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What it's like to be a Black farmer in Oklahoma
Golden hour light pours over a boy as he races across the open field on a Shetland pony.
Photographer Nicol Ragland said the moment happened in a flash as she swung her camera to document the shirtless child riding the pony without a saddle and staring straight ahead in the distance.
"It just looks like freedom to me," Ragland said of the image. "No fear."
As the number of Black-owned farms and ranches dwindles across the country, Ragland has partnered with several organizations to help record not only the struggles of keeping this way of life alive but also the resilience and joy of Black Oklahomans who live and work on the land.
Black farmers have been subject to decades of systemic racism and discrimination by various federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which routinely denied them loans. That federal agency has been a major contributor to involuntary land loss for African Americans, who lost 90 percent of their farmland between 1910 and 1997, according to a 2019 ProPublica report.
Those issues were at the heart of Pigford v. Glickman, a 1999 class action lawsuit that alleged the USDA had racially discriminated against African American farmers in its allocation of farm loans and assistance.
More than two decades later, Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack detailed to a House committee how the known barriers for Black farmers, including land theft and discriminatory lending practices, prevented them from "fully realizing the same level of prosperity and success as their white counterparts."
Ragland said she believes by sharing Black farmers' stories she can help draw attention to the injustices they have faced and the solutions moving forward.
"It's to honor a community and place, honor of a particular history that deserves to shine and that deserves land," she said. "They deserve every right to work that land and be productive and economically viable on that land."
As a photographer and documentary filmmaker, Ragland has traveled the world documenting different cultures and human's relationship with nature, biomimicry and the environmental impacts of the oil and natural gas industry.
Her 2020 documentary film "Trans Pecos: The Story of Stolen Land and the Loss of America's Last Frontier" looked at how landowners fought back against the construction of the 148-mile pipeline. After Energy Transfer Partners received final approval for the pipeline in 2016, the company legally used eminent domain to seize land from private owners to move forward with the project.
But it was Ragland's work with Farmer's Footprint, a nonprofit organization that seeks to shed light on the detrimental impacts of chemical farming, that ultimately led to her interest in the story of Black farmers and ranchers as she saw the lack of diversity among the agriculture producers she worked with.
Ragland reached out to Willard Tillman, the executive director of the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project, who connected her with Black producers in the state. Tillman's organization works to introduce producers across Oklahoma to government-funded programs and grants.
For one of her photography projects, Ragland spent time in Boley, Oklahoma, one of 13 remaining all-Black towns in a state that had more than 50 a century ago. It was there that she met lifelong residents such as Henrietta Hicks and Theola Jones, as well as ranchers Willie Williams and Nathan Bradford, and began to photograph their daily lives.
Ragland spent days with Bradford on his ranch just outside Boley, observing his cow/calf operation and the work he and his family put in to sustain it. Bradford wants nothing more than to be a rancher, but has to work two additional jobs just to keep his ranching dreams afloat.
Ragland, who now lives in Oklahoma City, spoke with the PBS NewsHour about her deep interest in the environment, the throughlines of her work in soil health, and why she continues to document stories of Black farming in Oklahoma and solutions towards equity, including the C.A.R.E program.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you become interested in the intersection of agriculture and the environment?
I studied environmental science in college, and I got my last few credits while working for the World Wildlife Fund in Nepal. I went there for three months and recieved my credits through a program called the Wildlands Studies. That really woke me up to taking, shooting and telling stories around the environment much more seriously than studying tree diversity and seed dispersal and tourist impacts.
That's really what moved me into farming and understanding more of our crazy food supply. Watching people get sick all around me from kids, friends my age, to my parents' — it just felt all connected. Telling so many different stories on the environment, it felt as though regenerative agriculture was the answer to 99 of 100 problems.
How did growing up in Oklahoma affect your career focus?
I'd say [my work] tapped into somewhat of a cellular memory of being an Okie. Agriculture is such a huge part of this state, and recognizing that we're losing land and the fact that we can actually change the story, we can change the narrative and how people relate to land. Learning how centralized our food system is and that it doesn't support family farms nor the growing of clean food, this took the lead within my own storyline and my own passion of health and autonomy with land and replenishing watersheds and sequestering carbon. That also led to [learning about] diversity and lack of diversity within farming practices. Often times, I think the concentration of power comes in the form of a monoculture. Both within our agricultural system as well as producers who are able to work the land. As humans, we thrive on diversity, below ground and above.
You've said you like exploring cultures to understand them or to share them with people is a passion of yours. What was it like to share this cowboy/cowgirl culture of Black people in America?
It was really special. I was honored to be part of it. I spent a lot of time in Kenya and Rwanda and Tanzania, but coming home to Oklahoma and learning Black history in Oklahoma for the first time well into my 40s is ridiculous. Growing up here in the '80s and not learning about the Tulsa Race Massacre; not learning that we had 50 Black towns here and that the Civilized Tribes were only called civilized by virtue of them owning slaves. [That education] predominantly happened in Boley, which was just a wonderful invitation. It's a crime that we don't learn this history as kids.
Would you say your work is a form of advocacy?
Yeah, for sure. All my work is in relation to the environment and culture and place. I think there's so many issues in this country, but I think the one major issue is a disconnection from ourselves — when we really know ourselves, we know our sense of place and our relationship to land and relationship to history.
That was another takeaway from my time in Boley was this incredible sense of pride. Boley was established before Oklahoma was a state and they just hold that pride close to their heart. They carry it. They carry it in the way that they tell stories, and they carry it in the way that they hold their land. They want to nurture that land. They want to create family farms and markets. I think I'm an advocate for our truest selves as human animals, our deep history and that our healthy inner ecosystems are reliant on outer ecosystems.
Why is diversity important in farming and ranching?
We're losing our food supply chain. I just learned that 2023 is the first year we buy more food from overseas than we sell from our own country. This is a dangerous crossing and a matter of homeland security. This means our food prices will be set from abroad. That trickles down to family farms. Like the main term within regenerative agriculture is diversity. We're talking about diversity in the soil. We're mixing it up and enhancing mycorrhizal fungi and all that's necessary to create healthy soil. But we should also consider diversity within our farmers because we've got an atrocious level of racism that goes back within the farming world. It's painful to hear, and it's incredibly surprising to hear in 2023 that it's still happening. But we have to acknowledge it. And, you know, at some point, be accountable [for] it.
Why was photography the right medium to tell this story?
I love to watch. I was really quiet as a kid, and I'm fascinated by the decisive moment. The moment that you take a picture is very telling of your own character and your own narrative that you've created. I love challenging my own unconscious bias. I think we all have it, and I love going into other people's worlds and other people's stories that are so different than mine and having a preconceived idea and then being challenged and have it completely detour and moving in a different direction. It just makes me so happy. And it's work that covers the gamut of what it is to be a human being. I have no idea what it's like to be a Black farmer. I have no idea what it's like to be a Black citizen in this country. But the best I can do is get myself and my own experience out of the way and go into theirs and really listen.
I'm an outsider. Developing trust is huge. It's just a matter of doing things like sitting down and looking each other in the eye and listening to their stories. I talked to Theola for hours before I pulled my camera out and she laid out all of her magazines and her pictures, and she walked me through her house and we got to the place where we meet as human beings first. I think being accountable for the fact that we are interlopers by our very nature and we all, myself included, don't necessarily love our picture being taken. I think there's a certain responsibility of building trust and maintaining those relationships … as opposed to dropping in and dropping out like a helicopter.