Black Farmers In Kansas Hope New State Office Can Help Reverse Trend Of Land Loss

Nov 21, 2019

The number of black farmers in the U.S. is shrinking — down to less than 2% of total farmers — and many are losing their land.

Members of the Kansas Black Farmers Association are working with the state in hopes of reversing that trend.

JohnElla Holmes, the group’s executive director, comes from a long line of wheat farmers in Graham County near the historic town of Nicodemus. Holmes' great-great grandparents settled in the area in 1877, on pieces of land the family still owns.

However, more than 2,000 farming acres in Nicodemus alone have been lost in the last five years.

“Land loss is a real concern,” Holmes said. “That’s our way of life in Nicodemus. We’re an agriculture community and that’s our main product. That’s our lifeline, that’s where we have our jobs, that’s where we have our livelihood ... through the farming community.

“If you no longer have the land to farm, what do you do? How do you survive? How do you make the transition forward?”

Several issues are driving the loss of land: high debt, years of less-than-stellar crop production, and minimal support from federal agencies. Lack of access to funding is a major problem.

From left, KBFA member Maurice Parks, Kansas Rep. Willie Dove, Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers, KBFA executive director JohnElla Holmes, and Kenya Cox, executive director of the Kansas African American Commission.
Credit Courtesy

Members of the black farmers group recently met with state officials, including Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers, to learn more about the new Office of Rural Prosperity to see how the two can work together.

One of the issues they talked about, Holmes explained, is how black farmers can get more loans, grants and subsidies from the USDA Farm Service Agency. She says many black farmers struggle to access those resources, including one of her relatives who quit his job in Arizona to return to the family’s farm in Kansas.

“Even with a farmer who would mentor, provide equipment and train him, he still could not get a farming number so ultimately there was nothing we could do but sell the land,” she said.

Holmes says her group's meeting with the lieutenant governor shed light on needed support for black farmers.

“Our issues are one in the same,” she said. “Land loss, grants, providing education for those farmers, identifying those farmers and their needs, and that’s exactly what this office is going to be doing."

The Office of Rural Prosperity has designated a representative to work with black farmers in Kansas to help address some of their needs. Holmes says she appreciates having a direct line of contact at the office.

“I think their wanting to work with diverse populations is sincere,” she said.

Holmes says there is a real passion and surge for farming, and it includes the African American farmer.

The 2017 ag census showed there were 210 black farmers in Kansas — though Holmes estimates the number is much smaller than that. 

“One of the things we asked the lieutenant governor was, ‘Who are these farmers? Where are they at? How did you identify them as African Americans?’” she said. “Because even if we went county by county, we couldn’t find that many black farmers here in Kansas.”

Carla Eckels is director of cultural diversity and the host of Soulsations. Follow her on Twitter @Eckels. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.