Twilight for Black Farms A new book of photographs captures a portrait of America's black farmers as their numbers dwindle. John Ficara and NPR's Juan Williams talk about the black families who still work on American family farms.
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Twilight for Black Farms

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Twilight for Black Farms

Twilight for Black Farms

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News. Sectarian divisions in Iraq continue to escalate in the aftermath of yesterday's bombing of a major Shiite Muslim shrine. Well over a hundred Iraqis have been killed since the bombing, and angry Shiite protesters have been clashing with Sunni Arabs around the country.

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John and Evelina Burton are in their late 70's, and grow Valencia peanuts in Marion County, Florida. That particular type of peanut grows on plant roots. So John and Evelina must bend over, yank each plant out of the ground, and then pick the peanuts off the roots. It's back-breaking labor.

85-year old Rosa Murphy still goes out every morning to work the land on her farm in Georgia, that's after she's cooked breakfast for her husband, Eddie, who became blind after a stroke more than 20 years ago.

The Burtons and the Murphys are independent black farmers, part of a way of life that's fast vanishing. To document their stories before they're gone, award-winning freelance photographer John Francis Ficara traveled through much of the Southeastern United States for a book of photos called Black Farmers in America. NPR's Juan Williams wrote the accompanying essay.

If you have questions about the tradition and the plight of black farmers, give us a call, 800-989-8255; that's 800-989-TALK. Our email address is some of the photographs we will be talking about.

John Francis Ficara joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. JOHN FRANCIS FICARA (Photographer): Hello, Neal.

CONAN: And Juan Williams joins us from the studios of our member station in West Palm Beach, Florida, WXEL. Hey, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: Okay. John Francis Ficara, you have several photographs of Rosa Murphy in your book. In one, she is tilling the ground. In another, standing in a field, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, with a white puff of cloud floating just over her head. But the one that's particularly poignant, I think, is when she is with her husband, Eddie. Tell us a little bit about that picture. How did you come to take it?

Mr. FICARA: Well, most of what I do is spend a lot of time with the farmers, and I try and spend about five days with each farmer. And in talking with a couple of other farmers, they had recommended I stop and see Rosa Murphy. And I called her up, and she invited me to come down the following day. And, in doing that, I basically arrive at sunrise, and go with her throughout the day. I spent the morning with her on the porch setting up Eddie, giving him a pitcher of water and his telephone; and then she goes off into the fields to work.

CONAN: When you say you spent five days with them, I assume you don't start taking pictures in the first minute.

Ms. FICARA: No, I don't. A lot of what I do is I talk to farmers, and I really have questions for them. I ask them to really tell me about their life, and what they do in their life, and what's important to their lives. And then I try and incorporate what they tell me into a visual communication, and try and translate what they've told me visually.

CONAN: And some of your pictures, as you're saying, are posed. You set them up. Are others more spontaneous?

Mr. FICARA: Well, there's only a couple of series of pictures that are been posed, where there are actually portraits taken. Most of the pictures that are taken are a result of me in a conversation with a farmer. And there was something that the farmer had told me, whether it be that day or days before, that I felt was very important, and I kind of stored that away in my mind, that phrase or that quote that he had just given me. And then I try and translate that visually in the days ahead. There are several photographs that convey that, you know, that...

CONAN: And Juan Williams, let me bring you in here. You say in your essay that this is an attempt to capture a picture of twilight.

WILLIAMS: You know, Neal, it's a passing of an era. And what John Ficara has done is spent a tremendous amount of time--and that's what it takes here, is perseverance and patients--to capture what is really a fading era in American life. In the essay, I draw the analogy to the passing of the American cowboy, or to the people who were the trailblazers, Lewis and Clark, who went out West. You stop and you think about those people as American icons. The idea of the black farmer is an iconic image in the American mind, because it takes us back to days of slavery.

I think if you look at John Ficara's pictures, you come away with an immediate image of poor, black people oftentimes living at the minimum level of existence, I mean, scraping out a living from the land. And, of course, then as you progress from slavery you come to peonage, and sharecroppers--and these folks are not, in many cases, not doing much better.

Now if you stop and think about it, farming on the whole in the United States, you know, individual people farming, it's a difficult business. People are being, family farmers are going away. They're passing into history as well, as we see more corporate farming and all the rest.

But what you see in terms of black farmers, is they did not get the support from the Agriculture Department. Oftentimes, subjected to racism in terms of subsidies, monies needed, loans and from banks and the like. And as a result, the tremendous history in the black farmer is just about gone.

I, John might know the exact number, but there are very few black farmers left in America today, which is a great irony, given that almost all black American wealth is rooted in people who, after the civil war, were able to get land.

Mr. FICARA: Yeah, there's about, there's less than 18,000 farmers left in the United States right now. Black farmers, family farmers. And that's down from 2.2 million at its peak.

Also, the land value was, at the peak of black agriculture, there were about 15 million acres being farmed by black farmers, and today, there's less than 2.2 million.

CONAN: And some of the farmers you were talking to said they didn't necessarily do this anymore for the money, but really as a way of life.

Mr. FICARA: Out of tradition. It's out of tradition.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. FICARA: Yes, many of the farmers continue to do this. I think, you know, all family farms today are under stress and struggling due to the larger corporate farms, as Juan just said.

Black farmers have been going out of business, as they say, three times, four times quicker than their white counterpart family farms. So, I really viewed this as a piece of American history, and also a piece of American, you know, scene on the American agricultural landscape that was actually disappearing. And I took it with that in mind, to try and document as much as I can before it is all gone.

CONAN: There's one picture in your book that almost seems to capture that, this exact story of that. I'm not sure I'm pronouncing it; is it Lu-den Marshall, or Loud-en Marshall?

Mr. FICARA: It's Loud-en Marshall.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. FICARA: Yeah, Louden Marshall, when I had visited him in that photograph, it shows three generations. It shows Louden, who's tying his grandson, Cullen, his shoelace. And his son, Louden III, is in the background.

And we were, this was about the third day I had spent with Louden. We were walking from his chicken house to his farm, up this little dirt path, and prior to my arriving at the farm, in a conversation I'd had with Louden over the telephone, he had told me that his son, Louden III, had indeed told him in that week that he did not continue farming. That he was going to start to seek employment off the farm.

Well that was one of those bits of information that I kind of stored away in my head. And it was, I guess into the third day that I was with Louden, that we were walking from this chicken house, as I said, to the home. And his son was standing there in the background looking at me, as I was taking this picture, and then he turned and he walked away.

And that to me, and when I took that photograph, that to me represented actually what was going on in the lives of those people, and in that farm in particular.

CONAN: If you'd like to join our conversation, again, our number is 800-989- 8255, 800-989-TALK. Email us,, and again, you can see some of these photographs as well,

But let's go to the phones. And Malachi joins us from, is that Richmond County, in Georgia?

MALACHI (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MALACHI: How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

MALACHI: Good. I was a black farmer, and when I was a youngster, we farmed. We had about 200 acres. We had a dairy farm, we had a sugarcane mill. We had the only sugar cane mill in the whole county, and we were doing well.

But what happened was, it's like the county administrators, they changed the laws, because before then we could haul our sugarcane and our syrup all to the A&P and Unity Market into Augusta and sell it. All our vegetables, we had a dairy farm, our milk, our butter, our chickens, we had them by the thousands. And they passed a law, so we couldn't sell anymore. We had to sell it to the officials in the county. And they gave us peanuts for our goods, so it put us out of business.

It was evil what they done. And this is what is putting many black farmers out of business. Just like right here, during the Clinton Administration. When we marched up there in Washington, on Glitman's office, about taking and not supporting black farmers and subsidizing with finance like they do the white farmers. We've never received our fair share in the government. We're not looking for a handout, but we'd like our fair share, like everybody else receives as well.

CONAN: Juan Williams, you write about experiences like Malachi's in the essay.

MALACHI: And I spoke with...

WILLIAMS: Well, without a doubt, what you see is, you know, remember, as I said to you Neal, you're talking about something that really represents Americas struggle with race. And I just think Ficara's pictures are just so resonant. You know, they really, you said poignant, but I think that you, what you look at, when you see these pictures, we talked about this fading twilight, you know, a distant echo of an age past, but what you see is the relationship to the land. And part of that relationship is, of course, the famous 40 acres and a mule promise after the civil war. General Sherman's promise to the freed slaves, that you can get 40 acres and a mule, and this will be your stake, you'll have an opportunity to be independent people.

That promise of land then progresses, as you see black people try, you know, they're coming out of a situation where they have no education, they have no wherewithal, and they're trying to make a go of it, just keep their families together to support themselves. And eventually, what you see is that the racist relationship that is part of American history then comes to interfere in the ability of black farmers to sustain themselves.

So when Malachi talks about the county administrators, the people who are running the local offices of the agriculture department, looking out for white farmers first, because all these officials of course are white people, they're looking out for their white neighbors first, before they will look out for the black farmers.

The black farmers oftentimes just don't get the money to plant the seed in time. They don't get the money to get help in terms of the harvest. Just time and again, they get the last piece. And as a result, you just see them going away and away, and that's why we talk about distant echoes or fading to twilight.

CONAN: Malachi, you said you used to be a farmer. What do you do now?

MALACHI: I'm retired now. I'm up in my 70's.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And are you sad to see that this, this way of life pass away?

MALACHI: I beg your pardon?

CONAN: Are you sad to see this way of life...

MALACHI: Oh yes, I loved farming. Farming was great for us. We was living good. We didn't have a Rolls Royce, we went to church, we had a clean house. Our grandfather, we built our own houses. And we were living good. And we weren't all, you know, suffering. I know there were many farmers that was jilted with the whites that sharecropped. Each year you went in the hole, regardless whether you had a great crop or not. The white farmers would take advantage of the blacks, and take everything they had.

And many times, they were shot at, and, in the middle of the night, and chased off their lands. And ran away, with guns. And I've seen that done, too.

CONAN: Malachi, thank you very much for the phone call, we appreciate it. And good luck to you.

MALACHI: You're quite welcome.

CONAN: We're talking about a new book of photographs called Black Farmers in America. The pictures are by John Francis Ficara. There's an essay by NPR's Juan Williams.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. This is Shane. Shane calling us from Lynchburg, in Virginia.

SHANE (Caller): Hey, how're you doing?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

SHANE: I wanted to, I heard someone make a comment earlier that a lot of family and individual farmers are stepping back and being taken over and overrun by corporate farms, but in Virginia, and a lot of the areas around where I live, I see big resurgence in organic farming and communal farms. I was wondering if anyone had done any research on the rise in black farmers turning towards organics, to try to get into that market?

CONAN: John?

Mr. FICARA: Yes, actually there are a lot of farmers who are looking at alternative methods of farming, who are turning their farms into organic farms, as well as other methods of farming, as well. There's one farmer I came across in Alabama who actually started a rabbit farm. And it was due for, due to medical research, as well as food.

CONAN: Shane, thanks very much.

SHANE: Thank you.

CONAN: Juan Williams, let me ask you. This iconic way of life; this is something that's idealized a lot in American society, the idea of the simple life. In fact, when you look at the life of a farmer, and you mention this, this is not simple. It's, it requires a huge variety of skills and it requires the guts of a gambler.

WILLIAMS: It really does, Neal. I think it's deceptive, and that's one of the things I mentioned in the essay, was, you know, you look at this life, and you think, oh my gosh, you know, such a simple time, you know, in the past, where people could simply work the earth, and they would get the fruit of their labors, and they would go to market. Your family's all lives on the farm, the children work on the farm, the, you know. But you stop and you think about it, and having to manage the economics.

The economics themselves are so complex. The whole notion of when you plant, when you don't plant, what you plant, the relationship to government, the politics of it, in addition to the economics, all makes for an extraordinarily, and as I say, deceptively complex way of live.

In addition to which, think about the pressures that come generationally, Neal. You know, the great migration of African-Americans going north occurs in the '30s. But what you have is, to this day, pressure on those farmers, in terms of aspirations of young people to go to the big city and look for a better life, even as they're struggling to get their due and make a way of life, sustain a way of life, if you will, right there on the farm.

Again, the complexities, it just overwhelms you once you start to look and say, well, gee, I thought these were simple people. No, these people had to be extraordinarily thoughtful, calculating, and willing to gamble, as you said, to make that way of life a success.

CONAN: And, John Ficara.

Mr. FICARA: Ther is, it really is a gamble for many farmers, family farms these days. And it was very apparent to me as well, in traveling around the country, that those farms that were doing well, the children were more likely to continue in the tradition of their parents and grandparents, and farm. Those farms that were struggling, and that were really on the edge of just hanging in there, the children more likely would leave and work off the farm. And...

CONAN: But, as we were talking about Louden Marshall's farm, in situations like that, how does he look at this future? Of course, I'm sure he wants his son to go off and have a better life, yet, this tradition stretching back, as Juan's been saying, since the end of the Civil War. This is dying.

Mr. FICARA: Yes, and if Louden III decides he doesn't want to come back to do the farm at any point, even if he starts to work off the farm right now, and continues to have maybe a small hand in it, you know, it might succeed. But many farmers today and many of the families whose children have indeed moved off the farm are starting to look into others ways of using that land to make a profit.

Turning their farms, what might have been a produce farm for the second generation is now, perhaps, a tree farm in this generation.

CONAN: John Francis Ficara, thanks very much for joining us today. We appreciate your time.

Mr. FICARA: You're welcome.

CONAN: John Francis Ficara joined us here in Studio 3-A.

Juan, thank you.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Neal.

CONAN: NPR's Juan Williams joined us from the studios of member station WXEL in West Palm Beach, in Florida. Their new book is called Black Farmers in America.

To see some of the pictures we talked about, along with Juan's introduction to the book, you can visit our website at

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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