This Man Has a Surprising Idea to Help Black Farmers Thrive

Mark Hay

Roughly a century ago, around 1 million black American families worked an estimated 15 million acres of land. Accounting for about 14 percent of all U.S. farmers, this high number of black farmers speaks in part to the agrarian slave system that brought most of their ancestors to America. But it also illustrates the extraordinary efforts of many to overcome racial barriers to land ownership and transform agriculture into a source of sustenance, autonomy, and prosperity.

By the 1980s, a number of factors—including urbanization, a more industrial agricultural playing field, and discriminatory access to loans and governmental benefits—had shrunk America’s black farming population down to about 30,000 families, representing less than 1 percent of all American farms. One government report at the time estimated that black farmers would be extinct by 2000.

Since that low, black farmers have been on the rise, with young farmers returning to the fields to reclaim their culture, food systems, and ownership of America’s land. For the most part black farming is in a better state than it has been for a long time, though this story is far from resolved—even now, black farmers only make up about 2 percent of the national farm force.

Julius Tillery, a fifth-generation cotton farmer in rural North Carolina, is still worried about his own slice of the farming world. Tillery sees cotton as the heart of black history in America; it was long the core crop of freedmen farmers during the time of slavery. And while the majority of America’s few remaining cotton-farming families are black, the whole industry is on the decline. Based on his own observations, Tillery suspects that he may even be the youngest black cotton farmer in the aging industry. He fears a vital part of black America culture may soon vanish.

Pushing back against this, last year Tillery launched Black Cotton. The project aims to find to make independently grown American cotton profitable in ways that don’t require going up against the giant conglomerates and cheap international producers that dominate the market—so far he’s selling $30 cotton bouquets and $50 Black Cotton T-shirts. Make Change recently caught up with Tillery to learn more about his views on the cultural importance of black cotton, the origins and trajectory of Black Cotton, and his thoughts on the future of black farming.

What made you first start to feel like the black cotton industry was in danger of vanishing?

I’ve been working in agriculture [advocacy] since 2009. In my first three years there were still a lot of conventional farmers in meetings—doing row crops like cotton or soybeans. But recently I’ve seen more just vegetable growers. That’s a different type [of farming]. It looks different. … The backbone of a lot of agriculture is row cropping, and I don’t see other people replacing it at a rate that’s normal. [Farmers] are losing land, and people and families are getting out of that business.

Why do you think other farmers, new farmers especially, opt for produce instead of getting into row crops? How do you see cotton and your concerns fitting into that trend?  

I raise vegetables, and I started a farmers market in my community of Garysburg. I’m connected to the sustainable agriculture movement. I just know that sometimes with sustainable agriculture, scalability is an issue, especially if you’re working with small acreage. It’s a lot of labor working small acreage projects. What I’ve been working on [with cotton] combines and tractors and different types of equipment—it’s a different type of work, and I need less people to get my goals accomplished. … So many black farmers have had to get out of cotton because it’s so expensive. How do we make money? That’s what my business is trying to figure out. … If we want to bring people into the agricultural world, we have to make sure they’re making a living wage. I don’t want people feeling like they’re stressed out, they’re taxed, their kids are poor. I know about that world. I want to bring people into agriculture thinking they can make a living. That’s why I have to come up with [new] ideas and strategies. I want to see that change.

So if small, individual family American cotton farms can’t reliably compete with foreign cotton anymore, how will Black Cotton create value for black cotton farmers?

American consumers are some of the best purchasers in the world. People spend $10, $20, $30 [on otherwise cheap wholesale products]. We have to figure out how to get our products in that retail world. I’ve come to realize that a lot of people have never seen real cotton. They’ve maybe seen it on TV, but they don’t know what it is like in front of them. They find it interesting. It’s just like a flower. People are using more cotton in décor now. That’s something that I could grow for.

There’s interest in [cotton] from everywhere. That’s something I need to be thinking about. … How do we use our imaginations to sell a piece of cotton for $1 that would usually go for 15 cents? My acreage is not going up. I have to figure out how to get my acreage to make more money.

What is the best way for Black Cotton to sell products for that market?

I’ve been putting pieces of cotton in people’s suit coats, and I’ve actually sold some of those at a price range that one cotton ball would never go for in traditional forms of selling cotton. … That’s why I’ve been trying to put cultural connotations on this. People know there’s been [no real] money in cotton forever. That’s why people have been trying to avoid it. But when I tell people I’m selling bouquets for $30 and people are buying them, people are like, ‘Wow, you’re really just putting that much cotton into a vase and people spend that much money for it?’ Yes.

You talk about putting cultural connotations on cotton. But for a lot of people, especially those who don’t have close ties to agriculture, I think cotton’s cultural connotations are now often just slavery and historic pain. How do you contend with that?

I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve come across this a few times. [Black Cotton is about] bringing awareness that we’re not slaves anymore. We are black landowners. And we’re going to be proud of what we have right now or we’re going to lose it all.

I have to educate my people: let them know we’re not slaves, and we’re not going to be slaves. We have to own our own land and know … we can own this industry instead of somebody giving us a part and dictating what our value is. We do a great job in entertainment of finding our value. But in most industries, [we] are always low on the pecking order. How do we change that? The one thing I know about in the internet age is that people connect to things. They definitely connect to what’s real. So we’ve got to show them what’s real and produce a product we can be proud of.

What kind of feedback have you been getting about your products and plans so far?

I’ve gotten mostly positive feedback because I’m a positive person. There could be negative responses especially if people don’t have or don’t understand my story… [Which could happen if I make] this a big business with people representing BlackCotton for me. That’s something I’ll have to figure out when we get to that place… I’ve been trying to prepare this project for the next level.

What is the next level?

I’m going to have to partner with some retail people, like florists. I’ve been trying to work out with my team which direction to go in. But I’m really focusing on my packaging so when I go to the next level I have the right packaging to sell it quickly, efficiently, and at a high value.

A big part of the impetus for this project was you not wanting to see black cotton farming die off with you, right? So do you see part of the next level involving working with more farms, or finding a way to recruit young people into Black Cotton and cotton farming?

I work with a lot of farm networks in North Carolina so I don’t feel like I need to expand [there].

Once I’m able to create my own processing centers, I will be able to help young farmers get into this business because I’ll be working so much cotton. We’re so far away from that now, it’s hard for me to answer [this]. We’re so much in the immediate: What’s going to make Black Cotton successful, you know? How do I deal with investors today? What do they want to see?

I really believe if I’m successful that’s going to make the whole community successful. If Levi’s was in Garysburg, the whole region would be so much better off. Maybe Tillery Farms is Levi’s. We’re giving our community something to believe in. We’ve got to build something that’s going to develop the community.

What do you feel like you need now to get the project off the ground?

It would be perfect for me to find the right investors. I’m sure I’m going to find those people, but I don’t spend a lot of time looking because I spend a lot of time getting [the] business idea out there. When I started the idea, I thought [it was] so good I needed to keep it secret. [But because] nobody’s doing this, I need to be screaming it out to the public. #Black Cotton!

Since college, I’ve been interested in how to [change] our area. I want to see us thrive. I’ve always wanted to try new stuff. … The only thing that really means something to people is when you roll up your sleeves and you do [what] you’re thinking of doing. I’ve put a lot of time into doing. People can follow a doer. So I think it’s only going to grow.

And I’m going to make Black Cotton cool. … I don’t think I’m supposed to give up [my] strategies now. I’ve told you my heart, but I can’t give up my strategy. Black Cotton is going to be big, though, man. But it just recently started. So give me a year. We can check back then.

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