Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
Sept. 12, 1997

An activist for black farmers

by Steve Jones

Mr. Cornelious goes to Washington, again.

Gary Cornelious is supervisor of media resources for the department of journalism and mass communication. Among his duties are overseeing the department's broadcast studios and helping with instruction. But it's his work as a self- described "truck farmer" and farm activist that is sending him to the nation's capital.

One of 33 black farmers in Iowa, Cornelious is a regional officer for the American Black Agriculturists Assn. (ABAA), representing upper Midwest states. The organization is working with members of Congress and Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to correct alleged racial discrimination within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ABAA members have accused the USDA of loan discrimination.

Cornelious is scheduled to be in Washington, D.C., today (Sept. 12) to speak at a forum on the plight of black farmers in the United States.

"We want to look at the possibilities that exist to improve the financial condition of minorities in agriculture," Cornelious said.

The forum is sponsored by North Carolina Congresswoman Eva M. Clayton, a member of the House Agriculture Committee and the Congressional Black Caucus. She introduced legislation last summer aimed at eliminating racism from the USDA.

In April, Cornelious and 200 other black farmers discussed their concerns with Glickman and the Congressional Black Caucus. In July, he returned to Washington and testified before the Agriculture Committee. Cornelious said it was the first time ever that the committee met with black farmers.

"I felt like a pioneer," Cornelious recalled.

The ABAA's chief concern with the USDA is loan discrimination at the local level, not the national level. Local county committees, especially in the South, have delayed or denied loans, creating severe financial hardships for many black farmers, Cornelious said. Not able to borrow money, many blacks have been forced out of farming.

Only 18,000 black-operated farms are left in the United States, Cornelious noted. More than 900,000 existed in 1920.

On Aug. 28, some black farmers filed suit against the USDA and sought class-action status to represent more than 600 other African Americans who claim racial discrimination. Cornelious said he has not faced loan discrimination because of his race. He does, however, believe racism is a factor in his land boundary problems, which are being resolved with U.S. Department of Justice assistance.

The four-acre Cornelious farm is called Soul Food on the Prairie. He and his family grow 47 kinds of vegetables, including okra, black-eyed peas and other southern favorites. They also raise goats, turkeys, chickens, geese and lambs. Everything is produced organically.

Cornelious is part of a growing number of Iowans who are considered farmers, but whose principal occupations are off the farm, according to ISU rural sociologist Paul Lasley. In 1992 (the latest agricultural census data available) 29,658 of Iowa's 96,543 farm operators indicated that farming was not their main form of employment.

"I'm sure we'll see the number continue to grow," Lasley said.

Cornelious and his wife Carol also are involved in her family's farm operations, which include seven farms in Iowa. In addition to raising small quantities of peanuts and squash, they help produce mountains of corn and soybeans, Iowa's most common crops.

"There's a strong heritage of growing food in our families," said Cornelious, whose family also has owned farms.

Cornelious didn't grow up a farmer. Calling himself a "military brat," his father's U.S. Army career moved his family throughout the United States and Europe. Cornelious started school in Italy and lived there for four years.

"My Italian was better than my English when I was young," he said.

Cornelious went to high school in Illinois, then followed a football-playing older brother to Luther College in Decorah. Cornelious also tried college football, but realized he was too small. He stayed close to the sport by videotaping Luther football games. The work behind the camera helped lead him into his career in broadcasting technology.

Since 1991, Cornelious has won five blue ribbons at the State Fair for his vegetables. He enjoys growing and eating his vegetables. He also looks at them and other foods as a way to bring together people.

"We all have one thing in common," he said. "We all sit down and eat."

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