Still Farming: A Black Farmer Persists Through Discrimination And Changing Attitudes

Nov 13, 2020

Charles Lucas rest on a 1940's tractor inside a greenhouse on his farm in Montgomery County Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Jackson Springs, N.C. Lucas has a love of the land returning to farming after the Vietnam War and would like to see the family farm continue another generation.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

It's a beautiful and crisp autumn day on the Lucas Farm in Montgomery County.

The sounds of cars whizzing by and birds chirping disturb the quiet peacefulness that Charles Lucas has grown accustomed to, living alone in Jackson Springs.

Lucas is 70 years old. He's a Vietnam veteran and a farmer who spends most of his days talking to family and friends on the phone, tending to his land or selling his produce at nearby farmers' markets.

He says he's the only Black farmer in Montgomery County, just south of Greensboro.

Black people sort of began to drift away from farming, because it was so punitive and racist... You just couldn't get ahead doing it. -Deborah Barnes, adjunct associate professor of English and African American Studies at North Carolina A&T State University

"It is a dying breed," Lucas said. "No question about it."

Lucas comes from a family of farmers. His father was a farmer and he and his 12 siblings grew up on the farm.

Lucas was drafted into the Vietnam War in 1969. He was there for a little over a year, and when he returned to High Point, he worked in a truck factory and then meat packing.

One day after church, he took a look at some land that was up for sale in Jackson Springs.

He put a $5,000 down payment. The owners - who lived in Virginia - didn't know Lucas was Black.

"The day we came down for the closing my me and my wife was in the lawyer office in Troy," he said. "When a man and his wife came in and saw that we're Black, man, that woman lit out on us. She used the n-word."

The owners were locked into the deal and couldn't get out of the contract, so Lucas bought the 25 acres of land that would become his farm.

He built his house and raised four children there. Now a widower, he's at a crossroads on what to do with it.

"I just don't know what to do with this land," he said. "I don't plan on ever getting married again and I don't plan on just giving it to my children. They act like they don't want it. I don't have not one that comes here and wants to do this. And that's really upsets me."

Charles Lucas pulls on flat irrigation hoses at his farm in Montgomery County Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Jackson Springs, N.C. Lucas purchased his farm in 1975 and put it back into production in 2008. (Lynn Hey / For WUNC)
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

The agriculture industry has been in a slow, steady decline for decades. Black-owned farms are no exception. Only about 2% of all farms nationwide are owned by Black people, due to persistent and systemic racist policies that were in place at the U.S. Department of Agriculture until the late 1990s.

"Black people sort of began to drift away from farming, because it was so punitive and racist, and all those kinds of things," said Deborah Barnes, adjunct associate professor of English and African American Studies at North Carolina A&T State University. "You just couldn't get ahead doing it."

Now, Barnes says, younger generations of Black people have even less interest in agriculture as a career. 

"Those people who came of age in the 80s and 90s, they're going to college and nobody's going back to the farm," she said. "Nobody wants to do hard work. Everybody wants a white collar job."

Persistent discrimination and harassment was written into policies, but it was also personal for Lucas.

"I started painting the house and I started trying to plant corn and then this guy turned his cows loose on my land," he said. "Cows ate up my stuff. It was a white neighbor and he did it on purpose; but I took him to court. That's when I first started fighting back against this stuff."

Carrie Lee and Watt Lucas, parents of Charles Lucas, shown in an old photograph Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Jackson Springs, N.C. Charles Lucas would like to see the family farm continue another generation.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

Lucas tells other stories about harassment, some including law enforcement. He said he tried applying for U.S. Department of Agriculture loans for farming equipment, but he was always denied.

These racially discriminatory loan policies were the backbone of the Pigford v. Glickman class action lawsuit in the late 1990s. Four hundred Black farmers sued the USDA and won. Lucas was not one of them; he didn't file his paperwork in time and he never saw any payouts.

It was around that time that Lucas grew frustrated with farming and sold all of his equipment. His land went fallow and he settled into being a truck driver.

Then in 2008 he went to a workshop about sustainable crops. It was through that workshop that Lucas's love for farming returned. He started growing and selling produce at NC A&T's farmers' market.

Now, despite the grim statistics and difficult work, Lucas still encourages people to try their hand at farming.

"You can have one-acre of land and could be a farmer," he said. "You got to get a tracking number and a farm number and that's all you need and be willing to put the time in."

ADDITIONAL PHOTOS:

Charles Lucas works his farm in Montgomery County Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Jackson Springs, N.C. Lucas has a love of the land returning to farming after the Vietnam War he purchased his farm in 1975 and put his farm back into production in 2008.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC
Charles Lucas picks a pecan from his grove of trees planted six years ago in cooperation with NC A&T State University on his farm in Montgomery County Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Jackson Springs, N.C.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

Working with NC A&T State University, Charles Lucas has devised an irrigation system on his farm in Montgomery County Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Jackson Springs, N.C.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

Charles Lucas stands where his home once stood before a fire destroyed the property on his farm in Montgomery County Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Jackson Springs, N.C. Lucas plans a building that will serve as a farmers market.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC
Charles Lucas pulls the starter on his 1940's Harvest International tractor on his farm in Montgomery County Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Jackson Springs, N.C.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC

Charles Lucas holds a photograph showing the Lucas family of eight brothers and nephews Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Jackson Springs, N.C.
Credit Lynn Hey / For WUNC