Best Young Farmers/Ranchers: Raising the Next Gen of Black Farmers – DTN

Young rice field at pre-flood. ©Debra L Ferguson

Christi Bland liked the farm well enough — the happy assemblies of family friends, the easy pace of gardening with her grandmother, running among her father’s flooded rice paddies. But she was eyeing medicine.

Only five years ago, she earned a master’s degree in science from Christian Brothers University and, before that, a bachelor’s in chemistry from Mississippi College.

Yet, here she is, a rice producer with a strong streak for conservation, installing the water-stingy, multi-inlet irrigation system moving water among the paddies on this 1,400-acre Bland farm. A visitor today may find her on an impossibly humid day sitting on the dirt turning a wrench on a pump with her 60-year-old father, James Bland Jr. “I’m not a great mechanic,” she admits. But she is working on it.

Christi is the oldest of three children born to James and Linda Bland. Anthony Bland, her uncle, is an Extension agent and farms 600 acres in partnership. “People expect the boys to take over. But,” she pauses, “Here I am.”

Standing with Christi among the waist-high and brilliant green leaves and stems of rice beginning to head, James smiles. “She’s the toughest boy I have,” he says, adding, “She means a lot to me. I want to have someone to pass this land to.” Christi’s father has been farming since 1984.

“I was more into books and dribbling balls growing up. Farming wasn’t part of my story,” Christi says today. “But, the more time you spend out here, the more you think this is your calling.”

Christi is the fourth-generation Bland to farm. Her great-grandfather farmed among a million Black farmers. Today, Christi is one of the 49,000 Black farmers still tending soils — slightly more than one of every 100 U.S. farmers is a Black farmer.

BUILD A NEW GENERATION

“When you think about the generations and what they had to go through to keep this land, it almost seems this is exactly what I should be doing,” she says. “That I’m continuing this farm, something my ancestors fought for the right to do, motivates me.” Her father has done so much to make Bland land productive. “I want to be able to do that same for my cousins or brothers if they want to come back to the farm. I want to continue the legacy.”

Dewayne L. Goldmon, Arkansas farmer and, of late, retired outreach leader for Bayer CropScience, is impressed with Christi. “Christi Bland is a confident female leader in an essential industry. She does not dwell on her diversity,” he says. “Instead, she offers a fresh perspective and, often, (a) better alternative to the status quo. Her contributions to transform hope into reality elevate her to the best of the best.”

Goldmon was instrumental in the formation of the National Black Growers Council and is now its executive director. The Black Growers Council is organized to promote the efficiency, productivity and sustainably of Black row-crop farmers. Christi is the council’s board member from Mississippi and is its communications chair.

ACCESS TO CREDIT

“My concern is with minority access to credit and to land. If they don’t secure the credit, they won’t secure the land. Eventually, minority farmers will vanish,” she says. For Black farmers, there is a reality to buying land. “When other farmers go out of business or retire, by the time minority farmers know the land is becoming available, it’s already gone.” Close networking is as key to finding land for minority farmers as is securing credit.

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Christi has been organized under her own farming entity, CMB Farm LLC, since 2017. She is a deputy commissioner for the Tunica County Soil and Water Conservation District, a volunteer for the local 4-H club and a volunteer leader of the Children’s Ministry at her church, Fellowship Memphis.

The Bland family farm spans parts of Quitman, Panola and Tunica counties in northwest Mississippi’s Delta. Typically, a third of the farm is planted to rice and the rest in soybeans. Corn may replace soybeans within the year. Hemp is a future possibility.

CMB Farm is challenged like many farms with low soybean prices and the disruption to the supply chain and normal operating practices brought on by the current coronavirus pandemic.

Land and storage are on Christi’s checklist for the future. She would like to add a few hundred acres — grow the farm to 2,000 acres over time. The operation lacks any type of on-farm storage, an asset that would give new CMB Farm marketing flexibility. Today, Christi and her father are leveling fields for new rice production.

Rice is a labor-intensive crop to produce. Hard on time and hard on machinery, it is planted in May, fertilized a couple of times and harvested in October. Some years require a fungicide application just before harvest.

On most days, Christi is managing water. Traditionally, water is moved through paddies by a series of gates at the bottom of each field. The land is leveled for a fall in elevation from the top of the first paddy to the last paddy at the bottom. CMB Farm operates a more modern system. Multi-inlet irrigation relies on Polypipe, with blue plastic gates affixed to the thick plastic tubes at regular intervals.

By opening and closing those gates, Christi more precisely controls water flow into the paddies. “If a specific paddy needs water, I can shut all the other gates and just water that paddy,” she says.

LEARNING FROM HER FATHER

Daughters are often close to their fathers. True enough for James and Christi — the elder guiding the transition to the younger. “It inspires me that he still farms; there are so few minority farmers in existence.” Christi guesses her dad has been driving tractors since he was 10. “His work ethic is unmatched. I think I’m up early, and he’s already up earlier than I was. That drives me to go harder.”

James has taught Christi that, despite illness or injury and variables you can’t control like weather, costs and prices, “If you show up and do the work, God will do the rest.”

Christi says her father has had an immense amount of influence on her. “The best part of farming,” she says, “is having someone who came before you who you can pull knowledge from them.”

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