'Black Farmers in America'- John Ficara's Long Odyssey

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Friday, March 3, 2006; 5:52 PM

To the next generation of journalists, especially those who will be working with a camera to record, to document, to bear witness, and--God willing at times--to foment change, go right now to Baltimore, to the new Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, and see the riveting, compelling and ultimately infuriating work of photographer John Francis Ficara.

"Distant Echoes--Black Farmers in America" is a beautifully mounted exhibition of just part of the photographs from Ficara's four-year book project to document the plight of African-American farmers. In decades past these rural entrepreneurs and their families formed a significant part of America's agricultural workforce, yet today they face financial ruin and extinction caused in no small part by the ill-disguised racism and glaring incompetence of the state and federal agencies meant to serve them.


"Today, black farmers call the US Department of Agriculture the 'last plantation,'" notes journalist and author Juan Williams in the introductory essay to Ficara's book, Black Farmers in America (University Press of Kentucky, $49.95). "In 1982, the Civil Rights Commission concluded that decades of bias against black farmers by the Agriculture Department threatened to kill off the few remaining black farmers."

"As recently as 1997," Williams goes on, "an internal audit conducted by the Agriculture Department concluded that in the southeastern United States, loan applications from black farmers took three times as long to be processed as loan requests from white farmers. It found that blacks in need of financial support [like farmers everywhere--Ed.] met 'bias, hostility, greed, ruthlessness and indifference.'"

So bad is the situation in the Ag department's field offices, Williams reported, that black officials at departmental headquarters in Washington in the 1990s were quoted publicly as calling the Agriculture Department a "hotbed of racial bias and harassment."

"My first introduction to the dilemma of black farmers came from a Newsweek assignment, in 1996 I believe," John Ficara told me. "The story was bumped from the magazine on a weekend breaking news event. It went off the editor's radar screen after that and was considered but never brought back as a story. After spending a week with a family in Georgia witnessing first hand the family's struggle to keep their farm operational, I saw the odds that were stacked against them. I also saw this as a great injustice to black farmers in the treatment they received by government and financial institutions. Looking at the statistics it was clear that black family farms were leaving the agricultural landscape three to four times faster than their white counterpart[s]. Also, looking at the numbers of young farmers deciding not to continue farming left a stark picture for black family farms. When you looked at mainstream media, they always reported the story in tangible terms: land loss, financial loss, and profits down, farm costs up. I saw this story in humanistic terms, a way of life disappearing, and the end to traditional family farming."

Ficara went on: "Large corporate farms are now becoming the norm and driving the prices, challenging all family farms. Also, for me I saw this story in a historical context: that someone should be recording this tradition that is leaving the agricultural landscape in this country."

It's hard to know from what source inspiration will come. John Ficara, both of whose parents are Italian, is not black. He was born in Brooklyn 54 years ago. He is not a farmer. Sure, he has the instinct for a good story, something that anyone in the news business develops--or should develop--after years in the trenches.

I venture the guess (because he and I share an Italian heritage) that what motivated John to document the story of America's disappearing black farmers was an emotional attachment to a people long marginalized by American society. An attachment that also helped him bear witness to the egregious failings of government, especially the federal government, in providing fair and equitable treatment to this minority.

A good story. An emotional story. An angry story.

In the right hands, that's a killer combination.

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