Farmer John Boyd Jr. Wants African-Americans To Reconnect With Farming

Farmer John Boyd Jr. Wants African-Americans To Reconnect With Farming

10:43am Feb 15, 2016
John Boyd Jr., with his father, John Boyd Sr.
John Boyd Jr., with his father, John Boyd Sr.
Fred Watkins / Courtesy of John Boyd Jr.

As an African-American, John Boyd Jr. might not be what Americans imagine when they think of a typical farmer. But Boyd has been farming his entire life, like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him. He grows wheat, corn, soybean and has cattle at his southwestern Virginia farm.

Boyd has been involved in the politics of farming as well. In 2010, he rode his tractor to Washington, D.C. to plead for settlement funds in a long-running lawsuit against the federal government for historical discrimination against black farmers. He also is the president of National Black Farmers Association.

Boyd spoke recently with NPR's Michel Martin about the complicated historical relationship between African-Americans and farming in the United States.

Click the audio link above to hear the interview. Interview highlights contain some web-only extended answers.


Interview Highlights

How he describes his role

First and foremost, I'm always a farmer. But I'm always looking to make farming better. So I'm always looking for creative ways to make it better — to find access to markets for African-American farmers and other small farmers. ...

I'm a farmer — I love the land. And if you don't love the land and you don't love raising crops, then there's no way possible that you can be a farmer day in and day out because you're not going to get rich farming.

Did he ever want to do anything else?

My father's a farmer ... and I watched him farm. I watched both my grandfathers farm. My mother's father was a sharecropper. So I watched both of them farm and they taught me how to farm. And I said "Hey, I'm going to be a farmer." I didn't grow up saying I wanted to be a doctor ... a lawyer ... a dentist. I actually wanted to farm.

[I] always was excited about land ownership. My father taught me very early on that land is the most important tool that a person can possess. And he taught me if I treat the land good the land will take care of me.

He said, "The land didn't mistreat anybody, didn't discriminate against anybody." He said, "people [do]." But if you put down a proper limeseed and fertilizer at the right time, that you can grow just as good a crop as any man.

And that brought out the competitive edge in me. So I wanted to take what he was doing and turn it into something bigger and better and more effective. And that's what I've been trying to do.

On the 30-year lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Basically it was the government discriminating against black farmers. For not lending them money on time, for not processing their loan applications.

I always said farmers are faced with acts of nature such as hurricanes, tornadoes and droughts. But you never should be faced with the actual hand of the federal government. They're supposed to give you a lending hand up, and not a lending hand down and mistreat people the way the government mistreated black farmers.

On why it matters that black people farm

I think it's a part of, a great part of history. I don't care how many generations you go back, you're only one or two generations away from somebody's farm. We all came from the farm. That's why we were brought to this country as black people. We were brought to work the land and clean up the South for scotch-free as slaves.

That's why it has a negative impact. And it's because of the bad stigma that we've had because of sharecropping, because of slavery. Our people — black people — die from everything. Heart attack, stroke, obesity. And it's from the foods that we're eating.

If we had more black people growing healthy foods — not as a megafarmer, but farming right in their backyard. Growing string beans, onions, all of the vegetables. If you were growing these things and eating more healthy foods, we wouldn't have some of the illnesses that plague us.

I think if we got reconnected with the farm, everything would be better. I would like to see our people go back to land ownership — get back to communities where we came from and really start doing some positive things.

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Here's a thought exercise - when you think about what an American farmer looks like, what comes to mind? Grizzled vet in overalls, youthful hipster in an organic cotton tee? The clothes may change, but either way you probably didn't picture John Boyd Jr. He is the president of the National Black Farmers Association, and he's been a farmer his entire life, as was his father and his father's father and his father before him. He's here as a part of our ongoing series BlackAnd, where we're asking people to talk with us about navigating more than one identity. And John Boyd Jr., welcome to the program. Thank you for speaking with us.

JOHN BOYD JR.: Well, thank you. It's wonderful to be here and - wonderful to be here again.

MARTIN: Well, thank you.

BOYD JR.: And you're doing such wonderful job on your show.

MARTIN: Well, that's very nice of you to say. If you were to describe yourself to somebody who didn't know you at all, what would you say?

BOYD JR.: First and foremost, I'm always a farmer. But I'm always looking to make farming better. So I'm always looking for creative ways to make it better, to find access to markets, you know, for African-American farmers and other small farmers. But first and foremost, I'm a farmer. I love the land. So...

MARTIN: Did you ever think about doing anything else?

BOYD JR.: No. And, you know, the whole time I was going to school and - but my father's a farmer, excuse me, just like you mentioned earlier. And I watched him farm. I watched my - both my grandfathers farm. My mother - mother's father was a sharecropper. He died a sharecropper. And they taught me how to farm. And I said, hey, I'm going to be a farmer. I didn't grow up saying I wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to be a lawyer, I wanted to be a dentist. I actually wanted to farm.

MARTIN: Do you remember why?

BOYD JR.: Always was excited about land ownership. So my father taught me very early on that land is the most important tool that a person can possess. And he taught me if I treat the land good, the land will take care of me. If you put down a proper lime seed and fertilize at the right time that you can grow just as good a crop as any man. And that brought out the competitive edge in me. You know, so I wanted to take what he was doing and turn it into something, you know, bigger and better and more effective. And that's what I've been trying to do.

MARTIN: Part of the reason that you began the National Black Farmers Association is that there were challenges that you were experiencing that, you know, white farmers have not. And...

BOYD JR.: Yes.

MARTIN: ...You know, intimately tied to that was the case - a long-long-long-running lawsuit that your group waged against...

BOYD JR.: Yes.

MARTIN: ...The USDA in their lending practices, which was finally resolved after, like, how many years was that?

BOYD JR.: Thirty years. Basically, it was the government discriminating against black farmers - for not lending the money on time, for not processing their loan applications. I always said farmers are faced with acts of nature, such as hurricanes, tornados and droughts, but you never should be faced with the actual hand of the federal government.

MARTIN: Let me ask you this - and it is a sensitive question - why does it matter that black people farm?

BOYD JR.: Oh, I think it's a part of - a great part of history. I don't care how many generations you go back. You're only one or two generations away from somebody's farm. We all came from the farm. That's why we were brought to this country as black people. We were brought here to work the land and clean up the sides for (unintelligible) and slaves.

MARTIN: Well, that's exactly why perhaps some people aren't interested in it.

BOYD JR.: Well, that's why it has a negative impact. And it's because of the bad stigma that we were - we've had because of sharecropping, because of slavery. Our people, black people, die from everything - heart attacks, stroke, obesity. And it's from the foods that we're eating. If we had more black people growing healthy foods, we wouldn't have some of the illnesses that plague us. I would like to see our people go back to land ownership, get back to communities where we came from and really start doing some positive things.

MARTIN: John Boyd Jr. is president of the National Black Farmers Association. He's a fourth-generation farmer. John Boyd Jr., thank you so much for speaking with us.

BOYD JR.: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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