Planting Seeds for More Equitable Farming

As Abril Donea sips her tea in the morning, abundance surrounds her. Multiple streams run through her 87 acres, winding through pear, apple, and persimmon trees. She has spent the past year preparing the soil on her land in Sparta, Georgia, so it is ready to sustain her herb garden and business, building raised garden beds, two compostable toilets, and now, a school equipped with a kitchen. It’s everything she needs to welcome guests onto the farm and begin sharing the fruits of her labor. 

Farming in head wraps and dresses, Donea unapologetically expresses her femininity within a system that excludes women and people of color. A self-proclaimed “girly girl” who knows her way around an auger and a table saw, Donea is showing the world that farmers do not have to fit into certain categories and that everyone has a right to steward the land. 

“There were so many things that happened to try to prevent me from getting this land, and I continued to overcome them and surprise people,” Donea said.

The seeds Donea is planting will provide fresh herbs and medicines for her business, Beauty Herbs & Tea, and the farm will serve as the space for Donea to share what she’s learned in her farming and herbalism journey through her other enterprise, the Tea Business School. Donea, who is Nigerian American and Native American, is deeply rooted in her mission: decolonizing farming and herbalism and making both practices accessible to all. 

“There have been a lot of practices and traditions that have been adopted by Western society, which is not wrong,” Donea said. “But the part that is wrong is that we leave out where we got it from, and we leave out how those things were used before we started using [them].”

Most U.S. farms exist on land misappropriated in colonialism that once profited from the forced labor of enslaved Black Americans. Today, women farmers earn 40% less income than men farmers, and Black farmers take home less than 1% of total U.S. agriculture sales. Altogether, Black Americans own less than 1% of the country’s rural farmland.

It hasn’t always been this way. In 1910, Black Americans owned about 20 million acres—the most they have owned in U.S. history. Between 1920 and 1997, more than 14 million acres of that land would be lost, altogether equating to about $326 billion of wealth. Today, farmers like Donea are reclaiming their right to access farmland, building back that wealth, and returning to the sustainable and regenerative agricultural methods their ancestors practiced before they were kidnapped and enslaved from their native Africa. 

“For me, it’s reclaiming that story and being able to show Black people, you can return to the land and farm in the way your ancestors did,” Donea says. “You are not your history, you are not slavery, you are not the land thefts.”

The loss of Black-owned farmland was a result of various racial terror and land-grabbing techniques, from racism embedded in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that prevented or delayed Black Americans from taking out loans or accessing governmental assistance programs to white supremacists harassing and, in some cases, killing people in rural Black communities, said Dãnia Davy, director of land retention and advocacy at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Incentives within the USDA also prioritized lending for larger corporate farms, neglecting smaller or specialized farms, which were more often owned by people of color.

When farmers filed civil rights complaints against the USDA, they were similarly mismanaged., In fact, the process was described in a 1997 Civil Rights Action Team (CRAT) report as a “bureaucratic nightmare” that “often [made] matters worse.” 

“[When] the federal government established programs that were on their face designed to assist African Americans in acquiring affordable farmland, those institutions would play out in discrimination,” Davy said. “For example, African Americans would only get access to the most flood-prone or low-lying lands, or the least likely to be agriculturally productive.”

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