The slow extinction: where are SE Tennessee's Black farmers?

In 2017, there were only 40 Black Tennessee farmers under the age of 35.

The slow extinction: where are SE Tennessee's Black farmers?
Sequatchie Cove Farms, Marion County, Tenn.

Since we began publishing last August, one question has been quietly brewing in the back of my mind. As we travel across our regional food landscape, I've asked farmers, friends and agricultural leaders:

Where are southeast Tennessee's Black farmers?

Do you know any?

Because I don't.

And nobody else seems to, either.

"There were just 40 Black farmers under the age of 35 in Tennessee in 2017," writes JR Lind in the Nashville Scene's outstanding The Rich History of Black Landowners and Farmers Here in the Upper South.

It wasn't always this way. During Reconstruction and the years that followed, Black farming was, in some parts of the state, robust.

"In 1910, Black farming peaked in Tennessee, with nearly 11,000 Black farmers, 28 percent of Tennessee’s total, at a time when the state’s population was 21 percent Black," Lind reports.  

"In 1980, Tennessee’s Black population hit its nadir at 15.8 percent, and there were fewer than 2,000 Black farmers. Today, one in six Tennesseans is Black; only one of every 100 Tennessee farmers is — a total of 1,372."

This is a complex, painful history that takes longer to tell than today's column. The end of Reconstruction and the return of former slaveowners to power led to lynching, sharecropping and the whiffs of an emerging Jim Crow.

The exodus of the Great Migration. A banking and loan system that was – and continued to be – anything but fair.

"The Obama-era USDA foreclosed on Black farmers at a rate six times higher than their white counterparts," Lind reports. "Records indicate that USDA officials continued to engage in underreporting acreage and yields from Black farmers on loan applications, a subterfuge that results in lower payouts for Black farmers and one that has been persistent for decades."

2017 Census of Agriculture

In its 2022 Uneven Ground series, the Tennessean divided this issue into 11 separate stories – from foreclosures, governmental discrimination and emerging success – yet its opening three paragraphs speak the loudest:

"Black Americans reveled in a remarkable achievement just two generations after the Emancipation Proclamation: They owned an estimated 16 million acres of farmland. 

"The triumph would not last. 

"By 1990, Black farmers lost 90% of that land. Over that same period, white farmers lost only 2% percent of their acreage."

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Locally, Crabtree Farms is piloting a new and promising initiative: the Emerging Farmers Program, giving four Chattanoogans a plot of Crabtree land – along with business, agricultural and market mentorship – to jumpstart a farming career.

A few years ago, it was a Black man living downtown whose influence and work with Crabtree leaders helped seed this idea. This year, the decisions are still being finalized ... but ...

"Yes, applicants have identified as Black and the one official acceptance we have made so far does indeed identify as Black," said executive director Melonie Lusk.

Since 2019, Joel Tippens and City Farms Grower Coalition have done remarkable work "to achieve food justice in low income neighborhoods of Chattanooga through collaborative partnerships, experiential learning opportunities and hands-on training in urban agriculture."

They start plants in a Westside greenhouse. Work alongside students at the Howard High Roots Farm.

"All of our partners help us advance our vision of a community of empowered, self-determined people breaking down barriers of race, class, and culture to defeat poverty and hunger in Chattanooga," City Farms declares.

This March, Tippens offers an eight-week program called Urban Cultivars.

"Whether you are a green thumb or all thumbs, these hands-on training workshops will begin with starting seedlings in the greenhouse, understanding the growing season, soil fertility, composting, irrigation, bugs and diseases, beekeeping, backyard chickens, and an introduction to food justice work," the course declares.

Sign up here.

Undoubtedly, there are other similar programs and people in this area. Their absence here is my fault, not theirs.

Yet, the larger point remains: identifying local Black farmers should come easily. Black doctors? Yep. Teachers, elected officials and executives? Yes, yes and yes. But agricultural leaders and farmers?

Few, if any.

This is not to diminish the highly effective and transformative work of Crabtree and Tippens. Yet, the pathway to 40 acres and a mortgage is immensely different than working Crabtree soil, often impossibly so.

Our friends at the Southeast Tennessee Young Farmers coalition are making introductions to Black farmers in other parts of Tennessee. We promise to travel as far as we need to profile and feature more Black regional farmers.

Local government and policymakers have a chance to respond, yet it's hard to imagine such a response simply because it's hard to imagine any local governmental attention on agriculture. Baseball stadiums, yes. But farming?

Lind calls this the "extinction of the Black farmer."

We protect and honor what we love and care about.

This Sunday, we travel back in time to New Orleans and across the globe to west Africa with Kenyatta Ashford, the Chattanooga-based chef who opened the beloved Neutral Ground during the pandemic.

He talks about gumbo, the power of food to reconcile and why African cuisine is not what you think. (Let's rethink what we call "soul-food.")

See you Sunday, friends. As always, thank you for your support.

Kenyatta Ashford, Sequatchie Cove Farms, Marion County, Tenn.

All photography by Sarah Unger.

All design by Alex DeHart.

All words by David Cook. This story is 100% human generated; no AI chatbot was used in the creation of this content.

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Food as a Verb thanks our sustaining partners for their generous support.

Regional Farmers Markets

  • Main St. Farmers Market, Corner of W. 20th and Chestnut St., near Finley Stadium

Wednesday, 4 - 6pm (Note: the Thanksgiving week market was held on Tuesday.)

  • Brainerd Farmers Market, Grace Episcopal Church, 20 Belvoir Ave,

Saturday, 10am - noon

  • Chattanooga Market, 1820 Carter Street

Sunday, 11am - 4pm

  • Ooltewah Farmers Market, The Ooltewah Nursery

Thursday, 3 - 6pm 

  • Signal Mountain Farmers Market

Pre-order online for Thursday pick-up between 4 - 6pm at Bachman Community Center

  • St. Albans Farmers Market, 7514 Hixson Pike

Saturday, 9.30am - 12.30pm with a free pancake breakfast every third Saturday  

  • Walker County Farmers Market

Wednesday, 2 - 5 pm, Rock Spring Ag. Center 

Saturday, 9 am - 1 pm, downtown Lafayette, Georgia

To include your farmers market, email

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