black pecan farmer holding pecans
Georgia pecans hold centuries of history. | Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon for Thrillist
Georgia pecans hold centuries of history. | Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon for Thrillist

Georgia Pecans Represent How Far We Have to Go in Elevating Black Farmers

Farmers in the southern state weigh in on the challenges that come with growing one of its highest yielding crops.

Part of my childhood was spent growing up in a sunny, small town outside of Augusta, Georgia, where I recall running through piles of football-shaped pecans that fell from my granny’s trees in her front yard. I’d become fascinated with watching her bag them up and send them off with various relatives, neighbors, and family friends. But before they reached the hands of excited pecan lovers, I’d fixate my eyes on them falling from the trees as she gently shook the branches. It wasn’t exactly the snow I longed to witness in the South, but it was close enough. 

Over the years, I discovered several more of my family members in the central east region of the Peach State had pecan trees in their yard but never commercially sold or grew them as a side hustle. In fact, when bags of pecans popped up at family gatherings, none of the company labels on them were from Black farmers or Black-owned groves. While I’m aware of the obstacles many U.S. Black farmers in general face, I couldn’t help but wonder why a crop that is so integral to Georgia’s agriculture is rarely grown at the hands of these farmers. Were the hands that planted them ones that resembled mine?

Savannah’s River Street Sweets is known as Georgia’s headquarters for sweet pralines filled with pecans, though if you take a trip west of this sparkling city by the river, you’ll eventually reach Albany, where New Communities Inc. grows them, along with other crops like mandarin oranges and succulent squash. It’s one of the only Black-owned farms growing pecans for profit in Georgia and its history is marked with multiple challenges. 

According to the 2017 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Census, there were 213 Black-operated farms in Georgia that produced and sold fruits, tree nuts, and berries compared to 3,669 farms with the same crops farmed by white producers. The specific type of tree nuts wasn’t specified, but white farmers also account for a little over 159,000 acres of pecans, which are listed as a top crop for this demographic. 

With these facts in mind, the first thing I knew I had to do was get some clarity and context around what the scene for Black pecan farmers in Georgia looked like in the past, way before 2017.

lemario brown pecan farmer
LeMario Brown is one of the few Black pecan growers in Georgia. | Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon for Thrillist

New Communities Land Trust builds trust with Black farmers

My research first brought me to New Communities, a massive land trust with a history of plight and resilience. 

New Communities was originally founded as a collective farm for Black farmers during the civil rights movement and laid the blueprint for community land trusts in the U.S. In 2011, New Communities bought what is now named “Resora,” 1,638 acres of land on Cypress Pond, a former plantation and property of the largest slaveholder in Georgia. Today, two of the founding members, Shirley Sherrod and Charles Sherrod continue to uplift and support Black farmers despite the hardships they faced trying to keep their legacy afloat.

In 1985 after a terrible drought wreaked havoc on many farms, including New Communities, they applied for a loan from the USDA and were denied  like many Black farmers were — resulting in them losing their land to foreclosure. The discriminatory practices by the USDA toward struggling Black farmers was not overlooked. New Communities later joined a collective lawsuit of Black farmers against the USDA in 1999, known as Pigford v. Glickman. In 2009, New Communities was awarded $13 million, which was used to purchase the land for Resora. 

In an interview with Provender Alliance, Shirley Sherrod revealed that the land Resora is on was once filled with pecan trees, but when she took over the land, only 85 acres of pecans were present. To improve production, New Communities enlisted the help of the former president of the U.S. Pecan Growers Council, the late Hilton Segler. Soon, the amount of pecan trees covered 200 acres. A partnership with Equal Exchange allows even those who aren’t in Georgia to experience New Communities’ pecans by getting them shipped right to their door. 

New Communities’ role in Georgia’s pecan production relies heavily on the people who were quite literally on the ground making the magic happen. It was difficult to get in contact with these key stars though for a variety of reasons, including the added stress of the pandemic on the farm and the recent announcement of the American Rescue Plan taking up significant time on Mrs. Sherrod’s schedule. But after multiple Google searches and hours of archive sifting, I came upon Sedrick Rowe, who used to work with Mrs. Sherrod at the land trust for a few years. 

Rowe, an Albany native and owner of Rowe Organic Farms, previously worked as an agricultural specialist at New Communities Inc. from 2016 to 2018. He primarily focused on pecans and developing the farm’s organic produce. His days now consist of peanut farming instead of pecans, and he is currently the only Black farmer in South Georgia approved to grow organic hemp.

“Right now, [New Communities] is the largest Black-owned pecan grower in the South. [Shirley] had 200 acres of pecan trees, and another 40 acres that was in new production at the time that I arrived. When I got there, my duties were to maintain the farm and help increase the sales and operations of what she already had going on,” Rowe said.  

Pecans are an investment with a hefty price tag

Rowe emphasized how much of a financial and time investment pecan production is and that the cost to produce them is the number one reason as to why there aren’t more Black-owned pecan orchards. “You’ve got to have a lot of capital. One tree, one transplant tree, or one three-year-old tree will run you about $20. That tree won't produce until it's about seven years old, so you will be investing in chemicals and mowing for three years until that tree produces any products for you to sell. So the first three years, your pecan tree is growing. The wood is growing.”  

The expenses associated with starting pecan production include getting equipment to properly water the trees as they need a significant amount of water to grow healthily, herbicide sprayers, a rotary mower, and a tractor. And that’s just the equipment one would need to get started. These costs don’t include shakers, wagons, blowers, and sweepers needed for when the trees start bearing nuts. It can easily cost a little over half a million dollars to get your pecans off the ground. 

“That fifth and sixth year may be your first year of harvest, but a harvest is going to cost a lot of money. Pecan farming is an investment that the average person may not want to enter if they don't have a steady revenue coming in from somewhere else so when people farm, they farm vegetables. That's why Black people usually stick to growing vegetables,” Rowe said. “It's something that they can put a little into and make a lot out of. Pecans are something I call a rich man crop because the only people I see that get into pecans are people that inherited land or people that are just filthy rich. And even people that are filthy rich, you don't see them go in and say, ‘Hey, I'm buying all this land. I’m going to put some pecans trees on that.’" 

For over a decade, Georgia held the title of the state with the highest pecan production, but in 2018, New Mexico surpassed it due to the damaging agricultural effects of Hurricane Michael. Despite the setback, Georgia still remains a top pecan producer and its warm climate, loam soil quality, and determined pecan growers are to thank, including Fort Valley city council member and farmer LeMario Brown.

pecan tractor for growing pecans
Pecan growing equipment can cost over half a million dollars. | Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon for Thrillist

The role of land ownership

If we want answers about the present and future, it’s said that we should look to the past, which is often painful. The disparities and inequalities between land ownership by Black farmers and white farmers can be traced back to sharecropping. Immediately after the Civil War and the failed attempt to help formerly enslaved people build a life during the Reconstruction era, they were instead left without land, money, or citizenship rights. 

The concept of sharecropping, which is often described as “slavery by another name” due to its exploitive nature, arose as a way to provide white landowners with labor for farming and support for poor farmers of all races. These farmers would gain access to small plots of land, produce crops and in exchange for a share of these crops instead of cash, the white landowners would provide them with housing. Since cash exchanges weren’t the primary method of payment between white landowners and sharecroppers, aside from tenant farming, it was nearly impossible to acquire enough money to purchase land for themselves. By 1930, only one in 10 Black farmers that remained in the South instead of moving north during the Great Migration owned the land they farmed on. 

In 2021, access to land remains a major hurdle for Black farmers, and according to the National Young Farmers Coalition, it is the top barrier they face. Black farmers make up only four percent of total farmers in Georgia, and of the roughly 9.9 million acres of farmland present, they only own 218,000 acres..  

“The guy that I'm leasing the grove from, he stopped farming it, maybe about 30 years ago, because of health reasons. One day, we were talking and I asked him what his plan was with it and he said he didn't have any plans and if I wanted to lease it, I could,” Brown said. “Here we are today, going on my second year and we turned over a pretty good profit last year, without any equipment, as far as the shaker or the harvester. We did it all by hand.”

"When you're talking about a wealthy part of agriculture, you don't find many Black farmers."

Although both of his grandfathers farmed livestock and occasionally grew pecans, Brown considers himself a first-generation large scale pecan farmer. He currently leases a 5-acre lot with roughly 100 pecan trees and a 10-acre lot for raising goats and cows in Fort Valley. In lieu of equipment to help during last year’s harvesting season, Brown enlisted the help of relatives and friends, but now he does everything by himself and occasionally one or two helpers. 

“When you're talking about making a 100-tree plot with a $50,000 investment, you’re not even talking about the tractor, the shaker, the harvester, and the other equipment that you need, the policy and all that, so it's basically the wealth gap that we have here in America as Black people. It's the same thing when you're talking about farming. When you're talking about a wealthy part of agriculture, you don't find many Black farmers. You'll go on the side of the road and see a bunch of those pop-up guys who are selling stuff that they bought from someone else, but the true ownership is going to be far and few for those that have that 1,000- or 100-acre lot that they actually own,” Brown said.

Jumping through hoops with getting crop insurance

Another culprit of the scarcity of Black pecan growers appeared in the form of acquiring insurance, which Brown cites as a hurdle for him. And in a region susceptible to natural disasters, crops being insured is crucial to the success of any farmer. Catastrophic weather events like droughts and hurricanes wipe out hundreds of pecan trees, completely disrupting the multi-year span it takes for pecans to grow. 

“One challenge that I'm still facing is getting the grove, because it's so old, insured by insurance companies. Now, the insurance company, they're all for it, but they usually contract out to a different person that comes out and actually grades the orchard,” Brown said. 

There are two federal crop insurance programs developed specifically for pecan producers.  The first is the Pecan Revenue program that protects against loss of revenue derived from the sale of the pecan nuts. The second is the Pecan Tree program that provides coverage for expenses associated with damage to the pecan trees. Both programs must be purchased through private insurance companies,” said a USDA spokesperson. 

The USDA Risk Management Agency states in order for pecan trees to be insured, “at a minimum they must be adapted to the area, grown in a commercial orchard for the purpose of producing pecans intended to be sold for human consumption, and have the potential to produce a yield typical of a healthy tree.”  

The latter requirement still proves to be an area of difficulty for Brown and he points to a history of systematic racism againsty and discrimination against Black farmers as a potential reason. The USDA’s track record of discrimination against Black farmers is seen in its unequal administration of support programs which would protect their extremely risky investments (AKA crops), which resulted in the Pigford v. Glickman case in 1999. 

“You have these older white guys that probably don't want me to be doing this anyway. They come out and look and say, ‘Well, that tree doesn't look good and this tree doesn't look good, so the whole orchard can't be insured.’ If a storm came in, just because one tree in the orchard is bad, all other of the 70 or 80 trees aren't going to be insured, but I'm going to lose my pecans if we have a disaster or something,” Brown said. 

lemario brown in tractor on pecan farm
Disparities in access to financial assistance continues to be a barrier for Black farmers. | Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon for Thrillist

Looking ahead to the future

Even with these bleak disadvantages, many Black farmers like  Rowe and Brown are looking forward to a brighter future. 

The American Rescue Plan also called the COVID-19 Stimulus Package is expected to bring some much needed relief to the farming industry. Ten point four million dollars of the $1.9 trillion package will go toward agriculture, and more specifically to “disadvantaged” farmers in the form of debt relief, training, education, and assistance with obtaining land. 

While these efforts won’t bridge the entire gap in access inequalities that Black farmers face, Brown and Rowe look forward to seeing how the agricultural landscape will change -- especially for young people who are trying to break into the industry. 

“I want more farmers and I don't want to shun the ones over 50, but anybody 45 and younger, they need a chance. I think it's a win-win for everybody. If we can regenerate that wealth, regenerate that land and distribute it out to the Black farmers,” Brown said. 

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Kristen Adaway is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her @kristenadaway.