The Stanford Food Institute (SFI) hosted a film screening of “Rhythms of the Land” (2022) this Monday. The screening was followed by a panel with director Gail Myers, third-generation farmer Will Scott Jr., Residential & Dining Enterprises’ Diane Mavica and introductory studies lecturer Belinda Ramírez. The conversation was moderated by Stanford executive chef Terry Braggs. The event also included a small food showcase using seasonal produce from Black-owned farms in California.
An interview-based documentary, “Rhythms of the Land” shares a poignant vignette of the Black farming experience in America. The film sheds light on the decline of Black-owned farms over the last century through Myers’ sit-down conversations with Black farming families who have lost land.
According to the documentary, there were nearly a million Black farmers in 1920, and though sharecropping was predominant, roughly a quarter of the farms were independently owned by Black farmers. Today, there are 48,697 Black farmers, representing just 1.4% of American farmers, according to the last agricultural census in 2017. In the last century, Black farmers in America lost $326 billion worth of acreage.
Weaving oral accounts with legal histories, Myers applies her anthropological expertise to explain the stunning decline of Black-owned farms in the hour-long documentary. Starting in 2012, Myers toured 10 Southern states, interviewing over 30 farmers, sharecroppers and gardeners (the oldest of whom are 98 and 109 years old in the film). The documentary spotlights Black voices to fill in what Myers believed were “missing narratives” in the broader conversation of systemic racism in the U.S.
Being in the audience felt like sitting in on an intimate conversation with each of these farmers. The narratives abound with anecdotes of growing up around tenacious, hard-working farm hands, the healing capacity of a mother’s soul food and how spirit prevails over injustice. At one point in the documentary, Myers herself narrates how she hopes to unearth the “family legacies buried in layers of cotton fields” and illustrate the challenges of gaining land ownership.
Throughout the documentary, audiences hear candid accounts of discrimination: from the interpersonal stories of fathers getting undercut at auctions and making 70 cents on the dollar for the same sheet of tobacco to institutional grievances like forced foreclosures and the unattainability of bank loans.
On the motivation behind the documentary, Myers said in the panel session after the screening, “I had to share these stories and give faces and names to all the numbers you see about black farmers.” For Myers, an agricultural anthropologist, the statistics don’t speak for themselves. Beneath the statistics lies a “complex history of ownership and loss, independence and injustice,” she said.
The documentary introduces families who, at one point, had 3,000 acres of land. Myers wanted the film to serve as a space for farmers to share the story of losing their land and for audiences to “feel the pain and see the love” that still survives.
The loss of Black-owned farmland fits into a larger tapestry of systemic racism. The documentary highlights land ownership as a pipeline to power — a pipeline that was and continues to be kept away from Black Americans.
“That film is my story,” said Will Scott Jr., the owner of Scott Family Farms, whose father and grandfather were both sharecroppers.
For Scott, it was imperative to fill the missing narrative by centering Black voices. Scott said the dominant narrative of social disadvantage misconstrues the reality of systemic injustice. “We don’t want a handout, we want a hand up,” said Scott.
Today, Black-owned farms account for less than half a percent of US farm sales, largely because of the inaccessibility of wholesale markets and transparent market pricing. This is partly due to institutional and regulatory barriers, like the absence of land inheritance protections and discriminatory lending practices.
However, there is also the role of interpersonal and implicit racism. Farmers in the documentary, including Scott, share stories of buyers exploiting Black farmers — reneging on agreed prices and intentionally miscalculating how much is owed to the farmer.
Elaine Smith, the executive director at Farms to Grow, Inc., an Oakland-based nonprofit that advocates for Black farmers and other underserved farmers across the country, assures that active prejudice continues in the modern economy.
“While wholesale markets these days do not have access to farmers’ races, they still may use proxies like the types of crop a farmer grows to gauge their race — for instance, Black farmers are more likely to plant crops like okra, peas and sweet potatoes” Smith, who was at the screening, told the Daily.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.