Black Farming and Land Ownership
"Growing your own food where you don't have to answer to anybody, is power."—Robert Pierce
Robert Pierce is an urban farmer and the owner of Half the 40 Acres Organic Farm in Dane County. He has been growing and selling products for over 20 years. In 2002 he started as a vendor at the South Madison Farmers Market and went on to become the Market Manager in 2003. He is a community leader and advocates for the development of sustainable locally grown food systems.
Angela Fitzgerald: According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, only . 07% of Wisconsin farmers are Black. That’s less than 1%. Where our food comes from and who has access to it can have a huge impact on the health of a community. On this episode of Why Race Matters, we’ll chat with a Black farmer who spent most of their life battling food insecurity within the Black community. We’ll also discuss land access and other barriers that prevent Black people from farming. But first, let’s dig a little deeper and explore why race matters when it comes to our food. [upbeat music] The story of Black farmers throughout history is one of strength, loss, and resilience.
In Wisconsin, that story might be best represented by Pleasant Ridge, a community of Black farmers founded in 1850 by Charles Shepard, a freedman from Virginia. The community was a refuge for escaped slaves and sat on land in Grant County, Wisconsin. In 1863, the emancipation of slavery came with the promise of 40 acres and a mule. The program intended to help freedmen and women find their way after slavery, but was later revoked by President Andrew Johnson. Today, there are only 62 Black farmers out of more than 88,000 producers statewide. In 1910, Black farmers owned more than 16 million acres of farmland nationwide. That’s compared to 2. 5 million acres in 2017. It’s a major loss of land that several studies have linked back to systemic injustices involving lending practices and access to federal resources. The landmark class action lawsuit Pigford versus Glickman, sought to shed light on the injustice and relieve Black farmers who were discriminated against by the U. S. Department of Agriculture. In spite of these barriers, the work of Black farmers today persists as an act of social justice. Not only do Black farmers help to maintain traditional agricultural practices, they also help to increase access to healthy, natural, and affordable foods within their communities. For urban farmer and longtime Madison resident Robert Pierce, farming is a source of liberation, a way to pay homage to the past and create a path to a more equitable future.
Angela Fitzgerald: So thank you for joining me today, Mr. Pierce.
Robert Pierce: Thank you for letting me join you. [laughing]
Angela Fitzgerald: Of course. So can you tell us your story and what has brought you into the world of farming?
Angela Fitzgerald: If that’s a simple story to tell.
Robert Pierce: Well, it’s not that simple.
Angela Fitzgerald: Okay.
Robert Pierce: But I’ll simplify it. I came back from Vietnam, became allergic to a lot of stuff that was in food. At that point, I didn’t know what was going on, I just knew that I was eating stuff and getting sick, had to go and get these shots from the hospital and stuff like that so, and [laughing] I had decided that I was gonna grow food, you know? You know, after service, you know, I mean, when I was a kid my thing was, my grandmother sent me to all these elderly people to help them clean their gardens or pick their vegetables for ’em and stuff, so I was always in someone’s garden, so it wasn’t unnatural for me to do this, you know? I mean, I always did it, but I also noticed when I got back from the service how the elderlies, their health was depleting, you know. And one of the reasons were, we were the first McDonald’s in Madison, it was on south Madison.
Angela Fitzgerald: Mm. So you mean the Black community had the first McDonald’s?
Robert Pierce: Now how the heck could you beat a 25 cent cheeseburger? Come on now! [laughing] And 10 cent fries! Come on, you know, I mean, a dollar, you could get full! [laughing]
Angela Fitzgerald: That’s true.
Robert Pierce: And they had stopped eating and growing, you know, they stopped growing food and stopped, you know, cooking meals and stuff because they could always spend a, you know, dollar and feed, you know, $5 is gonna feed the whole family, you know, quick, you know? And so I noticed their health, you know, started to deplete and so when I took on this venture, that was one of the things I seen, you know, that their health and, you know, was depleting. They weren’t eating like we were when we grew up, you know? So that’s why I started, you know, doing the greens and, you know, stuff like that, you know, make sure that they were getting these things that you know, that we knew, you know, that we grew up with.
Angela Fitzgerald: Up until that point, was this still like a family, more of a home venture? Like, it wasn’t a business in the sense or at that point had it extended to. . .
Robert Pierce: Well, I had, you know, I mean, I was in the Madison Business College so, you know, I turned it into a business, yes.
Angela Fitzgerald: Mm-hmm.
Robert Pierce: I did the old, you know, go into the neighborhoods and taking it to the people’s houses and parking my, you know, old raggly truck out, [laughing] you know, out on corners and stuff and, you know, and go to somebody’s house, they say, “Oh, so-and-so down the street wants you to come by there.” We did the farmers market down on the Square and I was like, single parent with four kids, you know.
Angela Fitzgerald: Mm.
Robert Pierce: Four years old, two, one, and three and a half months old.
Angela Fitzgerald: Oh, wow.
Robert Pierce: They’re all with us in the truck, you know, we’re selling vegetables.
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow.
Robert Pierce: So at some point, you know, it’s like we decided that, well, it wasn’t making enough money up at the farmers market up here which, you know, everybody else was, but I was the only Black man out there. [laughing] So they would look at my stuff but not buy, you know, so it was kinda, “Okay. ”
Angela Fitzgerald: Well, what was that even like for you in terms of stepping into an industry that may be, like you said, people didn’t easily associate you with the image, right, that’s put in front of us of farming? So like, how did you, once, come to see yourself as this but also navigate other people’s perceptions of what a farmer was?
Robert Pierce: Well, I’ve never really cared what people thought about me, you know. I mean, I do what I’m gonna do. If I decided I was gonna do something, I’d just do it, you know, and you know, down on the Square they used to name things, you know, because I wasn’t, I was, you know, not conventional as they were. You know, we’ll put it that way. [laughing] But you know, I just, if it’s something I’d seen I wanted to do and I went after it, you know. It was like, I quit down on the Square ’cause I wasn’t making any money down there, I just said, “Forget that, that’s a waste of my time.” You know, the last straw with that was. . . [laughing] I started growing blue potatoes and there was a guy that. . . Now, we’re getting all this publicity about the farmers market being the largest farmers market in the country.
Angela Fitzgerald: Right.
Robert Pierce: And there was a guy from the Chicago Tribune that came by, and he never said who the guy was, he just said, “There’s a guy at the Madison Farmers Market that grows blue potatoes.” We had this rash amount of people that came and they looked at my blue potatoes, but they wouldn’t buy ’em.
Angela Fitzgerald: Because you were the one that was selling them.
Robert Pierce: Right, but they looked at ’em. They wanted to buy one or two of ’em, you know, and I’m having, you know, I’ve got, you know, piles of ’em, but they wanted to buy one or two ’em to show somebody, you know. And the next year the young guy that was next to me, he started growing blue potatoes and they bought out, he sold out. He was still, he was buying ’em from me and selling ’em, you know.
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow.
Robert Pierce: ‘Cause he sold, he already sold his out.
Angela Fitzgerald: And he probably noticed that people weren’t buying from you, so he wanted to capitalize.
Robert Pierce: Well, of course.
Angela Fitzgerald: Wow.
Robert Pierce: Yeah. So that was the last straw, I said, “I don’t need this,” you know. I mean, right before my face, that type of racism, you know? And so I just said, “Nah, enough of that. “
Angela Fitzgerald: What was people’s initial reaction to you doing something that maybe they were not familiar or accustomed to hearing a Black man specifically say he was gonna do?
Robert Pierce: Well, the elderly people loved it.
Angela Fitzgerald: Okay!
Robert Pierce: Because, as I stated before, I used to do that as a kid for them. Now for my peers, they were like, “Man, that’s, are you crazy? That’s hard work, man! Hey, man, you’re getting dirty!” and all this other stuff you know, and I’m going, “Yeah, man, so what?” They would see me, you know, in the fields working. You hear someone yell out, “Man, that’s slavery!” And I go, “No, that’s money!” [Angela laughing] And they didn’t understand, you know, that, you know, that having land is power. Having, growing your own food where you don’t have to answer to anybody, is power.
Angela Fitzgerald: Right, right, no one can take that away from you.
Robert Pierce: Yeah, they didn’t understand that, you know what I mean? You know, I could, you know, go ahead and go through my field and get whatever I wanted and go home and eat! I didn’t have to worry about, you know, where my food was coming from ’cause I was growing it. And after years, you know, they you know, they would, some of the people that see me out in them fields, they were going, “You still doing that?” You know, but it was so hard to convince people that what I was doing was the right thing because it was like they equated it with slavery. They, you know, the hard work you know, was like, you know. You know, they didn’t realize there was a payout for that hard work.
Angela Fitzgerald: Right, and that’s so interesting because we have been separated from our connection to the land.
Robert Pierce: Well, of course!
Angela Fitzgerald: Because there was a time when it was forced upon us to do that.
Robert Pierce: Oh, yeah!
Angela Fitzgerald: And so our, possibly attempts of separating ourselves from that part of our history has led us to maybe lose some of that connection that’s super important and that would be beneficial now.
Robert Pierce: And that’s also another reason why we’ve lost so much land because that land transferred to younger, to the next generation, they equated it with slavery and they equated it with harder work they didn’t want to do, or they’ve seen their parents do and they weren’t gonna to do that, and they ended up selling that land for you know, for whatever it wasn’t worth, it was worth a lot more for them to keep it.
Angela Fitzgerald: Mm, but they just did not want to be bothered.
Robert Pierce: Yeah, didn’t wanna be bothered with it, so.
Angela Fitzgerald: But do you see a return back to that? Because I follow quite a few young Black homesteaders on Instagram, I’m hearing about this kind of reverse Northern migration where Black people in northern cities are now returning back to the South ’cause it’s cheaper, warmer weather. So do you think we’re gonna see somewhat of a reversal of what exactly you described, of us trying to reclaim?
Robert Pierce: Well, I’m hoping that. I just seen an article about someone in Georgia where they just got together and bought land.
Angela Fitzgerald: Mm-hmm.
Robert Pierce: 95 acres, brought joy to me. [laughing] I said, “Wow, someone’s getting it,” you know.
Angela Fitzgerald: It’s happening.
Robert Pierce: Yes, it’s happening. I think it’s a great thing, you know, and I think, you know, I’m hoping that it gets to be more prevalent, you know, because it’s like, I’d love to see that in my lifetime to see where, you know, we could be able to have our own communities like we used to and be prosperous, you know.
Angela Fitzgerald: I understand you have an interesting story about one young person that you talked to that had a hard time accepting that you were a farmer. [Robert laughing] Can you tell us about that?
Robert Pierce: I used to go through the schools and talk to the kids, you know, kindergarten kids about different vegetables, and there was this young kid who kept staring at me when I walked in, you know, they knew that the farmer was coming, you know, he’s a kindergartner and he knew the farmer was coming to the class. And so when I came in, he stared at me, you know, and he just kept staring at me. And so I was talking, as I kept talking to the kids and stuff and at the very end, I said, “Is there any questions?” and this kid throws his hand up and he says, I said to him, “Yes?” And he goes, “You ain’t no farmer. ” And I go, “Yes, I am. ” He said, “No, you’re not!” And I said, “Well, why am I not? Why am I not a farmer?”
Angela Fitzgerald: Right.
Robert Pierce: He said, “‘Cause you wearing FUBU.” [both laughing] So I looked at him, I said, “Well, I’m an urban farmer. ”
Angela Fitzgerald: There you go. [Robert laughing] That is hilarious. So he clearly had an image in his mind about what all farmers look like.
Robert Pierce: Well, of course, you know, most, yeah, especially in kindergarten, you know, they give ’em a book and see, they see a white farmer with a straw hat and bib overalls, you know. [laughing] Nah, no, I don’t do that. [laughing]
Angela Fitzgerald: Yeah, like, all farmers don’t look like that.
Robert Pierce: No, no, they don’t, you know, I mean, it’s like, [laughing] you know, I guess I crushed his vision of a farmer, but, you know.
Angela Fitzgerald: But maybe in a good way where he’s like, “Oh, I can see myself as a farmer.” I don’t have to fit this farmer uniform and the stereotype.”
Robert Pierce: Yeah, now he could go and become a farmer and not have to wear, you know, a straw hat, but I do have a straw hat. [laughing]
Angela Fitzgerald: “I just didn’t bring it today, but that is part of my uniform.”
Robert Pierce: Yeah, I mean, I do have one, but I just don’t wear it all the time, all right? [laughing]
Angela Fitzgerald: But you mentioned you were an urban farmer, so can you tell me more about that? ‘Cause I have heard of folks who even live in like, really densely populated cities who consider themselves farmers.
Robert Pierce: This is a new thing for, I think, for African-Americans where we can capitalize on since we don’t have land.
Angela Fitzgerald: So urban farming is an alternative to the typical farming model that requires having all of this land.
Robert Pierce: Right. Okay. So, urban farming with the. . . It was teaching people that having the right type of soil, that you can create a profit on a smaller scale, that you don’t need all of that land. You can work out of a greenhouse or you can work on, you know, anywhere with the right type of soil, you can grow on it. And I think this is a new norm for, you know, since African-Americans don’t have land, this is where you can be able to, you know, plant anywhere and grow food, you know? And if we do this as collectively, as a group, we could be able to sell those at markets or whatever and be able to make money by doing that. I think the new norm for African-American farmers is urban farming.
Angela Fitzgerald: Hmm, I like that. What, I guess, are examples of different crops that you could easily grow even within a small space?
Robert Pierce: Anything, I mean—
Angela Fitzgerald: Really?
Robert Pierce: Well, with the right soil, yes.
Angela Fitzgerald: Okay.
Robert Pierce: Yeah. But, you know, I mean, your collards, your spinach and kale, all these different things you can grow very easily, you know? I mean, out in the fields, you know, I’m doing melons and everything else, but I’m doing them on mounds and stuff out in the fields, but you have to have land for that, you know.
Angela Fitzgerald: So things that just take up more space once they’re fully grown.
Robert Pierce: Yeah, but if you’re just doing stuff in town or in small areas, you could be able to, you know, do smaller stuff, you know, like kale and stuff like that. High, you know, high-dollar stuff.
Angela Fitzgerald: Mm-hmm.
Robert Pierce: You know, out of greenhouses, you know, you can be able to do sprouts, which are, you know, five to seven days you know, and nutritious and be able to make money with it.
Angela Fitzgerald: Mm, so that is an interesting model. It’s like, the land access part, not to ignore that conversation, it’s still very important, but not to wait for that in order for, like, the growing to take place. I like that, I may have to do some Googling, figure out how I can do that on my small little patio. [both laughing] At my house, see what I can grow that’s actually edible.
Robert Pierce: You can do that out of pots and, you know, buckets.
Angela Fitzgerald: Well, what’s the easiest thing to start with? Like, if you’re a beginner, you know nothing about anything green but you want to try, the enthusiasm is there, what would you suggest people start with?
Robert Pierce: Leafy stuff, greens, lettuce.
Angela Fitzgerald: Leafy stuff, okay.
Robert Pierce: Greens, lettuce, stuff like that, kale. Those things, you know. . .
Angela Fitzgerald: Are easy to grow?
Robert Pierce: They’re easy to grow. I mean, you can’t. . . [laughing] You can’t—
Angela Fitzgerald: You can’t mess those up!
Robert Pierce: You can’t mess that up too much. [laughing]
Angela Fitzgerald: That’s encouraging ’cause I like those things, too. So I may have to try those and report back to you.
Robert Pierce: Yeah, if you mess those up, it’s like, you will not be able to get it.
Angela Fitzgerald: If my kale comes out yellow then it’s like—
Robert Pierce: You missed something!
Angela Fitzgerald: It just wasn’t for me, that wasn’t my lane. [both laughing] Thank you for that.
Angela Fitzgerald: Food is essential, but the option to grow your own food is not a given in every community. Systemic factors, such as land ownership, wealth, and location all play a role in healthy food options for people of color, which can then lead to health issues that can last for generations, proving why race matters when it comes our food. To learn more, go to pbswisconsin.org/whyracematters to find additional links and resources to help keep you informed. There, you can also check out the Why Race Matters podcast as well as additional episodes. [upbeat string music]
Speaker: Funding for Why Race Matters is provided by CUNA Mutual Group, Park Bank, Alliant Energy, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Focus Fund for Wisconsin Programming, and Friends of PBS Wisconsin.