Food & Power presents the second article in a three-part series examining the influence of farmland investing on equity and the future of food.
This series is written by Humon Heidarian, a food policy professional with a focus on racial equity and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Vermont.
Land loss is nothing new for Black farmers in the U.S. At the peak of their ownership, Black farmers owned about 14% of all U.S. farmland, or roughly 16 to 19 million acres, in 1910. By 1997, Black farmers lost 90% of those acres, in part due to USDA’s discriminatory lending practices and problems establishing property rights for some Black families inheriting land. During this same period, the cumulative acres owned by white farmers barely budged, declining just 2% by 1997, though fewer, larger farms controlled more of this land. USDA still denies loans to farmers of color at higher rates than their white counterparts. For instance, in 2020 USDA loans to Black farmers were rejected at three times the rate of white farmers, and critics argue criteria for these so-called “loans of last resort” still favor the largest, wealthiest farms, which are disproportionately
Unfortunately, Black farmers are not alone. The entire U.S. agriculture system is built on land violently stolen from Indigenous people, and federal and state policies have historically dispossessed and excluded Indigenous, Black, Latino, and Asian farmers from accessing or retaining farmland. For example, Japanese Americans lost significant portions of farmland due to a California ban on immigrant land ownership and Japanese internment during World War II.
This racialized land inequity forms a central part of larger wealth and power inequities that shape American society. As the wealthiest 1% and institutional investors increasingly buy up farmland as a new place to store their wealth, these racial and
wealth disparities will only get worse. As Food & Power covered in the first part of this series, farmland wealth is increasingly being hoarded by a bevy of financial investors, from banks and retirement funds to nonprofits and universities. With the exception of some private firms focused on organic practices, such as Iroquois Valley Farms and Dirt Capital Partners, these investors generally do not manage farmland for the greater public interest. “It's about turning a profit,” said Jordan Treakle, the national program coordinator for the National Family Farms Coalition. “They just want to own the asset of land.”
Like land consolidating trends of
the past, the harms of institutional investment in farmland will disproportionately harm farmers of color in the U.S. and around the world who face barriers to credit access, disparities in intergenerational wealth, and less protection from land dispossession. Reversing course demands policies that regulate both financial investment in farmland and redistribute land ownership more broadly.
Increased corporate and billionaire investments in farmland contribute to rising farmland prices. This benefits investors but hurts tenant farmers that must pay higher rents, according to a 2018 USDA report. This disproportionately affects farmers of color, who are more likely to rent land than white farmers. New farmers, especially farmers of color, cannot compete with deep-pocket investors to buy land or expand their farms. Farmers of color generally have less inherited wealth and less access to capital, exacerbated by persistent racial discrimination by USDA and other government programs. Between 2006 and 2016, USDA was six times more likely to foreclose on a Black farmer than a white one, and during the Obama administration white farmers received a
disproportionate amount of USDA funds including microloans, according to an investigation by The Counter.
All told, in 2017 96% of the few farmers under 35 were white, slightly more than the 95% of all farmers who were white that year, even though people of color
make up a larger portion of the millennial generation than the aging farming generation. This left just 14,111 young producers of color in the U.S., dwindling the next generation of Black, Indigenous and other farmers of color who can maintain their agrarian heritage and practices of their forebearers. “We are making one of the most white occupations in the U.S. whiter,” said Michael Carter Jr., a 5th-generation Black farmer on Carter Farms, his family’s farm, and a graduate of North Carolina A&T State University with a degree in agricultural economics. “The more land we lose, the less opportunity we have to control the food we have in our communities. We're making ourselves permanent charity cases,” Carter Jr. added.
The harms of farmland investment on racial wealth disparities expand beyond the U.S. Globally, the Land Inequality Initiative estimates that the top 1% of farms operate more than 70%
of the world’s farmland, and it argues increased financial investment contributes to more consolidated land ownership and production (among several drivers). “Anytime you're introducing these … enormous, multibillion dollar institutions as competitors, that is not going to end well for small- and medium-sized farmers attempting to buy land,” said Dr. Madeleine Fairbairn, a professor at UC Santa Cruz and author of Fields of Gold: Financing the Global Land Rush.
Financier and corporate interest in farmland has also driven small, Indigenous, and farmers of color around the world off their land. For example, a lack of land reform and deregulation in Brazil has allowed many investors, including Harvard University and the pension fund TIAA, to buy up large tracts of land. Fairbairn said that it has only been a few decades since institutional investors partnered with local agribusiness or used shell companies to steal land at gunpoint or with other violent methods from Indigenous and peasant communities, including rural Afro-Brazilians. “The land changed hands a couple times, and now it belongs to Harvard and TIAA,” she added. In 2012 TIAA owned 257,877 acres, which increased to 633,391 acres in 2015 because of its partnerships. In 2019 Harvard owned 740,000 acres of land in Brazil — nearly the size of Rhode Island. Since 2008, the university has amassed a combined total of about 1,875,000 acres. African governments have also leased tens of millions of farmland acres to predominantly foreign
investors, and foreign investors and countries are also buying land in the U.S. Beyond the economic inequities such land dispossession creates, decreased Indigenous land ownership, in particular, proves harmful to the environment. Recent studies show Indigenous-managed lands maintain higher levels of biodiversity than even protected areas in Brazil, Australia, and Canada.
This cycle needs to be stopped by community organizing and
effective policymaking, including fair terms of trade in land markets. As the Land Inequality Initiative notes in its 2020 report “Uneven Ground,” “although land can be bought and sold, land markets are not likely to self-regulate. Without regulation, they almost inevitably become markets of exclusion and concentration where inequalities steadily increase.”
The report argues that bold land redistribution, such as that seen after the Mexican and Bolivian revolutions, can be transformative under “exceptional social and political conditions.” Land reparations for Black Americans would be a similar reform.
Additionally, Fairbairn mentioned that German farmers have the right of first refusal, which gives farmers or sometimes tenant farmers the first opportunity to buy land they lose or land they are renting when the bank or landowner gets a competing offer. “Uneven Ground” also pointed to this tool as well as other land market regulations such as price and size controls, proper taxing, and transaction monitors, such as those in France, which work in the public interest and not necessarily for the highest bidder. Most relevant to financier investment in farmland, “Uneven Ground” also recommends enforceable transparency and social accountability requirements for farmland investors. Treakle added that in the case of people who have retirement accounts and other investments in pension funds like TIAA, “there should be a much higher level of transparency for workers
to know how their money is being invested.”
Nationally, many advocacy organizations are pushing for the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which aims to combat USDA discrimination and provide land grants to Black farmers. There are also state laws that restrict or ban corporate ownership of farmland already in place in states such as Kansas and Missouri. A 2020 report by the National Young Farmers Coalition also outlined numerous policy recommendations for federal, state and local levels, including the creation of a national farmland access and transition fund; protection of heirs’ property, or land inherited without legal documentation, which represents a disproportionate amount of Black-owned land; and anti-corporate
farming statutes specifically to regulate financial interests in farmland. In addition to Carter Farms, organizations such as the Black Farmer Fund and the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust are working to preserve food systems for communities of color and advocate for food equity and reparations. A list of other organizations can be found here.