FRESNO, Calif. -- As the sun rises on tilled soil on the outskirts of Fresno, Calif., Mori Vance bends to pick black eyed peas, then disappears among towering okra bushes. Vance, who is African-American, is harvesting her first crop with several other novice black farmers, all hoping to make it their life's work.
The African American Farmers of California started the 15-acre demonstration farm to teach about growing and eating healthy food and to get African-American kids interested in agriculture.
The project is part of a nationwide effort to revive the pride of black farmers and reverse the decline of black-owned farms. In Milwaukee, Atlanta and Chicago, black-run nonprofit organizations are providing African-Americans with land to farm, conducting workshops in agriculture and training youth in gardening.
"A lot of black people, their grandparents were farmers, but they were forced out of agriculture. We're trying to help them easily re-enter into it," said Will Scott, president of the California farmers group. "The goal is that they eventually become self-sufficient."
The challenge is great because farming carries negative connotations for many African-Americans due to the legacies of slavery, sharecropping and recent discriminatory government policies.
"Black farmers were the backbone of American agriculture," said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association. "We went from being slaves to sharecroppers. Black farmers left farming because they didn't see the financial rewards. Instead, they saw pictures of the old South where there were racial tensions and they didn't want that for their families."
Many left their farms during the Depression. Then following World War II, millions of blacks migrated across the country, in part because federal officials denied them federal agricultural loans and other assistance that routinely went to whites, Boyd said. As a result, he said, many black farmers lost their land to foreclosure.
Blacks now make up about 1 percent of the nation's farmers and ranchers, according to the USDA. In 1920, blacks made up roughly 14 percent of the nation's farmers.
In California, where there are more than 80,000 farms, blacks own fewer than 380, according to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture.
The federal government has acknowledged historic racial bias and in 1999 settled a class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination in government loans. Congress recently agreed to provide $1.25 billion to African-American farmers who were unable to participate in the original settlement, but a judge must still approve the agreement.
At the Fresno farm, Scott is trying to inculcate pride in his three novice farmers.
"You're on the other side now. You're not a worker, but an owner. You work for yourself. There's a pleasure in seeing things grow and when other people enjoy the fruit of your labor," he said on a recent September morning.
Scott's group, which unites about 20 farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, started the farm using a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The group leases the land from Fresno County and farms organically. The farmers pay a symbolic $200 to $300 per year to use the land, plus costs of irrigation.
Scott, a retired engineer-turned-farmer whose family migrated from Oklahoma to California in 1952, offers technical assistance, from land preparation to bed shaping to pest management. His grandfather was a sharecropper, and his father picked grapes and cotton in California's Central Valley.
One goal, Scott said, is to reintroduce southern specialty crops – traditionally part of the African American diet – into the black community, to help stymie the epidemic of obesity and diabetes.
"The nutritional value of this food was passed down the generations," Scott said. "It helped build our immune system, kept us healthy and strong. We hope to pass it on to sustain the next generation."
For Vance, a licensed vocational nurse who has been unemployed for a year, the benefits of joining the farm extend to her family and entire community. Vance's father, mother and aunt gather at daybreak to help pick the crops that later transform into delicious meals. Vance also brings her nieces and nephews, who are high school students, to plant and harvest. And she distributes her organic veggies at two area churches.
"I've always wanted to farm. It's my time with God," Vance said. "When I'm out here, I talk to Him all the time, I praise him. Farming is a much healthier way to live."
Vance, whose great-grandfather was a farmer in Arkansas, hopes to develop an after-school program at the farm to teach children how to plant, cook and live healthier.
Scott also hopes black children can reap financial benefits from farming. "Agriculture is a multi-billion dollar industry, and our youth needs to be brought into it so they can play a part in it," he said.
Other organizations across the U.S. are also trying to educate African-Americans about farming and create jobs in agriculture for unemployed or underemployed blacks, especially in urban areas.
Black churches are hosting farmers markets and connecting black farmers with customers.
And in July, several black farming groups hosted the first National Black Agriculture Awareness Week to reach out to African-Americans and bring attention to the decline of black agriculture.
These efforts have been bolstered by first lady Michelle Obama's interest in farming, said Michael Harris, publisher of Black Agriculture, a Sacramento, Calif.-based quarterly.
"The physical example of seeing the first lady on her hands and knees in her garden working, that picture speaks a thousand words," Harris said. "It changes the concept of farming that black people have."
But the change in imagery, Harris said, needs to be followed by changes in policy. Black farmers still lack access to opportunities, information and financial assistance, he said.
"We're still fighting last century's discrimination," Harris said. "But African-Americans are hungry today and we need to concentrate on teaching and policy change so there is job creation in agriculture."