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Black Louisiana farmers' land leases are vanishing. Some say racist policies are to blame.

Eddie Lewis III stands in front of a sugarcane harvester at his sugarcane farm, July 1, 2021.
Shalina Chatlani/Gulf States Newsroom
Eddie Lewis III stands in front of a sugarcane harvester at his sugarcane farm, July 1, 2021.

Editor’s Note: This story comes from an episode that Gulf States Newsroom reporter Shalina Chatlani produced for the Living Downstream podcast entitled "Health, Wealth and Race in Today's Louisiana." You can listen to the full episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you listen to podcasts.

Iberia Parish lies on the southern coast of Louisiana and wraps around the Gulf of Mexico, creating a tropical environment of humid air, zig-zagging bayous and wet, pliable land — perfect conditions for sugarcane.

Here, Eddie Lewis III, a Black man and a fifth-generation sugarcane grower, can be found diligently tending to nearly 2,000 acres of crop.

“I've carried on the same traditions as my great-great-grandfather, my grandfather and also my father,” Lewis said.

But the amount of land his family is leasing is shrinking. Lewis said his family once farmed nearly 4,000 acres of leased land, which is double what he farms now. And he says he’s not the only Black farmer or landowner who has taken a hit in this parish over the last several decades because of what he claims are racist policies.

This region has a long history of slavery and plantations that has served as the backbone of the sugarcane economy. Lewis says his family acquired this land over the last century by creating leases with white property owners and entering into sharecropping contracts.

“We maintain a lot of generational wealth through the leases on the land, we still have those relationships with the landowners,” he said. “With all the new white farmers in the area and the competition, you become automatic bait whenever you're an African-American farmer in a predominantly white territory or white community."

Now those leases are vanishing.

Across the country, Black farmers represent only 1.4% of the more than 3 million farmers in the U.S, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since the 1920s, the number of black farmers has dropped from nearly a million to around 50,000. Today, they own just around half a percent of the country’s farmland.

Like many farmers, Lewis believed he might find the money he needed to pay off debts and buy equipment to stay competitive through the USDA. Buried within the 2021 American Rescue Plan is a debt relief initiative for disadvantaged farmers. But those payments have been stalled while a lawsuit filed by 12 white farmers against the USDA program works its way through the courts. The lawsuit, filed in June, says the program that helps only farmers of color is discriminatory.

With only 250 acres of owned land, Lewis says he’s worried that he will continue to lose leases with white property owners who would prefer to work with new farmers, often white, who have better equipment and more resources. Lewis says he could become the next Black farmer in Iberia Parish and the Gulf South to go out of business.

“Black farmers ain't going to exist in about another four to five years. And I'm talking specifically about what I know, which is sugar cane,” Lewis said. “This is my ambition. I want to become the best sugarcane grower in America. This is all I know.”

Property lawyer Thomas Mitchell, of Texas A&M University School of Law said through “sheer determination and effort,” many formerly enslaved people gained land after the Civil War through war grants, becoming sharecroppers, or working multiple jobs and slowly earning enough to buy property.

Black landowners have been most highly concentrated in the South. But by the end of the 20th century, the land they had amassed went down from a peak of about 20 million acres to between 2 and 7 million acres. Mitchell says preliminary estimates show that the loss of land itself is worth about $300 billion.

“They have lost [land] involuntarily, whether it was through extralegal means in terms of lynching and violence and intimidation or a variety of discrimination from the public sector, in the private sector and then other kind of legal means,” Mitchell said. “There's just been an incredible sapping of generational wealth from those communities.”

Mitchell says land loss can happen for Black farmers in various ways.

Several Black farmers and landowners in the area say they’ve dealt with harassment, vandalism and fraud and have had to get involved in litigation to protect what’s been in their families for generations.

For example, Lewis claims in a lawsuit that a white farmer, Ryan Doré, improperly took over one of his leases, with about $230,000 worth of crop on it.

“He [Doré] went up to the landowner, told him he was going to pay me well for my crops,” but didn’t, Lewis said. “[He] put his name on my crops and stole it.”

Doré declined to be interviewed but during a recorded phone conversation said, “There’s a reason why they [Black farmers] are losing the land and we’re taking the land. And I don’t need to respond to anything.”

Lewis says the financial hit from this loss has had major consequences. It’s meant that he can’t buy that piece of equipment that could help him get a better yield. That could then lead to the loss of another lease with another property owner who thinks they could do better with someone else.

Lewis says there isn’t an easy fix for financial setbacks like this. He claims the USDA hasn’t been helpful and has contributed to his losses.

“It all starts with the USDA,” he said. “When you go down to borrow money, and you’re supposed to be borrowing a million dollars and they give you $200,000, you start losing land. Yields go down.”

The USDA did not respond to email and phone requests for comment in time for this story. But, there is a long history of lawsuits against the organization for racial discrimination in lending practices. In a March interview with NPR, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the debt relief program is an acknowledgment of that past and the need to fix it.

“Because of prior acts of discrimination, farmers of color, in particular, were put in a position where they were disadvantaged in a system that basically is based on production,” Vilsack said. “In order for us to have an equitable and a fair USDA, it's necessary for us to address that gap.”

Just down the street from Lewis, June and Angie Provost live on the small amount of farmland they have left. They once had leases to farm 5,000 acres of land. Between what they own and what’s contracted today, they now farm fewer than 100 acres.

“It still hurts to see farmers right now in the field planting sugar cane and I don’t have that opportunity anymore because it was taken from me,” Provost said.

June Provost is a fourth-generation farmer. He and his wife have even won awards for it. Now that legacy is all but gone.

He says they have faced vandalism, fraud and bad contracts, and he has even filed a lawsuit against a local bank for fraudulently tampering with his loan applications so that he would get less money than what he asked for — leading to much of his land loss. The parties reached a settlement in June that the court said must remain confidential, and they are still involved in a state lawsuit against a local sugar mill.

Angie Provost said a lot of white farmers will argue that farming is just hard in general.

“What does that mean? Does that mean that farming is hard for Black people?” Angie Provost said. “I had my own farm and I could barely get any resources.”

While several white farmers in Iberia Parish declined interviews, Louisiana State Senator Brett Allain, who represents parts of Iberia and surrounding parishes, said he doesn’t think there is inequity in land ownership or leases across racial lines.

“I've seen a lot of farmers over here, who are white, Black, whatever, that have gone out of business,” Allain said.

Allain is in the League of SugarCane farmers and once served on the Louisiana Agriculture Finance Authority, which was formed in the 1980s to address the lack of credit availability for farmers. His family has been farming sugarcane since it was introduced to Louisiana hundreds of years ago.

Allain says he’s fortunate and that his family owns about 60% of the land they farm. But for most other farmers, the land is leased. He’s only lost “bits and pieces” of leased land over the years.

“I don't know what system in agriculture you would consider racist. I think it's the economics first, maybe the education, and availability of credit,” he said. “I think everybody has an opportunity if they want it, at least in agriculture.”

But law professor Mitchell said that’s just not true.

“[For] a lot of people who are elite and privileged… it's a narrative that I think enables them to live comfortably,” Mitchell said.”And to think that maybe there were problems in the past, maybe even some of their relatives in the past caused the problems, but that we're now free of that, I just think it's fanciful.”

In the meantime, the Provosts say the erosion of their livelihood is taking a toll on the health of local Black farmers, with them or their family members having dealt with issues such as strokes, hypertension, heart attacks and even contemplating suicide.

“It's a slow death. I mean, because since we've spoken out, I mean, so many other black farmers around this area came to us literally crying and saying, you know, something similar happened to them,” said June Provost.

Lewis’ father died unexpectedly at the early age of 49 in the middle of his sugarcane field. Lewis said it was due to stress. He had to quit his job as a stockbroker to take over the family business. Now, he worries that the stress will affect his health. Angie Provost is worried about that for her husband, too.

“Both Eddie's father and June's father passed away at a very early age. And both of them could tell you the stress that they had in trying to get the resources they needed,” Angie Provost said. “And that's such a fearful thing for me. I am so concerned that my husband won't make it to the age of 70.”

June Provost has similar fears.

“I am scared to see my wife like this,” he said. “I'm scared to see how she's in so much of depression right now because, I mean, I was in that stage a few years ago. I contemplated suicide.”

But Senator Allain said mental health and physical stress has nothing to do with race. It’s hard to be a farmer, he says, but property laws in the state offer protection.

“Property rights in the state are pretty well embedded in the Louisiana Constitution, and it's pretty well spelled out,” he said. “The poor and uneducated are always going to be vulnerable.”

Mitchell is one of several people who have tried to address these racial disparities in land ownership. He’s the principal drafter of a piece of legislation called the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, which provides more ways to help disadvantaged families protect and maintain their wealth and land. The act also ensures that if a family’s land or property is for sale, it cannot be sold at a price far below its value.

The act works in conjunction with the 2018 Farm Bill, which says that states that have enacted this act would create more pathways for more farmers to get access to vital USDA programs, including a relending program.

So far, most states across the Gulf South have enacted Mitchell’s bill, including Texas, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama. Louisiana hasn’t yet, but Mitchell says he thinks it’s possible it could pass there.

At the same time, Angie Provost is hoping that people will at least try to understand the history around Black land ownership and farming.

“Enslaved people helped to build the economy and the infrastructure that is the Louisiana sugar cane economy. And so [seeing land loss] it's a hard thing to live through day-to-day,” she said. “But it’s what also drives June and I to want to see changes, even though we may not see them in our lifetime. To hopefully motivate the next generation of folks to get involved and to know that the wealth gap is ever-increasing.”

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama, WWNO in New Orleans and NPR.

Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio