2016 Leadership Award Honoree: John Boyd Jr.

John Boyd Jr.
Founder and President, National Black Farmers Association

John Boyd Jr. didn’t set out to become an advocate for small-scale farmers’ rights.  But in the late ‘80s, after experiencing racial discrimination at his local USDA office, including being spat on and rejected for a loan, which forced him to declare bank-ruptcy on his Baskerville, Virginia, farm, Boyd began a decades-long fight for fairer and more just lending practices.

“I thought it was an isolated dislike towards me,” recalls fourth-generation farmer Boyd. “But as I began to learn more about the system, it looked like all the African-American farmers in this particular county were treated the same way. That’s when I knew this was a bigger problem.” Out of the 147 farm loans approved in his county over the course of a year, he says, only two went to black farmers.

Later, after Boyd’s application was denied, the government threatened foreclosure on his farm. He filed discrimination claims with the Office for Civil Rights; an investigation supported his allegations, and Boyd took his case to federal court. In the process, he learned that minority farmers around the country were experiencing irreparable losses as a result of industry-wide discrimination. He was introduced to former President Jimmy Carter, who took interest in the issue, and he led protests in Washington, D.C. Still, Boyd couldn’t find an advocacy organization that could help his cause, so, in 1995, he created the National Black Farmers Association.

A few years later, Boyd won his case. “I said, ‘Man, now I can go home and just finish farming,’” he recalls. However, over the course of his own investigation, Boyd had learned of many unresolved discrimination cases dating back decades. With no formal legal training, he began filing class-action lawsuits on behalf of other farmers. “I would change the name of the main plaintiff, file it, make corrections, and then file it again in another state,” he says. He started to work on cases on behalf of other groups, including Hispanics, Native Americans, and women.

Through Boyd’s many years of activism and assistance, farmers around the country were able to recoup their land. “Anyone and everyone who is either an ‘underserved’ farmer or rancher owes Mr. Boyd a huge debt,” says Ricardo Salvador, a 2013 Leadership Award recipient and the director and senior scientist for the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “He is an inspiration for his long record of persistence and obtaining historic results.”

Boyd still fights for small-scale farmers, pressing large banks to loosen lending requirements; advocating for more acces-sible and affordable federal crop insurance; and confronting complications surrounding seed ownership, among other industry issues. “It looks like the more work you do, the more that people need your help,” says Boyd, who is still farming, too. “I think I’ll be around doing this just a little while longer.”