Back

Discover CALS

See how our current work and research is bringing new thinking and new solutions to some of today's biggest challenges.

Share
  • Department of Global Development
  • Agriculture
  • Global Development

Global Development Impact Brief #2

The Global Development Impact Brief series is designed to highlight Global Development’s work across disciplines, issues, and geographies in order to give readers insights into how we are advancing development globally in pursuit of a more equitable, sustainable, and food-secure world for all. The quarterly series is written by Global Development faculty and their partners, and is spearheaded by the Global Development Public Scholarship Committee.

The issue

Over the past century, the number of Black farmers has significantly declined in the US, from one million farmers (14 % of all farmers) in 1920 to only about 45,000 (1.4% of all farmers) in 2017. Black farmers managed only 4 million acres of land or (0.4% of the total of 910 million acres of farmland) in 2017. 

The consistent downward trend is not a coincidence but a result of systematic discrimination against Black land ownership since the end of slavery, including decades-long bias by the USDA, still ongoing. Jubilee Justice works to strengthen the Black farming community, focusing on regenerative farming practices, cooperative ownership, and financial security; starting with rice.

The choice of rice is deeply rooted in history, as its initial cultivation in the US during the 17th century was built on the rich expertise brought with the enslaved peoples from Africa and on their forced labor, contributing significantly to the economic growth of the American South. Rice cultivation in South Carolina declined sharply after emancipation, as a result of the loss of the enslaved people’s’ labor and expertise, combined with a decline in the rice-growing infrastructure. US rice production expanded during the late 19th and 20th centuries into the Mississippi Delta region. This is where most US rice is produced today as a commodity, using large-scale conventional methods that require heavy use of agro-chemicals and large quantities of water. Organic rice production covered only 1.6% of the harvested acreage in 2019.  The growing demand for locally produced organic specialty rice provides an opportunity for smaller-scale producers.

Jubilee Justice set out to fill that void. Apart from the financial benefits of growing organic, regenerative specialty rices for a domestic market, Jubilee Justice consciously reconnects Black smallholder farmers to their rice-growing heritage, both from the pre-civil war South and from their origins in Africa. 

The approach

The Jubilee Justice Black Farmers' Rice Project, launched in 2020, supports smallholder Black farmers to grow organic, regenerative, specialty rice. The rice is processed and marketed through their own cooperative with support from Jubilee Justice in order to secure the full benefits of growing and selling this sought-after product in the US market.

When Konda Mason, founder of Jubilee Justice, learned of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) — an agronomic method used in more than 60 countries that enhances grain productivity by using less seed, less water, reduced application of agro-chemicals, generating lower methane emissions, and improving soil health through organic inputs — she contacted Erika Styger, a leading SRI specialist and Professor of the Practice at Cornell’s Department of Global Development. Emboldened by the idea that Black farmers could lead the development of growing regenerative, organic rice systems using the SRI method, Mason and Styger joined forces in early 2020, together with organic farmer Mark Fulford and Iriel Edwards ‘20, Cornell graduate and first farm manager for Jubilee Justice. 

We quickly came to understand the many challenges of growing non-flooded, organic rice in the humid Southeastern climate: i)  high weed and disease pressure, ii) excessive summer heat, with frequent temperatures above 100 F, iii)  increasingly erratic rainfall patterns, disrupting the farming season with excessive water in the spring followed by prolonged dry spells during the hot summer, and iv) lack of farm equipment adapted to the SRI system and no-till rice farming. 

The findings

Jubilee Justice, in collaboration with Erika Styger, committed to systematically research the SRI system for use in the Southeastern U.S. for the first time, adopting a two-pronged strategy.

First, Jubilee Justice operates a 17-acre organic farm in Alexandria, Louisiana, that serves as a research and innovation hub. Here we screen specialty rice varieties and African heritage crops, experiment with cover crops, minimum-tillage approaches, organic weed management, and test self-produced biological soil amendments. We also adapt existing farm equipment (not originally intended for rice) for the newly designed rice production systems.

Secondly, we work directly with innovative farmers in the Southeastern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina as well as Kentucky. Together with the farmers, we design experiments to test hypotheses and new techniques over a wide range of farm characteristic involving all elements of the cropping cycle, from soil improvement practices in the fall before planting to harvest and post-harvest best practices. As such, each farm represents a different experiment. We learn what works and what doesn’t, and directly develop local solutions together with our farmers. Having worked through four rice growing seasons since 2020, we have now synthesized four organic rice production strategies, each tailored to specific farm characteristics. 

Depending on soil health, weed pressure and available equipment, we might recommend starting a regenerative system by using biodegradable plastic or applying precision cultivation for weed control, while gradually transitioning towards a no-till system with permanent mulch. Our “Soil First” approach employs cover crops throughout the year. We also study different irrigation techniques to complement rainfall in critical crop development stages, and we experiment with specialty crop equipment originally not used for rice.

Next steps

In 2024, we are moving from experimentation to larger-scale rice production, while our field research continues. Jubilee Justice supports the formation of farmer clusters in each of the different states so that farmers can support each other with advice and assistance. Crucially, these farmers will aggregate, process and market their products through their newly formed cooperative, using the first cooperatively Black-owned rice mill in the US, located in Alexandria, Louisiana. Jubilee Justice sees these achievements as only a beginning, as Black farmers define their own paths to grow and sell crops that are healthy, nourishing, and healing for consumers, for farmers, and for the planet.

Explore more about the research

Authors

  • Erika Styger (Professor of the Practice, Global Development, Cornell University)
  • Konda Mason (Founder, Jubilee Justice)

References

Keep Exploring

Ben Houlton and Ram Ramanathan stand together

News

At last week’s Vatican climate change meeting, Ben Houlton (CALS) spoke on how the global agricultural sector could remove large volumes of atmospheric carbon.

  • Agriculture
  • Climate Change
  • Department of Global Development
Christine Smart works in a rhubarb research field

News

A little sour, a little sweet, a tiny bit vegetal: New rhubarb cultivars could be a significant boon to the state’s wines, beers, distilled spirits and hard ciders.

  • Cornell AgriTech
  • Agriculture
  • Food