By Chandra Thomas Whitfield
Stop by John Boyd Jr.’s 1,300-acre farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, on any given day—especially in the early morning hours—and you’re bound to catch him perched atop his Case International 7150 tractor, looking toward the horizon as he rolls up and down the rows of his meticulously planted soybean, wheat and corn crops.
With every forge ahead, John, a fourth-generation farmer, delves deeper into a sense of solitude and serenity—what he calls “being at one with nature and with God.” Those who know him well say this is where he thinks best; it’s his happy place, a source of peace and his own little slice of heaven on earth. These moments of quiet contemplation, amid the crisp morning air and a chorus of chirping birds, best embody his pure love for working the land.
“There’s no telling what’s going through his mind when he’s on that tractor,” says Tony Whittingham, who has called John a friend and confidant since they met in ninth grade in the halls of Park View High School in South Hill, Virginia. “He’s one of the smartest people I know—he really thinks on a different level. The best way for me to describe him is that there’s an edge to his thinking. He’s different and he has a heart for people and a sincere love for family.”
That side of John, friends and colleagues agree, is often eclipsed by his public persona as a businessman, outspoken civil rights activist and the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association. His role with the NBFA frequently lands him in the national spotlight.
A FARMER’S LEGACY
John, 55, was born in Brooklyn, New York, but he came to embrace the slower pace of rural life—albeit reluctantly at first—after his parents moved the family to Virginia. John was 13, a middle school student. “If you don’t want to work hard, don’t be a farmer,” he says. “But if you want gratification from your work—you know, from seeing that crop grow to seeing it harvested and going to the combines—it’s the most rewarding occupation that you could do as far as clean, healthy work.”
Known for his husky voice, hearty laugh and an affinity for cowboy hats (the bigger the better), John founded the NBFA in 1995. Today the organization—which advocates for equality in farming—boasts a robust membership across 42 states. John says he has committed his life to fighting for Black farmers everywhere.
Like his father, grandfather and great- grandfather before him, John is a farmer through and through. In fact, his great- grandfather, who came to America in shackles as an enslaved man, eventually managed to purchase his own land—no small accomplishment in the post-Civil War South. Family legend has it that each night he slept with the deed to his farm underneath his pillow.
John spent nearly 15 years as a chicken farmer and also managed tobacco crops before settling on the beans, grains and cattle that he and his wife, Kara, who shares his deep love for the land, raise on their farm in Baskerville, Virginia.
“Ever since we were kids, that’s all he’s ever done. In ninth grade and all through high school—you know, Future Farmers of America and work on the farm,” says Tony. “Multiple generations of his family have been involved with farming. At the end of the day, that’s all he knows.”
It’s back-breaking work. But, John insists, it’s also the most fulfilling—so much so that he’s tried for years to convince his adult sons, both in their 20s, to commit to taking it over one day. (“To pass along that family legacy would be a lifelong dream,” he has said.) Thus far it has been a losing battle. They, like many in the younger generation, aren’t sold on the profession. John says that this heartbreaking reality fuels his longstanding crusade to attract young people to the field; it’s an effort he says he’ll maintain until he takes his last breath.
Los Angeles-based film and television producer Jeff Brick worked closely with John during the filming of The American Farm, a 2019 History Channel docuseries that featured the Boyd family. Jeff says he has no doubt that John will persevere.
“John Boyd is a force of nature. There is never a problem that is too difficult for him to take on and ultimately overcome,” says Jeff. “He has dealt with constant adversity in his life and career since the beginning, but wakes up every morning unfazed and ready to attack a new day. He’s an indefatigable advocate for Black farmers in the United States, a hard worker, a devoted family man, shrewd and smart.”
If John’s unconventional credentials are any indication, Jeff is right.