The Provost family were sugar cane farmers in Louisiana. They worked the same land for generations until they began to realize that forces of systemic racism were gathering and they could soon be dispossessed of their land. But then, as The 1619 Project podcast tells it, a fateful call reached them, changed their lives and started their journey to fight dispossession and advocate for Black farmers everywhere.
On November 9, Wenceslaus (“June”) and Angie Provost will speak with the Mount Holyoke College community about “Fighting Dispossession: The Plight of Black Farmers.” In advance of their talk, which is co-sponsored by the Miller Worley Center for the Environment and The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the Provosts spoke to Mount Holyoke College about Black farmers, systemic racism and land dispossession.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Recent statistics indicate that barely more than 1% of all farm producers are Black. And only 1% of rural land is currently owned by Black farmers. Why should this be a concern?
Angie Provost: We often get conversations with people who say, “I’m interested in your story, but I don’t understand agriculture.” Our response is “Well, if you eat, then you should understand agriculture. If you vote, you should understand agriculture.” June and I believe that voters’ rights, criminal justice reform, housing — all of these issues are tied to access to land ownership, and they’re tied to food justice.
June Provost: And, speaking of the 1% of the Black farmers that are left, 17,000 of them are in jeopardy of foreclosure. So that is very scary.
How does Black farming link to The 1619 Project?
Angie Provost: If you don’t see The 1619 Project as an agricultural podcast and articles, then you’re missing the point. Access to land ownership is the access to wealth building. As Black Americans, we have borne the brunt of the exploitation by the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture], by the U.S. government, by the Justice Department when it comes to building wealth for white Americans.
I think that in order for us to really understand what closing the wealth gap means, I think that more of us need to understand what land ownership, laws, policy and the effect of commercial lending and discrimination has had on us. Because that’s what you’re really talking about when you’re talking about Black farmers. Our issues stem from the exploitation of us and that inability to access real commercial lending.
More of us have the ability to increase our livable income in our families. But that access to wealth building has certainly decreased, and that ties into agriculture and land ownership. It’s in our forced flight from the land, that the wealth gap is steadily increasing as we are being driven away from our homesteads. All the policies that affect farm workers today are residuals from the days of enslavement and Jim Crow.
It’s not sustainable. Many companies love to market to the middle-class mom raising her kids that their products are healthy and sustainable, but they never do include the conversation of Black farmers. And if you don’t include the conversation of Black farmers and our human rights, you are not sustainable. You are not working towards the continuation of a healthy agricultural policy or agriculture industry.
What should people know about farming today?
Angie Provost: People say, “Well, I don’t want to live in a rural area. I don’t want to operate a farm. It’s hard work.” Farming is highly mechanized now. You don’t have to live in the same city that you farm in. We actually need to start thinking about agriculture in a very different way in order for us to really access the policies that we need for us as Black Americans.
June Provost: Now, a tractor’s like an office. You have computers in the tractor. Some tractors have three computer screens in there! Our main thing is just to get the younger generation to see that, to see what form farming is now. It’s not how it had been portrayed a long time ago. Things are so highly mechanized and it’s amazing. And I just want the younger generation, especially young Black kids, to see it and to maybe grow up and to think, “I want to be a farmer.”
What do you think is important for Mount Holyoke students to know?
June Provost: How important agriculture is. Especially with COVID-19, you heard about food shortages. It’s just so exciting sometimes when people message us and say, “You know, I planted a seed and it’s growing.” Especially young adults, there’s nothing better than to see them planting the seeds and watching them grow. The world is always going to need agriculture. It’s to get students to be a little bit more active and to learn about agriculture as well.