For more than 100 years, John Lee's family has farmed his land in the Arkansas Delta region.
His dad stopped growing cotton in the '80s when his federal grant applications weren't getting approved in time to plant the annual crop. They diversified into logging along the way to cover costs.
He's seen delays, year after year, in loan approvals while white neighbors received faster approvals. Delays in loans mean delays in planting. His family watched other Black farmers lacking a financial cushion slowly, one by one, forfeit their land.
The result is that today Black Americans are woefully underrepresented in farming because of historical changes to the law and corporate and governmental practices. In the last century, the percentage of U.S. farmers who are Black has declined from 14% to 1.4%, according to archived national agricultural censuses.
The aftermath of George Floyd's killing that rippled out from Minneapolis forced Cargill and many large corporations to look inward for ways to improve racial equity in America.
As the nation's largest agribusiness, Cargill's role quickly became clear: throw its weight behind efforts aimed at reversing the effects of discrimination that U.S. Black farmers have experienced for generations.
Cargill started asking Black producers last year what type of market connections or capital access would be most beneficial in helping them expand their operations.
The company found Kimberly Ratcliff, a rancher who left her job on Wall Street to help her dad expand his cattle operation in Texas. And P.J. Haynie, a fifth-generation row crop farmer in Virginia whose family shared stories of discriminatory lending at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and intimidation tactics by peers.
All of these conversations between corporate executives and farmers focused on finding new market opportunities for Black producers, which resulted in Cargill's Black Farmer Equity Initiative.
Ratcliff, who is working on potential partnerships with Cargill's beef business, said, "This is a program for our people, this is not a program for Cargill. We want that ownership."
Cargill found its first retail customer interested in paying a premium to increase opportunities for Black cotton growers: Minneapolis-based Target.
Many Black farmers were reluctant to speak to an established behemoth like Cargill. So company executives flew to meet farmers in the South and held multiple video meetings to address barriers to their participation.
The two Minnesota companies in February announced they had created a new cotton supply chain, giving Black producers a price premium for their crop that would be used in some Target clothing.
"This is one of the first times that I can recall that we've had a company try to work directly with and offer contracts directly to us. Only white farmers are the ones who usually get direct contracts and premium pricing," said Lee, who is participating in the program's cotton supply. "Farmers are actually excited about Cargill and Target. Target benefits from it, Cargill benefits from it and so will we."
But the partnership has already faced blowback. Cargill's CEO David MacLennan, while testifying this spring at a U.S. House agriculture committee hearing on consolidation in the meatpacking industry, was grilled about the company's equity program by lawmakers from Georgia and Arkansas.
Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., called the program "un-American" and told MacLennan that he hopes the company gets sued over it.
After MacLennan explained Cargill's plan to eventually expand its equity program to other racial minority groups and women, Scott asked, "What about white men?"
"I don't think white men are underrepresented in the farming industry today," said MacLennan, who said that Cargill is standing by its program.
The exchange highlights a nation still divided over its racist past and diverging opinions on what is and is not discrimination.
Black farmers represent less than 2% of the nation's total in the latest agricultural census. By comparison, Black Americans make up more than 12% of the U.S. population.
The racial makeup of U.S. farmers didn't always skew so disproportionately white. There was a precipitous decline in minority farmers in the second half of the 20th century as discriminatory loan practices by both private banks and the USDA forced many Black farmers into bankruptcy and off their land. At the same time, farming was becoming an increasingly expensive business.
"It's one of those trends where you want to halt the decline and then actually start to reverse it," said James Monger, one of Cargill's diversity, equity and inclusion leaders in the agriculture supply chain unit.
When Cargill approached Lee and other Black farmers a year ago, many were skeptical.
"Farmers were very untrusting at first, so it took some extra work," said Lee, who rotates a variety of crops through his fields. "Cargill arranged to meet directly with the farmers. We kept feeling like there has got to be a catch. There's always a catch. It took us a while to realize that this is not the case."
Lee also started growing yellow peas this year under Cargill's equity program. Minneapolis-based Puris, maker of pea protein, is purchasing his crop. It's a part of Cargill's initial plan to increase the number of Black producers in cotton, beef, corn, yellow peas, poultry and soybeans, over the coming years.
The distrust of corporate agriculture, with Cargill being the world's largest representative, is rooted in history.
Agribusiness played a key role in creating a farming ecosystem that relies on government loans, historian Pete Daniel said.
Agribusiness' counterpart in the public sector, "agrigovernment" — a term Daniels coined — had a similar agenda in turning farming from a labor-intensive industry to a capital-intensive one.
"Agrigovernment was very much a part of all this," he said. "The land grant universities, the Department of Agriculture, the state departments of agriculture — all of these government ag-related industries and organizations were all on the same page."
The goal was to advance scientific progress in field production, which required heavy — and expensive — machinery. That forced family farmers to seek financing. And those controlling the purse strings favored those who ascribed to that style of farming.
"After World War II," Daniel said, "the chemicalization and mechanization of agriculture was like this big gear wheel that started grinding down small farmers," many of them Black, but also poorer white growers.
Even before that, the agriculture elements of the New Deal designed to help poor people in rural areas ended up dispossessing many of them in the long run, he said.
The New Deal established county committees, elected at the local level, to dole out federal funds. But the same people kept getting elected, Daniel said.
"They were the elite of the county. These committees had the power to allot acreage. ... And, of course, it was very easy to take it away from Black people," Daniel said. "These local county committees had so much power to decide who in the county would prosper and who would not."
Farming is often about connections. There have been those on the inside and those on the outside throughout modern U.S. history.
"Companies like Cargill have access to these types of relationships," Monger said. "When you think about the historical perspective, the first thing we as an industry as a whole, not just Cargill, need to do is reestablish some trust. ... [Black farmers] have been burnt in the past by discrimination, predatory lending."
Not everyone wants Cargill's help because not everyone wants to get bigger, Monger said, and that's OK.
"We continue to search every day for a new supplier just simply because we know there are more out there," he said, "And given some of the historical impacts of agriculture, we know many of them try to fly below the radar. We just know today we are woefully short of where we want to be."
He hopes some of the younger Black farmers who may not have as many negative experiences, or who are more apt to use technology to farm, will benefit from Cargill's program.
Today, there are more Black farmers in the South than the North — but far fewer than there used to be. Many migrated to the North after Emancipation to work in cities. Today, Minnesota has an extremely low rate of Black farmers — less than one-tenth of a percent.
Near the end of the Civil War, the federal government established what became known as the "40 acres and a mule" policy. The military order, a post-war economic strategy viewed as America's first attempt at reparations, secured Confederate coastal land in South Carolina and Georgia for resettlement of previously enslaved people; each person would receive up to 40 acres.
The plan crumbled three months later in 1865 following President Abraham Lincoln's assassination. President Andrew Johnson reversed the order and the land was returned to white landowners.
In its place arose sharecropping, a hallmark of the Reconstruction Era, where black growers farmed fields owned by mostly white landowners, paying rent through a share of their harvested crops' value.
And while sharecropping allowed Black Americans a way to economically survive, it failed to build generational wealth.
"There was no generational wealth passed on from those people who were sharecroppers," Lee said. "I only know of one, personally, who came from sharecropping still farming today."
To this day, Lee said, there's still a stigma around farming for some people because of those negative experiences.
Many Black farmers eventually left agriculture due to discriminatory lending practices at the USDA and private banks, forcing many off their farms.
P.J. Haynie's family, which has farmed near Reedville, Va., since 1867, has a long, complicated relationship with the USDA, including multiple discrimination lawsuits over delayed payments and loan denials.
His father experienced intimidation tactics as they tried to expand their land in the 1980s, with barns mysteriously burned down and bullet holes scarring their tractors, all chronicled in a 2004 Washington Post article.
So Haynie was disappointed but not surprised when last year, after Congress provided $4 billion in debt relief for socially disadvantaged farmers as a part of the American Rescue Plan Act, white farmers filed more than a dozen lawsuits, including a class-action case, alleging the debt relief funds were discriminatory.
Court-ordered injunctions have held those funds in limbo as the cases work their way through the legal system.
"White folks have filed 13 lawsuits around the country because the USDA has said it wants to make things equitable," Haynie said. "It's very, very sad."
Lawmakers representing these same interests are now making those arguments about Cargill's equity program.
Following the terse interactions at the House ag committee hearing, Cargill reaffirmed its commitment to its program.
"As a long-term Cargill employee, I'm personally committed, I'm on this project because it is legacy work," said Monger, who is Black.
"It's one of those things, 20 years from now, I'll be able to look back at and tell my grandkids that I helped create and helped participate in shifting agriculture to make sure it was a fair and equitable opportunity for every farmer."