“There are easier ways to make a living than farming,” Greg Bridgeforth said as he drove a combine through fields he farms in northern Alabama. “But this is what I truly love to do — till the soil and grow things, just like my father, grandfather and great-grandfather did. You know, when problems get you down, you go out in the field and have time to think it through.”
The farm was started in the 1870s by George Bridgeforth, Greg’s great-grandfather, who had been born into slavery. The family has survived droughts, tornadoes and the boll weevil during the century and a half that successive generations have been farming.
The Bridgeforths of Limestone County held on as a vast majority of the nation’s black farmers lost their land and livelihood, mostly because of systematic racism. Federal loans were denied or delayed, and black farmers were often shortchanged or shunned by local banks and businesses as white farmers angled to take over the fields. Those forces, along with the racial terror spread by the Ku Klux Klan, helped drive the Great Migration.
In 1910, black farmers made up about 14 percent of American farmers, owning over 14 million acres. In 2012, only about 1.5 percent of American farmers were black, and most had smaller farms — about a quarter of the size of the average white-owned farm, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Today the Bridgeforths own over 3,000 acres of farmland and work about 7,000 more on lease, growing soybeans, cotton, corn and wheat. Mr. Bridgeforth, 64, runs the business along with his son Lamont, 42; his brother Billy, 60; and Billy’s son Kyle, 31. Five other family members work on the farm alongside 11 employees, including several white South Africans on work visas.
Like other farm families, they have faced the challenge of passing along the passion for farming to younger generations. And in recent months, they have been confronted with a new challenge: the effects of President Trump’s trade war with China.
“Farmers are used to adversity like terrible weather,” Kyle Bridgeforth said. “But this trade crisis has caused a lot more uncertainty in an already uncertain industry.”
After the United States increased tariffs last year, China retaliated in kind, putting 25 percent tariffs on crops the Bridgeforths grow. China had been the largest market for American agricultural exports, but has drastically cut its purchases.
“We may see the costs in farming outweighing the revenues,” Kyle said, “which means we would have to consider downsizing in order to limit our losses.”
An Enduring Foothold
When George Bridgeforth established the farm a century and a half ago, it was difficult if not impossible for blacks to openly purchase land in Alabama, but he had some assistance from his former owner — who, according to oral histories in both families, was also his father.
George Bridgeforth, a skilled farmer, accumulated about 300 acres. His son Isaac studied at Tuskegee Institute, where George Washington Carver conducted pioneering agricultural research, and another son, George Ruffin Bridgeforth, taught there. The scientific farming methods and business techniques they learned, and helped develop, were applied on the Bridgeforth farm.
In 1910, George Ruffin Bridgeforth established Beulahland, a community of black landowners in the county, donating land for a school and a church. Beulahland’s residents helped each other at planting and harvesting times, often sharing equipment.
Over the years, the community’s ranks were diminished. The Tennessee Valley Authority took land to build Wheeler Dam in the 1930s. Powerful tornadoes hit in 1974 and in 2011. Beulahland today numbers just a dozen houses, mostly owned by Bridgeforth relatives.
Billy and Greg Bridgeforth are determined to help other black farmers keep their land and expand their businesses by spreading modern farming and management techniques. They are actively involved in the National Black Growers Council, a group aiming to improve agricultural efficiency and productivity.
On a hot August evening, as the sun began to set over the Tennessee River, Greg was supervising the repair of an irrigation pump. Howard Mosely, who has worked on the farm for over 40 years, struggled to get the water flowing with the assistance of two of the South Africans who addressed him and Greg as “Sir.”
“It had to be a miracle for any black man to make it through from the 1900s to the 1950s owning any land in the South with everything stacked against them,” Greg said. “Black farmers were discriminated against because that is how the system was set up to run.”
He said his father, Darden, had relied on private loans or bank loans that he was able to attain because of the family’s local reputation. “His goal, and his father’s goal, was to do everything they could do to keep the land and pass it on to the next generation better than they found it,” Greg said.
Passing the Torch
Greg and Billy have cultivated their sons’ interest in farming and brought some of them in as partners, establishing a fifth generation of ownership.
Lamont Bridgeforth, Greg’s son, struggles to carve out time for his family while meeting the unyielding demands of the farm. After a September day’s work, he hurried home, about 10 miles from the farm, where he and his wife, Sylvia, are rearing six children. He changed clothes and rushed to a middle-school football game where his 12-year-old daughter, Emily, was making her debut on the flag twirling squad. Even during the game, his conversation with his brother-in-law, Chris Moore, turned to new farm technology and succession planning.
“We need a strategy for farming in 2050, so I can hand this legacy down to my grandchildren.” said Lamont, who graduated from Auburn University.
Lamont’s younger brother Nicholas, 19, also works on the Bridgeforth farm while going to college nearby and is considering joining the family business.
Their cousin Kyle and his older brother Carlton graduated from Morehouse College and worked in banking in New York before they came back to Beulahland in 2012 to farm. Carlton left again last year, for Washington, and is a staff member working on policy at the House Committee on Agriculture.
On a brutally hot Saturday afternoon, Kyle pushed a hand lawn mower at his new home in a subdivision in Madison, 15 minutes from the farm — just far enough to give him and his wife, Meaghan, a bit of breathing room after 60-hour workweeks.
As he changed the diaper of his 1-year-old son, Benjamin, and dressed him in a maroon onesie emblazoned with the words “Future Morehouse Man,” he contemplated the day when his first child might become a sixth-generation Bridgeforth farmer — and what the business might look like then.
Farming has changed rapidly, Kyle said, from “more of an art to a science that is data-driven.” Soon, he expects to be able to manage the farm remotely with his smartphone.
Lately, though, the trade war with China has thrown a wrench into any strategic planning. Kyle’s father, Billy, welcomed the federal government’s billions in payments to farmers hurt by the tariff battle, but called it “little more than a Band-Aid on a very deep wound.”
“Some of the market share that was lost we’ll never recover from,” he said, “so we will need to develop new markets.”
A Holiday Homecoming
Every year, the Bridgeforth family looks forward to Labor Day, when a picnic brings together scores of aunts, uncles and cousins for fried fish, the recounting of well-worn stories and a vigorously contested round of Bingo. This year, Greg Bridgeforth appeared only for a quick round of greetings and a rushed lunch before heading back to the fields.
Greg — along with his sons Lamont and Nicholas and his brother Billy — spent most of the day harvesting corn while classic soul music was playing from speakers suspended beneath a recently finished pavilion where about 60 relatives convened.
Olivia Bridgeforth, Greg and Bill’s older sister, was working in the kitchen of the farm office. Her sister Doris did most of the cooking, but Olivia, 71, told family members where to place the food. For more than a decade she managed the office in the same small brick house where she had once lived with her 12 siblings.
She recalled the segregated one-room school she attended next to the family church and the whites-only signs for bathrooms and water fountains they encountered in nearby towns. As a child, she picked cotton by hand in unyielding heat, stuffing it into a six-foot-long canvas sack that dragged behind her like a chrysalis.
The work has been eased by the $950,000 mechanized cotton pickers that the family now owns. But some things never change, she said.
“The Bridgeforth name is still well respected in northern Alabama,” Olivia said. “And Billy and Greg have a lot of respect for the land, like our daddy did.”