Why Black Farmer Debt Relief Supports Healthy Soil and Water

Scottie Pippen had a great Nike commercial from the early 1990s. The one-minute clip has Pippen, one of the two best players on the legendary Chicago Bulls dynasty, fall into a “time warp”. He’s suddenly dropped onto a 1950s-era basketball court and competing against a team of young men that look just like the image you probably have in your head – skinny, awkward, and white. None of those words describe the 6’ 8” Pippen and he easily dominates the 1950s game.

We don’t have the benefit of sticking players into different eras and seeing how they would compete, but I’m pretty confident that the premise of the commercial holds up, that Pippen and most any NBA player from today is an order of magnitude better than players in the 1950s. Why is that?

  • More basketball wisdom. Players from previous generations appeared more bound by the plays scripted by the coach. The 1990s Chicago Bulls famously used the triangle offense, which depended on having high basketball-IQ players innovate based on the opportunities provided by the defense. Rather than relying on the insights of just the coach, the offense tapped into the real-time creative juices of all five players.
  • A wider pool of talent. As one of the most popular sports in the world, the number of kids aspiring to NBA stardom (including this writer) has grown enormously. Today’s NBA stars outcompete a larger pool of strong players.
  • A far greater diversity of talent. More aspiring NBA stars doesn’t tell the whole story. The NBA not only attracts much of the best athletic talent in the United States but from around the world. This year’s NBA all-star game included homegrown talents such as LeBron James and Steph Curry as well as stars from Greece (Giannis Antetokounmpo), Slovenia (Luka Doncic), and Serbia (Nikola Jokic). Different regions develop unique approaches that add new flavors to the game – think of Giannis’s unstoppable euro step.

Regenerative Agriculture Needs a Similar Burst of Innovation

So besides recalling the fond memories of Scottie Pippen’s skills, why is a regenerative agriculture blog post discussing NBA talent? Because it’s the same dynamic that gets me so excited about the recent legislation that supports $5 billion in Black farmer debt relief.

The number of African American farmers has declined from around one million farms in 1920 to less than 40,000 today. That means that we have 960,000 fewer farmers that are experimenting and innovating on their land. And we have policies that continue to encourage large scale monocultural production, sharply reducing the opportunities for innovation on the remaining farms.

Global agriculture faces dramatic transitions in coming decades as we figure out how to expand food production in the midst of growing climate crises, dramatic soil depletion, and impaired water resources. One-size-fits-all solutions don’t exist, and instead we need innovation in different regions, on different soil types, with different crops. We need more farmers that think outside the box.

Black farmers and other disadvantaged farmers have been forced to spend generations thinking outside the box as these farmers have largely been excluded from the primary commodity crops of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton. This doesn’t mean that these disadvantaged farmers will implement improved soil and water management practices. Some will, and others will not. But there will certainly be more innovation, and some of it will advance regenerative agriculture just as Scottie Pippen advanced NBA basketball.

Providing Black farmer debt relief is morally the right thing to do – that’s without debate. And this is one of the classic examples where systemic racism has hurt all of us and stymied innovation. Just like 1950s basketball, it’s time for agriculture to bust out of old habits and flourish with more diverse talent.