FITCHBURG, Wis. — The racial disparities in farming are staggering. The most recent USDA report shows there are just 73 black farmers in Wisconsin, which is a fraction of one percent of total farmers in our state.
In our Two Americas series, we introduce you to one farmer who is focused on getting more black entrepreneurs interested in agriculture.
Robert Pierce has an infectious way of sharing his passion for organic farming. He’s even lost count of how many people he has taught his trade to.
One of them is Afi Lake. He showed her how to grow special herbs, 30 years ago. This includes the time and patience it requires. “I said, ‘You know Robert, I planted this and can you come over here, I need to show you. Why hasn’t it gotten any flowers yet?’ He just laughed at me. He knew I would get the plant but I wouldn’t get the flower until the following year. I said 'oh! Well, nobody ever told me that!'” said Lake.
Today she has her own holistic line of products. “Hyssop is really good for this time of year to break up the phlegm," she explained.
“I’m trying to find ways to help African Americans, brown and black people, to get back into the land,” said Pierce.
Injustices and systemic racism have prevented generations of black entrepreneurs from farming. The disparities are only getting worse over the last century. According to the USDA, in 1910, black farmers owned 16 million acres of farmland nationwide. In 2017, it was 2.5 million. That is an 85 percent decrease.
“I’ve never been able to afford my own land, so I’ve always leased,” said Pierce.
Pierce keeps his entrepreneurial spirit thriving during the pandemic with the four farmer’s markets he runs in the Madison area.
“They’re all in low income areas for food deserts. I prefer to help out people who need it,” said Pierce. “I’ve always believed that you do not have to be rich to eat good.”
Not only does he want every community to eat good, but also learn the joy of growing their own food. So he created the program called P.E.A.T. which stands for Program for Entrepreneurial and Agriculture Trading.
"In my lifetime, I'd like to see a lot more black kids doing this," said Pierce.
WEB EXTRA: Hear about another program Pierce created called F.A.I.R. which stands for Farming After Incarceration Release:
He hopes the seeds of knowledge will grow to inspire a new generation of black farmers.
The American Rescue Plan — passed into law during the pandemic — had pledged $4 billion to erase debt for socially disadvantaged farmers who have qualifying loans. But the program has been halted by federal injunctions across the country, noted on the USDA Website.