Editor’s Note: W. Kamau Bell is a sociopolitical comedian and author who hosts and executive produces the CNN Original Series “United Shades of America,” airing Sundays at 10 p.m. ET. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
Owning and operating a family farm in the United States is incredibly difficult, and that was before Covid-19.
But since the start of the pandemic, the crisis has gotten even worse. Independent farmers who grow commodities – things like corn, wheat, cattle and pork – rely on processing plants to turn those commodities into the food that lines grocery store shelves. This year, those processing centers have been hit by several outbreaks of the coronavirus, resulting in temporary closures that disrupted our food supply chain.
It’s a broken system that farmers like Scott Blubaugh, owner of the Blubaugh Ranch in Tonkawa, Oklahoma, know all too well. Scott is one of the farmers I spoke with for tonight’s episode of “United Shades of America.” When I followed up with him in April, he explained everything he and farmers like him are up against.
But I also knew that I needed to check back in with someone else from that episode: George Roberts.
George also owns a family operation – The Circle R Ranch outside of Wewoka, Oklahoma. Yet, his farm’s problems are even more severe than Scott’s. And there’s a classic, American reason why: Scott is White, and George is Black.
Because in this country, if something is bad for White folks, then it is really bad for Black folks.
The loss of Black farmland
As bad as it is to be a Black farmer now, it hasn’t always been that way. At one time, agriculture was where Black folks could actually find a place in the American economy. We could make money off that trade we’d been forced to learn and perfect for free for hundreds of years.
This was especially true in Oklahoma. Around the turn of the 20th century, Oklahoma had over 50 thriving all-Black farm towns. Black people were actually living a version of the American dream, fresh out of slavery.
So, what happened? Racism happened. Most of the towns were systemically annihilated by racist policies and outright violence. This isn’t a conspiracy theory; this is absolute fact.
Between 1910 and 1997, Black farmers lost about 90% of the land that they owned, whereas White farmers lost about 2%, according to The Counter. And no, it wasn’t because White farmers were 88% better at farming. Internal studies at the United States Department of Agriculture found that authorities within the organization had routinely discriminated against Black farmers. And if you lost your land, the United States would work overtime to make sure you don’t get it back.
Ways to support
But that hasn’t stopped Black farmers from trying to balance the scales of justice. In 1997, Timothy Pigford and 400 other Black farmers sued the USDA for systemic discrimination. The farmers won, but the payout took 11 years. And it required ongoing litigation to get what they deserved.
Despite all that he and his family have dealt with to keep the farm afloat for three generations, George Roberts has an easy way about him and an easy laugh. I’m guessing that sense of humor is necessary to deal with the unequal treatment that George doesn’t have to go far to see.
‘I’ll be there ‘till the end’
I wanted to see how Covid-19 was affecting George and his family, so we caught up a bit in June. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Kamau: Last time I was with you, George, it was October of 2019, which feels like 2,000 years ago now. How have things changed for you since then?
George: Well, this Covid really kind of took over our community, and my family.
Kamau: Really? When we started talking about it, did your community respond quickly? Or did it take a minute for people to really take it seriously?
George: I still think some of them don’t take it seriously. No one wears masks and all of that. I know my family takes it seriously, ‘cause it hit us pretty hard. There’s six of us – you know, (me and) my siblings – and five out of six went down with it. And so far, the Lord blessed us that we didn’t lose any of us. A couple of my sisters laid in there for a month, and then I had some in-laws who had it. … I was the only one that didn’t have it.
Kamau: We’ve heard a lot of stuff in the news about these big factory farms having to shut down because the workers are too close together. But we don’t hear a lot about small farmers like you. So, how’s it going for you?
George: Well, back here we can’t even take our beef or pork to a packing house cause they’re all overbooked. I tried to take (a cow) in to see when we can have him processed, and the (packing house employees) said it’d be 2022.
George: That’s when they told us we could bring him in. And I said, man, he’d be too big by then.
Kamau: So even though you have the livestock and you could make money off it, the processing plants are too booked for you to make money.
George: Yes, sir. They don’t have the space to process it because there’s so many other people ahead. That’s how bad it is back here.
Kamau: So, you were already struggling with how the farm system is currently set up, and now Covid is making it harder for you to even make what little money you can make. I know there’s been a lot of talk about small business loans and loans for farmers or financial assistance. Have you gotten any of that from the government?
George: Not as of yet, because it’s mostly going to the larger farms. They came up with some type of deal for us the other day, like $33 a head. You know, that’s not much for a subsidy.
Kamau: I mean, I’m not a farmer, but $33 a head does not sound like a lot of money.
George: It does for those big farmers. Cause they might have 3,000 or 4,000 heads. So, you know, it don’t take long to add up. For a small farmer, you know, it might buy a couple of bales of hay, a few sacks of feed, but that’s about it.
Kamau: What government assistance have you gotten since Covid hit? Did you get that $1,200 check?
George: That stimulus? Yes sir. I did. I got that one; I was surprised when I spoke to a couple of friends and they haven’t even received it yet.
Kamau: What about the farmers who are around you? We talked a lot about how those farmers get different access to help from the government just because they have bigger farms. You said at the time they weren’t really looking to help you. They’re looking to buy you out. Have you gotten any help from them?
George: No sir. I’m one of the only Black farmers left in our community. They all just praying that I go away, and so it’s really hard. They say, ‘He’s going to get tired and throw up his hands.’ But I already told them they’d have to carry me off. Like I told you, I promised my dad I’ll be there till the end. So, you know, I might not have much to work with, but I can say that the land is going to be there.
Kamau: When we were there, you were talking about how hard it was on the farm and how you needed more resources and more workers. And that was before Covid-19. I think a lot of people right now will be like, ‘Why doesn’t he just sell the farm?’ At this point, why are you still in it?
George: I’m the third generation, and it’s just something that should go on. Every other Black (farmer) in our community has sold out. And I feel like the Lord blessed us to have this and it’s paid for through our ancestors’ blood, sweat, and tears. Last thing I would want to do is see it sold so someone else could take advantage of something my grandparents fought so hard to save for us.
Money would have been gone if they had left us money. But the land is still here.
Kamau: I have to say George, one of the things I remember about you is that big laugh. You seem to figure out a way to laugh through this stuff. People ask me about laughing through it, but I gotta ask you the same thing.
George: That’s the only thing that you have to do; you got to laugh to keep from crying, you know? Because you hurt so much and, you know, you just have to express yourself some type of way. Joy comes in the morning, they say, so I just be looking for that joy to come out of it. Cause it’s really been some trying times since I’ve last spoke with you.
Kamau: Yeah. Certainly. I think we need to let people know that Black lives matter. But I also think we need to let your neighbors know that George’s farm matters. You know what I’m saying?
George: Yes sir. Yes, sir. I believe that.
Hear more from George Roberts on “United Shades of America” tonight at 10 p.m. ET/PT.