Monday morning, members of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus (GLBC) toured three Black-family owned farms in and around middle Georgia. In addition to the tours, the GLBC conducted roundtable discussion along with the Agriculture Department at Fort Valley State University, a land grant HBCU which was founded in 1895. Among those on the tour are farmers that currently raise cattle and produce hemp. The goal of the tour was not solely about learning the economics of farming, but the role Black-owned farms play in creating jobs while simultaneously protecting the legacies of Black-family owned farms and ensuring their long-term futures. 

Currently, one out of seven Georgians right now work in the agriculture industry. The farm-to-table movement has taken hold among Georgia’s consumers. How so? The agriculture industry contributes approximately $69.4 billion annually to Georgia’s economy, according to the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness & Economic Development. Additionally, the total farm gate value was $14.69 billion in 2021 according to a report compiled by UGA. And yet, Black farmers in Georgia continue to fight an uphill battle for equity, quality investment, and market share in a state where entrepreneurship is not only praised but often highly encouraged. 

Addis Bugg Jr and his son pose for photographs during a tour of the Bugg Family Farm on Monday, May 15, 2023 in Pine Mountain, Georgia. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice) Credit: Itoro N. Umontuen / The Atlanta Voice

The first farm on the tour was the Bugg Family Farm. With more than 230 acres, Addis Bugg Jr told everyone the farm has been in the family for five generations since 1879. The farm raises cattle while growing muscadines, berries, apples, kale, sweet onions and even watermelons. During the tour, Bugg Jr explained how his father, Cornelius Bugg, had difficulties in getting loans and the impacts it currently has with his stewardship of the farm.

“I can tell you a lot of stories growing up where my dad did go into town to try to apply for loans,” Bugg Jr said. “He was denied and denied and denied. There’s not one time that I went into town and got a loan for anything to advance the farm. I rather slow-walk it. So that’s why I say we could be much further. I don’t know if the farm is producing enough to even justify going to get a $300,000 loan and advance ourselves with new equipment. We are just slow-walking it right now.”

Bugg Jr said he would love to build a meat processing center in order to not only sell his cattle, but also be able to sell the meat to prospective buyers while creating a farm-to-table model that would better sustain his farm and allow the family to invest for much-needed resources.

Black farm ownership has dropped 90% in the 20th Century due to discriminatory lending practices from governmental agencies that have denied struggling farmers access to low-interest loans and grants. In 2022, farmers of color were half as likely as white farmers to have subsidized loan applications approved. 

“These farmers are often denied for having low or no credit score, despite the USDA being considered the “lender of last resort” for producers who cannot get credit elsewhere,” said Georgia State Representative Carl Gilliard, in a statement. “The limited options for building credit puts Black family farms at severe risk of foreclosure, threatening a key economic engine that keeps rural communities of color afloat.”

Paul A. Copeland of Living Waters Farms speaks during a property tour on Monday, May 15, 2023 in Mancherster, Georgia. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice) Credit: Itoro N. Umontuen / The Atlanta Voice

The second farm the GLBC visited was the Living Waters Farms in Manchester. The farm is owned and managed by Jo and Paul Copeland and has more than 300 acres spread out over two properties. Copeland raises select angus and sim-angus cattle. He’s also harvesting hay and growing different kinds of grass. Paul Copeland told the group he specifically needs help financing the specific blend of feed he’s producing at Living Waters.

“As a matter of fact, I’ve developed a feed formula that can take anywhere from 10% to 28% protein based on what your cows’ needs,” Copeland said. “That feed can be adjusted to horses, goats, cattle, hogs, whatever, I need some help getting that off the ground number one. Number two, I need money for pouring that cement [for the hay harvesting operation] and hiring folks and training people in order to be entrepreneurs.”

Copeland, by trade, is an engineer. He studies the level of beef that each bovine produces. He says that the beef that you’re consuming will be good for your palate, it won’t just sit there, it will be digestible and digestible very well with a low cholesterol level. He too would like investment for an on-site meat processing facility. 

Dr. Mark Latimore, Dean of the Cooperative Extension Program at Fort Valley State University, speaks during a press conference on Monday, May 15, 2023. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice)

The group would have lunch at Fort Valley State University and the discussion dovetailed toward chats about funding, education, and ensuring their voices are heard when certain bills come up in the Georgia Legislature. Dr. Mark Latimore, Dean of the Cooperative Extension Program at Fort Valley State University, emphasized that increased funding for local Black farmers would not only benefit their businesses but also address food deserts in rural areas of our state.

“We see this as an opportunity to build a network and a base so that all farmers, whether small or large, can benefit and grow,” Latimore said.

That proposed network could be affected by legislation signed by Governor Kemp. House Bill 128 was signed on April 25th and it is aimed at streamlining certifications for minority, women, and veteran-owned businesses and increasing access to state procurement opportunities. Here’s the issue: State Representative El-Mahdi Holly said during the roundtable that Governor Kemp was pressured by numerous local businessmen to re-evaluate minority contracts in an effort to “dilute the definition of minority businesses.”

Georgia State Representative El-Mahdi Holly speaks during a roundtable discussion on Monday, May 15, 2023 at Fort Valley State University. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice)

“I think as legislators a dual role, not only in introducing legislation, and trying to encourage our colleagues who live have either long been a supporter of a system that refuses to see Black farmers or at least have chalked up the problem of getting those funds made available to plausible deniability and indifference,” explained Representative Holly. “All we need is them to admit that the funding is not making it available directly to those Black farmers. And that can be the impetus for lawsuits that can compel the state to do the right thing.”

Even though Black farmers in Georgia share the same plight as their contemporaries in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee, this group of farmers, advocates, and legislators used this tour to arm themselves with the information for the policy fights and funding wars that loom over the horizon. 

Darlene Roberts speaks during a tour of her vineyard on Monday, May 15, 2023 in Byron, Georgia. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice)

Darlene Roberts is a self-described City Girl from Miami. After her husband, Senior Master Sergeant James Roberts passed away, she began to take care of the farm located in Crawford County, Georgia that was a hobby for her husband. Her farm grows blueberries, cucumbers, muscadines, squash, tomatoes and zucchini. She also owned a spa in Macon but it was too much for her to tend to the farm and the spa, so she moved the spa to a sprawling room attached to her home. Roberts also has a vineyard on her property as well.

Roberts also credited the program at Fort Valley State to help her get started. 

“Because if you teach us, oh we’re going to learn and I’m going to make it happen,” Roberts said. “I’m a one woman show besides the people that come to help me. What you see is either I swim or I sink, and there were many times that I wanted to sink.”

Roberts said she runs her farm solely from the income it generates. However, she too would like extra funding. 

“But it’s so much hard sweat and tears that have been put into the vineyard that I refuse to let it go,” Roberts continued. So it’s just me … it’s just me, but to have those resources and people to help and you know, just a community that we can go to.”

Representative Gilliard responded by informing the room that each time a box of food was filled and distributed during the COVID-19 pandemic, a farmer was paid. 

Georgia State Senaor Nikki Merritt speaks during a roundtable discussion on Monday, May 15, 2023 at Fort Valley State University. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice)

“When COVID hit, everybody and your mama were feeding people all over the nation. Every time there was a box that was assembled, somebody got paid,” said Representative Gilliard. “So as the owner of a 501C3 organization that feeds the hungry, every time you saw that box, some farmer benefited. Municipalities knew about that money. The local municipalities from the mayor to the county commissioner, and Congressmen and Senators in D.C. knew because they were channeling to their friends to become the vendors.”

The members of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus that traveled to the three Black-family owned farms say this is only the beginning of a fight to finally level the playing fields for Black farmers as well as Georgia’s public Historically Black Colleges. Everyone was moved seeing the families that are trying to make it and make it on what they just have and not what they really need. But in order for their plans to work, there must be a collective buy-in from the local level which includes the mayors and county commissioners actively engaging with the legislators to push for positive changes. 

“We are serious about a roll out of legislation,” Gilliard explained. “But we’re going to be asking as we travel around the state of Georgia for help from organizations. We’re going to ask for help from the NAACP, the Urban League of Greater Atlanta, and whoever else that’s involved, to send letters to pass local resolutions and support that legislation and to call your senators, your state reps, the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor and tell them to move it forward and give us a hearing so we can move the needle forward.”

Handy Kennedy of AgriUnity, Maci Hall, Project Director with the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus and State Representative Carl Gilliard speak before a tour of the Bugg Family Farm on Monday, May 15, 2023 in Pine Mountain, Georgia. (Photo: Itoro N. Umontuen/The Atlanta Voice) Credit: Itoro N. Umontuen / The Atlanta Voice
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Itoro Umontuen currently serves as Managing Editor of The Atlanta Voice. Upon his arrival to the historic publication, he served as their Director of Photography. As a mixed-media journalist, Umontuen...