibility to be part of the food production business.”
This story was updated to note that several farmers sell produce at Freedom Farmers Market.
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