'Our Heart Is In It:' Black Farmers Work To Keep Ancestral Legacy Alive

Oct 15, 2020

For Nathan Bradford Jr., work doesn’t end after his full-time job. When he’s not working at a natural gas processing plant, he’s ranching in Bristow, Oklahoma.  

“If I’m off and I’m not on the ranch, I’m probably sick,” Bradford says. 

His day usually starts around 4:30 a.m., working the cattle and maintaining the plots of land he inherited from his ancestors. He calls his business G Line Meats in honor of his ancestors who moved from Georgia to farm. 

Nathan Bradford Jr. has about 400 head of cattle between several plots of land.
Credit Seth Bodine / Harvest Public Media

As Bradford drives to the 80 acres of land on a Saturday morning in October, he points out the house his grandfather used to live in, which was built sometime in the mid-1930s, he says. It has a rusted tin roof and is missing wood wall panels. 

“Probably need to take it down,” Bradford says. “It’s one of them things that you really don’t want to get rid of.”

There’s a lot of work to do on the land because of years of soil degradation from decades of farming. Bradford has been playing a game of catch-up — removing trees and planting better grass for his approximately 400 head of cattle. It’s expensive work. Bradford says he would need approximately $1.2 million to get the equipment needed to do all the work on the land. 

Nathan Bradford's grandfather's house near Bristow, Oklahoma.
Credit Seth Bodine / Harvest Public Media

“I can’t give up. I have to make this place better than when I found it,” Bradford says. “They had what they had. They had the resources. I have the opportunity to make it better, and that’s what my goals are and that’s what I’m going to do, it’s just going to take some time.” 

Working a full-time job while farming or ranching is common for many Black farmers and ranchers, says Willard Tillman, executive director of the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project. His organization has been working since the late 1990s to support Black farmers and ranchers in the state, helping them navigate U.S. Department of Agriculture resources like the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. 

Tillman estimates between 75% and 80% of Black farmers in Oklahoma have a second job.

“A lot of them have it in their blood, they've been doing it all their life, that's what they want to do,” he says. 

That wasn’t always the case. Following the Civil War, Oklahoma was home to 50 all-Black towns, and Black farmers owned 1.5 million acres of land in the state. 

It was an “astronomical figure” compared to what was happening in other parts of the country at the time, says Bruce Fisher, a retired administrative program officer for the Oklahoma Historical Society and a curator of the African American exhibit. Black people were free in other parts of the country at that time, but they often owned no land, he says. In Oklahoma, it was different. 

“Since Black folks owned so much land, they had accumulated quite a bit of wealth potential,” Fisher says. “So you had an awful lot of African Americans at the time who were big farmers and ranchers.” 

In Oklahoma, 1,769 farmers or ranchers identified as Black or African American in the USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture.  Another 305 farmers in the state identified as multiracial with Black ancestry.

The number of Black farms across the country has decreased over the past century. Much of that is a result of discrimination. 

Valerie Grim, an African American and African Diaspora studies professor at Indiana University Bloomington, says many families like the Bradfords couldn’t get loans from banks or the federal government. Many Black farmers won a class-action lawsuit against the USDA in the 90s. The lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman claimed the agency discriminated against Black farmers and failed to investigate complaints made from 1983-1997. 

“One of the ways that many of the Black farmers fell behind and eventually lost land was because they could not get the loan in the first place,” Grim says. 

Bradford’s father, also named Nathan, received $50,000 as part of the settlement. But he says he would’ve been better off if he’d gotten loans when he was trying to farm. He says he would've been able to buy hundreds of acres of land for cheap. 

Nathan Bradford, father of Nathan Bradford Jr., stands on his land near Bristow, Oklahoma. Bradford received $50,000 as part of a class action discrimination lawsuit against the USDA. He says behind where he is standing, there used to be peanut fields.
Credit Seth Bodine / Harvest Public Media

“It was about $200 an acre at that time or less. But you just couldn’t get the money,” he says. 

Things have changed. Nathan Bradford Jr. says he’s been able to get loans, even though he’s had his fair share of challenges with the Farm Service Agency, which administers loan programs for the USDA. 

Scott Biggs, executive director for FSA in Oklahoma, says he knows there is still distrust in the agency. 

“There are some people that distrust us,” Biggs says.” “If they do, I'd be more than happy to sit down, talk with them. And let's see what exactly we can do to start building that relationship and earning some of that trust back.”

Bradford Jr. wants to be a full-time rancher by the time he turns 50, nine years from now. The first step is expanding his business, by opening a place to process meat like deer. He has formed a small team, working with his family and other producers in the area, and hopes to be open for hunting season. He says there’s still a lot to do, but they’ll work day and night to make it happen. 

“Our heart is in it,” Bradford says. ”When your heart is in it, and you focus that and you want to make it happen. These guys, we can make it happen.”