EASTOVER, S.C. — People say the soil in this rural community at the fringe of Columbia, S.C., is so rich you could plant pebbles and grow rocks. Lower Richland County, named for its "rich land," according local lore, once sustained African-American farmers on small spreads that had been in their families for decades.
Many of the nation's small farms are no longer profitable. Unused farmland here makes up one of the largest undeveloped tracts near a big city in the eastern USA, according to the New York-based Center for Social Inclusion.
That's despite a high level of property ownership — 72% of people in predominantly black lower Richland own their land, according to a five-year (2002-2007) Center for Social Inclusion study.
Now, as Columbia expands ever outward, a group of local residents is launching an effort to help people hold on to their property and build an economy. The group, led by state Rep. Joe Neal, intends to teach people to pool resources in traditional farming cooperatives. Farmers would grow crops that tap two national trends: the demand for locally grown organic food and the shift toward alternative fuel production.
The initiative comes against a dismal backdrop for black farmers and rural landowners. Many small farms are struggling, shutting down as industrialized farming dominates.
Blacks in the USA are losing farmland at a faster rate than whites. In 1910, blacks owned about 15.7 million acres; that had fallen to 2.2 million acres in 2002, the most recent statistics available from the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. White-owned farm acreage declined from 580 million acres to 534 million acres.
"When you lose land, you lose wealth," says John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association. "If you don't own land, you don't have any economic power in this country."
The lower Richland effort is ambitious. Supporters like Neal envision three farm equipment sheds scattered about the county; a training center teaching equipment maintenance and repair; a farm co-op recruiting farmers and finding markets, and a technology park focusing on alternative energy.
"We don't expect it to be instant or easy," says Neal, who is in his 16th year in the state House. "But if we don't do something to save ourselves, no one is coming to save us."
Attendance was spotty at a series of community meetings on the project, but Neal says local property owners would welcome a chance to make money off an asset that's been only a tax drain for years.
Mac Horton, director of the Clemson Institute for Economic and Community Development, compares the Richland effort to the tiny tobacco farms that once dotted the state. "Historically in South Carolina, tobacco was highly valued as a crop because it could be a family production issue," Horton says. "Much of it was part-time farmers working on less than an acre. They knew that once a year, they would get an $8,000 to $10,000 check."
Organic farming, which is labor-intensive and requires hands-on attention, can be done profitably on small spreads, he says.
Dawn Mills Campbell, 41, says she and her husband, Stevenson Campbell, would join a co-op. "We own 21 acres, apart from what we live on, that could be farmed," says Campbell, a technical writer at Benedict College in Columbia. "Even if we don't farm ourselves, we might partner with somebody who wants to farm it."
The lower Richland effort is a good approach, says Jerry Pennick, director of the Land Assistance Fund for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, an Atlanta-based non-profit. "We think co-ops are the best alternative for small farmers," he says. "It gives you the opportunity to participate in a wider variety of markets, to decrease expenses and share technologies and strategies."
The lower Richland group is made up of people whose ties to the land are deep and strong. One of them, longtime environmentalist Mildred Myers of nearby Gadsden, says they're trying to pass that love of the land to younger people, who often leave family-owned land to live elsewhere.
"We've got to develop hope in our community," says Myers, 60. "What we want to do is create wealth that we own, that we control, that benefits us."
One primary obstacle is money. Neal says the three farm sheds alone would cost $2.5 million to $3 million. "The bigger obstacle might be apathy," he says. "We have to make sure the community is sharing the vision and accepting it."
Neal recalls visits to see a family friend on Hilton Head in the 1960s and early 1970s, before it began to be developed into a mega-resort.
"The island was sparsely populated, but everybody there was African-American," says Neal, 57. "As the island developed and the tax base rose, indigenous people could no longer afford to pay the taxes … and they were simply forced out.
"I don't want to see that happen to my community and other communities if I can help it."