A Look at the Only Black-Owned Rice Mill in the United States

    March 24, 2023

    Black-owned rice mill in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. That fact may surprise some, but P.J. Haynie, fifth-generation row crop farmer and Chairman of the National Black Growers Council point to rice cultivation as one example that exposes the history of Black agriculture in America.

    Enslaved Africans were the first to develop cultivation methods for rice after it was brought to America in the late 17th century1, but today there are very few Black rice farmers in the United States. In fact, overall, Black farmers represent less than two percent of the entire U.S. farming population today2, with only about eight percent of Black farmers being commodity growers due to historical economic barriers, from access to capital, the disparity in base acres farm payments, as well as access to the latest advancements in crop production, i.e., access to equipment seed and chemistry.

    "[The commodity] industry is different because we buy retail and sell wholesale," P.J. explains, adding that this makes it difficult for black farmers who have endured generational long-standing barriers that prohibit them from having all the essential requirements to sustain their farming operations long-term.

    In addition to the economic barriers of input costs, lower commodity prices, and more volatile weather patterns, white farmers share equally. Prejudicial lending practices have created additional hurdles for Black farmers. A Black farmer class action lawsuit in 1999, known as Pigford v. Glickman, revealed that it took an average of three times longer for the USDA to process a Black farmer's application than a white farmer's application; if a white farmer received their loan approval in 30 days, it took nearly 120 days for a Black farmer to receive their loan approval, if they got it at all, which could cost them an entire planting season and ultimately incur foreclosures. P.J.’s father, Philip Haynie II, was one of the Black farmer plaintiffs in that 1999 case.

    These barriers have eroded the population of Black farmers over time and the acreage they own. In 1920, Black farmers represented roughly one in four farmers in America and owned 16 million acres of land. Today, less than two percent of Black landowners still farm and own roughly two million acres. That 14 million acre difference over the last century concerns P.J.

    "Fourteen million acres times the average land value of $4,500 per acre—that's nearly 60 billion dollars in wealth that have been removed from the Black agricultural community that can never come back," P.J. explains.

    Investing in Black-owned agribusinesses is part of building a more sustainable, equitable agricultural future, says P.J., which is one main reason why he and his father, along with farmers Greggory and Billy Bridgeforth and their sons, joined together to purchase and operate the rice mill that is now Arkansas River Rice Mill. When P.J. learned of the foreclosed rice mill seeking new ownership, he saw it as an opportunity to create something historic, with rice grown and processed by Black farmers and producers, to boost economics for the Black agricultural community.

    "I think when we do that, we empower our Black community," says P.J. "A dollar spent with a Black-owned business, like a Black-owned rice mill and then we're buying rice from Black rice farmers like Christi Bland and others, and those Black rice farmers are leasing land and farming land that's from Black-owned families and they have Black employees. That dollar spent with a Black business recirculates itself three to four times in the Black agriculture community."

    Closing the wealth and population gap of Black farmers is also why P.J. believes in the mission of the National Black Growers Council.

    "We can charge those around us to ask, 'What are you doing to make sure equity and inclusion are in your agricultural platform?' " explains P.J. "I always hear people say, ‘Well, we don't know where Black farmers are.’ Well, the National Black Growers Council is here and can help you identify those men and women."

    The NBGC is not only serving to amplify the work and crops of Black growers, they're also working to provide them with access to the technology, innovation, and opportunities that will help them increase their yields and, ultimately, their profitability. Recently, the NBGC leveraged a climate-smart grant initiative partnering with the USA Rice Federation and Ducks Unlimited to demonstrate to Black farmers new methods of growing rice that uses less water and release less methane into the atmosphere. P.J. and the NBGC will host more field days this year to reach historically underserved farmers. One field day is scheduled in Arkansas on July 20, 2023. You can learn more about it here.

    For P.J., it all comes back to building a more sustainable agriculture industry for generations to come.

    "There's hope for me and I hope that my kids will realize the need to continue to feed, clothe, and fuel a growing world. We've crossed the eight billion yardstick in global population and we're headed for 10 billion by the year 2050. With more and more people on this planet, we've got to make sure we can help feed them."

    Watch the video to learn more about the Haynie family’s history with farming and P.J.’s drive for equity and education in agriculture:

    Sources cited:

    1 Jubilee Justice Black Rice Farmers Project
    2 McKinsey: Black farmers in the US: The opportunity for addressing racial disparities in farming