Volume 11, Number 2 November 5, 2007
Making "useful land" useless
by Dr. Ridgely Abdul Mu’min Muhammad
According to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) statistics, in 2004 85-95 percent of farm household income has come from off-farm sources (including employment earnings, other business activities, and unearned income). For the 82 percent of U.S. farming operations that have annual sales of $100,000 or less, off-farm income typically accounts for all but a negligible amount of farm household income. This means that for a typical farm family to survive financially someone has to work another job off-farm. But even among the largest farming operations (the 8 percent of farming operations with annual sales exceeding $250,000), off-farm income accounts for 24 percent of farm household income, on average.
These statistics show that for a person to go into farming they must have a lot more than land to survive. And when you add in the increasing levels of property taxes, owning land can be a burden or liability instead of an asset. In the past, land ownership was a sign of wealth and farming a net generator of wealth. So much so that Benjamin Franklin said that there were only three ways to build wealth: 1. conquer it, 2. steal it, or 3. plant a seed. So how was land transformed from something valuable and useful, a builder of wealth for some, into a useless liability to others? To understand this one must study how economic conditions outside of the farm can render a piece of fertile land useless for agricultural purposes.
History shows that the Nile Valley of Egypt and in particular the Delta region was the most valuable piece of agricultural real-estate in the ancient world. However, Rome increased the tax burden on the land that by the 3rd century after Christ, Egyptian farmers left their land and moved to the interior of Africa out of the reach of the Roman tax collectors and soldiers. Rome could not replace these farmers so Rome soon fell after this because she could no longer pacify her urban population by giving them free food confiscated from Egypt.
Now we can compare this to the modern day Rome called the U.S.A. and see how she has used, then abused her farmers and how history may repeat itself. America took the land from the Native Americans and then brought over seasoned farmers from Africa and made them farm as slaves for white people which made the southern plantation owners both rich and powerful. The North was threatened by the wealth of the South so northerners sought to take away the South’s advantage by freeing her slaves. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation "freed" the slaves in the states that broke away from the Union and not the slaves of those states that stayed loyal to the Union. The South lost the war and her slaves. However the agriculture of the South began to rise again during and after Reconstruction as now freed slaves began to use their knowledge of farming and large labor force to take over the land once owned by their slave masters and turn them into wealth generating machines.
In 1896 an obscure document arises called the "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion" in which a scheme was laid forth that would strip people of their land by first loading the land with debt. We quote:"It is essential therefore for us at whatever cost to deprive them of their land. This object will be best attained by increasing the burdens upon landed property – in loading lands with debt…we want is that industry should drain off from the land both labor and capital and by means of speculation transfer into our hands all the money of the world."
From 1865 to 1910 Blacks had risen from slavery where they owned nothing to acquiring over 16 million acres of land, mostly in the South. To stem this tide white merchants loaned seed and supplies at high interest rates (usury) to freed Blacks. Land was held as collateral and payments were accepted in cotton only. Black farmers were therefore forced to grow cotton to pay off their debts and had to reduce the production of food for themselves and the growing black economy developing in small towns and cities in the South. Increased debt load plus a rash of lynching over the 30 year period from 1890 to 1920 effectively drove millions of Blacks off of their land in the South into the ghettoes of the North to work for the northern industrialists.
However, the whites who took over the land needed labor which they no longer had or could trust. The U.S. government through research developed at the USDA and at colleges funded by USDA research grants began to invent labor saving equipment and chemicals to replace labor. To pay for this equipment and increased production costs the government made low interest loans available to white farmers and not black farmers. Over time the whites developed a competitive advantage that drove many more black farmers off of their land and their children into the cities.
This depopulation of the countryside and reduction of black wealth was not happening fast enough. So in 1962 the Committee for Economic Development outlined what they called "An Adaptive Approach" in which they stated: "Net migration out of agriculture has been going on for 40 years, and at a rapid rate. Nevertheless, the movement of people from agriculture has not been fast enough..." This "adaptive approach" recommended that 1. vocational agriculture courses in rural areas be scrapped, 2. agricultural prices be substantially lowered and 3. temporary income programs be instituted to protect the most "suited for survival."
Of course the farmers "suited for survival" were mostly white. But now even the white farmers are finding it hard to stay on the land as the income figures quoted earlier in this article indicates. Yes, research and science have produced many marvels as farming has become more industrialized. One cotton picker can pick the cotton that it would take 200 workers to pick by hand. However, that one cotton picker may cost $250,000. The farmer must grow and harvest at least 1,000 acres of cotton to justify purchasing one cotton picker. This industrialized cotton farm must then put out at least $300 per acre in the beginning of the season for fertilizer, seeds, chemicals and labor and wait at least six months to receive any return. So now he must come up with $300,000 for operating expenses, plus living expenses, the payments on the cotton picker and the other $500 per acre worth of other farm equipment. He may be carrying a debt load on just equipment of $750,000 against which he must put his land at risk as collateral. Without this equipment his land has no value in terms of cotton production, but must be put at risk in order to farm cotton. We took cotton as an example, but the same story can be told across the board for any agricultural commodity.
The property tax on our 1600 acre farm in Georgia is about $23,000 per year. In other counties in Georgia and in other states property taxes are even higher. So a farmer can not just hold land until commodity prices get better, because he must make some type of income to pay the taxes.
So the "system" that first made land useless for the economic well being of Blacks in the South is now making land useless for farming, period. As owning land becomes more of a liability than an asset, one can feel the "Fall of America", as prophesied to us by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, drawing closer.