Democrats make historic push for aid, equity for Black farmers

Democrats make historic push for aid, equity for Black farmers
© Greg Nash

A pair of bills were put forth by Democratic senators this week aiming to help Black farmers survive the coronavirus pandemic — and reconcile a long history of mistreatment and discrimination.

Democratic Sens. Raphael WarnockRaphael WarnockThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress avoids shutdown Georgia becomes ground zero for 2022 elections Maternal and child health legislation must be prioritized now MORE (Ga.), Cory BookerCory BookerMaternal and child health legislation must be prioritized now Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE (N.J.), Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) and Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Dems seek to preserve climate provisions Democrats wrangle to keep climate priorities in spending bill  Senate parliamentarian looms over White House spending bill MORE (Mich.) announced the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act on Monday, while Booker, Warnock and a gaggle of other senators introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which had initially been pitched in November during the previous session of Congress.

The emergency relief bill would provide $4 billion in direct payments to farmers of color and another $1 billion toward rooting out systemic racism within the Department of Agriculture that Booker and the other sponsors say has robbed Black families of the ability to build and pass on generational wealth.

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“When it comes to farming and agriculture, we know that there is a direct connection between discriminatory policies within the USDA and the enormous land loss we have seen among Black farmers over the past century,” Booker said in a statement about the Justice for Black Farmers Act.

Warnock and Booker are the first elected Black senators to serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee since it was created in 1825, though Sen. William Cowan (D-Mass.) was a part of the panel for five months in 2013 when he filled Sen. John KerryJohn KerryClimate policies propel a growing dysfunction of Western democracies Kerry calls out countries that need to 'step up' on climate change Those on the front lines of climate change should be empowered to be central to its solution MORE’s seat as an appointee when Kerry was named secretary of State.

The legislation is seen as historic.

John Boyd, the president of the National Black Farmers Association and a well-known advocate in Washington who for years has fought for Black farmers, described the bills as “a huge step in the right direction.” Dewayne Goldmon, executive director of the Black National Black Growers Council, said that they were the “most comprehensive” pieces of legislation aimed at addressing the inequity of Black farmers that he’d seen.

An expansive piece of legislation, the Justice for Black Farmers Act targets the biggest problems that have plagued Black farmers — debt, land acquisition and access to credit.

Among other things, the Justice for Black Farmers Act would create a new Equitable Land Access Service that would return land to Black farmers previously seized by the government while making land available to Black Americans who want to enter the industry. It would also create a new federal bank aimed at giving Black farmers and other farmers of color easier access to credit.

Years of discrimination left Black farmers with more debt than their counterparts, and less land and access to credit, contributing to a decline in the number of farmers who are not white.

Per the USDA, in 1920 there were more than 900,000 Black farmers in the U.S., about 14 percent of the country's farmers at the time. 

Agency census data from 2017, however, revealed that only about 35,000 Black-owned farms remain.

While changes in the agriculture industry over a number of decades have also cost white families their farms, Black farmers have taken a disproportionate hit.

As a whole, Black farms today make up just 1.7 percent of the nation’s 2 million farms, despite the fact that the number of Black farms has increased since the 1990s.

Moreover, the 2017 data showed that Black farms were grossly below the average in most revenue-related categories, only receiving about half of the government payments that an average U.S. farm receives.

“We’re proud dignified people,” Boyd told The Hill. “[Farming is] our oldest occupation … and here we are, facing extinction. So I’m glad that Congress is finally realizing that and treating us as an endangered species because that's what we are.”

In the past 30 years, progress for Black farmers has been promised, but never fully realized.

Black farmers sued the USDA in 1997, arguing that racial discrimination led to Black farmers losing out on important federal assistance such as farm loans between 1981 and 1996. The landmark class-action suit Pigford v. USDA was settled for $1 billion, with the main payment being $50,000 to farmers whose claims were accepted with additional debt and tax liability. 

Because thousands of Black farmers were unable to access this settlement, a second settlement worth $1.25 billion and known as Pigford II was completed in 2010 during the Obama administration.     

But in reality, the significant debt owed by many Black farmers was never resolved and didn’t stop the discrimination that caused the inequities in the first place.

This discrimination, Boyd said, can often be found at the local jurisdiction levels, far away from brass of the agency. 

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In counties that have farms, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency has governing outposts known as county committees. 

Historically, these panels have been overwhelmingly white, purposefully excluding Black farmers. Since loan programs, credit access and other government assistance are doled out through county committees, generations of Black farmers were often heavily shut off from critical aid.

This not only created stark inequity, but also a culture of mistrust and lack of communication between Black farmers and the agency.

“If your family, your ancestors don't have a history of a good working relationship with USDA … you may walk away thinking that this is another case where I'm going to be discriminated against, so I just need not apply,” Goldmon told The Hill.

“At best, farmers build on the successes of their predecessors,” Goldmon, a third-generation farmer, continued. “I'm building on things that my dad and granddad started. If dad and granddad have been discriminated against, it shows up, and it still impacts me today, because these are not sprints that we're running, these are marathons. … So, if my path has been muddy, I don't have the proper shoes, I don't have all these things that my competitors have, with each leg of the race, I get further behind, and that's synonymous to USDA.”

Equity has been the name of the game for the new White House, with President BidenJoe BidenPfizer CEO says vaccine data for those under 5 could be available by end of year Omicron coronavirus variant found in at least 10 states Photos of the Week: Schumer, ASU protest and sea turtles MORE making it clear that he intends to advance equity throughout all parts of the federal government.

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The USDA at the end of January announced that it was temporarily suspending “non-judicial foreclosures, debt offsets or wage garnishments, and referring foreclosures to the Department of Justice” for “distressed borrowers” in certain FSA loan programs.

USDA communications director Matt Herrick told The Hill that direct farm loans to Black farmers decreased by nearly half under the Trump administration.

“Where we have authorities to provide support for Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and other farmers of color, we will; and if we do not, we will work with Congress to find the resources and the ability to address systemic barriers,” Herrick said.

Goldmon said Biden’s holistic commitment to equity is a welcome change.

“I’ve heard more talk and seen more resources that have been designated to achieve true racial equity than any time that I can recall,” Goldmon said. “I think it provides an opportunity.”

Biden’s pick for agriculture secretary, Tom VilsackTom VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE, held the post during the Obama administration. During his first tenure, the former Iowa governor left Black farmers disgruntled over his strategy to tackle their problems. 

“I've had a few conversations with him, Boyd said. “I'm hopeful that you know the commitment that he's been explaining to me … come to fruition once he's confirmed. … That message has to resonate in my local county office where there's no people of color working.”