The National Farmers Union was the first major farm group to call for racial justice following the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day. A handful of groups said this week that they stand in solidarity with protests nationwide against racism and inequality that were sparked by Floyd’s death.
Most farm groups have been silent on the issue, including the largest, the American Farm Bureau Federation. They typically restrict their activities to the close-to-home interests of their members, such as USDA research about specific crop or livestock production, export promotion, or aid during hard times. They tend to stay away from national politics if only to discourage urban lawmakers from meddling in their programs or to prevent rifts among their members.
There is a corollary on Capitol Hill that the House and Senate Agriculture committees enjoy the greatest comity in Congress because farm policy traditionally breaks along regional, rather than partisan, lines.
The NFU invoked its history of supporting women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement when it said last Friday that George Floyd’s death “underscores the urgent need for racial justice and equity. … It is clear racism is still a pervasive force in American society.”
“Quite frankly, this seemed like one of those moments where we could not afford to be silent,” said NFU president Rob Larew on Wednesday. “I don’t know of anybody who can defend the murder of an individual at the hand of police brutality. It is just unacceptable in our society.”
On social media, some comments said the NFU had strayed out of its field. “Wow … so tell me again how relevant the NFU is worried about ag,” said one tweet, while another asked, “Why not stick to ag issues?” But another commenter, who identified herself as an NFU member, said, “Yes, racism is an agriculture issue, and we farmers everywhere need to stand beside our black brothers and sisters against police brutality.”
For the most part, comments were supportive, said Larew. “There is a call by some to ‘stay in your lane.’ Just because a topic is uncomfortable doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be talked about.”
Farming is an overwhelmingly white enterprise in the United States. USDA data reports that more than 96 percent of farms are run by whites and that fewer than 2 percent have black producers. In 1920, black farmers made up 14 percent of U.S. farmers. Decades of complaints by black farmers about discriminatory treatment by the USDA culminated in the so-called Pigford settlements in 1999 and 2010, which offered financial relief to black farmers or their heirs.
The National Young Farmers Coalition issued a statement supporting the protesters on Wednesday and said it “would continue to advocate for anti-racist agricultural policy.” Leaders of the National Family Farm Coalition and the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance said in a series of personal statements that they opposed white supremacy.
“If we are to ensure no one goes hungry in this country, we must address the systemic racism that perpetuates and exacerbates poverty, the root cause of hunger,” said the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger group. “There is no excuse for anyone in this wealthy country to struggle to put food on the table, let alone any reason that African American and Latinx households should experience two to three times the rate of food insecurity.” The nonprofit group Ceres, which encourages investors to support a sustainable economy, said, “Systemic racism demands systemic solutions.”
Press aides for the largest U.S. farm group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, were not immediately available for comment.