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Black Farmers Reap More Than They Sow

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GREENSBORO — If current trends continue, there will be hardly any black farmers in America by the year 2025.

What's gone wrong, and what's being done to stop the exodus of black farmers?

Two years ago, black farmers travelled to Washington to bring their struggle into national focus. They came to Washington calling on federal agencies to settle a class action lawsuit. In demanding a level field, they also raised this question: Is there a future in farming for us?

"Yes" is the answer they'll hear fromNorth Carolina Agricultural & Technical Universityin Greensboro.

A new generation is advancing in theSchool of Agriculture, pursuing careers that span the spectrum: research, marketing, management and farming the land.

John Ashe has been growing tobacco in the rich North Carolina soil of Rockingham County for several years now, as did his father and grandfather before him.

Ashe says he enjoys farming, and that it's been good to him. "I feel that just to look around, that it's given me access to buy a little property," he explains.

Ashe is 31-years-old, and a graduate ofNorth Carolina State Universitysucceeding at a time when many are giving up. Black farmers have been dwindling more quickly than any other race of farmers in this country.

Fewer than one percent of the nation's farmers are black, down from 14 percent 70 years ago.

They may be down, but they're not out, as black farmers such as Ashe prove. They're in farming for the pay it provides, but they're also in it for something that goes deeper than that, something that's harder to measure. And that's passion -- passion for the land, for the work and for the tradition it represents.

Ashe defends the profession. "A lot of people have bad thoughts on farming," he says. "[They say it's] all hard work, all the time, and it is, it's hard work. It's just like somebody making $200,000 a year. If they're not having a good time, why do it?"

Student Augustus Powell agrees. "There's so much you can do in agriculture. A lot of people think agriculture is just farming, and just the crops and what not, but there is more involved," Powell says.

In recent years, North Carolina A&T has stepped up efforts to change students' perceptions about careers in agriculture.

"There is a shortage of minorities in professional fields in agriculture throughout the country," says Dr. Richard Robbins of N.C. A&T. "And as a predominantly or historically black institution, we feel it is our obligation to recruit extensively for students to come into the School of Agriculture."

The effort appears to be paying off. Enrollment has increased, almost doubling in the last four years to more than 500 students.

Students say they feel the future is very bright.

From college campuses to the fields to the nation's capital, blacks are proving they are force to be reckoned with in agriculture, now and in the future.

The farm crisis is far from over, but it is hoped that the black farmers lawsuit will help solve a lot of the troubles. The suit is a $3 billion challenge that so far has pulled in nearly 1,000 farmers.