Black farmers facing ‘extinction’ fight for $5B in promised aid

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Congressional aid for disadvantaged farmers that was authorized earlier this year as part of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law is being challenged in the courts by white farmers, preventing roughly $5 billion from reaching Black farmers who are in desperate need of financial assistance.

Five months have passed since President Biden signed his sprawling American Rescue Plan into law, which included funds to help socially disadvantaged farmers — of which about 25 percent identify as Black — in an effort to remedy the government’s long history of discrimination against Black farmers and those of color.

But shortly after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency made preparations to send debt relief letters to eligible farmers in May, the move was met with lawsuits from white farmers and groups who argued the eligibility requirements were discriminatory.

A judge in Wisconsin granted a restraining order, while a Florida judge issued a preliminary injunction. Those two actions have left the aid in limbo as litigation plays out.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales, a George W. Bush administration appointee who issued the Florida-based ruling against the debt relief program, said the main section of the coronavirus aid bill pertaining to farmer relief does “not appear to contain any of the hallmarks of a narrowly tailored race-based affirmative action plan.”

She said it instead “appears to create an inflexible, race-based discriminatory program.”

But for many Black farmers, time is of the essence.

John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, says many of his members are “not going to be able to hold on” for a lengthy court battle over the aid.

“I would like to see a more aggressive approach from the Department of Justice and spell out the painful history of discrimination that was done to Black farmers in this country,” the third-generation farmer said.

“There is discrimination, and it should be acknowledged, and it should be addressed in the courts.”

Black communities have been hit harder during the pandemic, and Boyd says the same applies to farmers, with many having to pick up extra jobs as federal aid goes undelivered.

“They’re taking second jobs and they’re saying, ‘Well, we don’t know what’s going on with this but we still have a light bill, still have mortgage, insurance, all these things that have to be paid,’ ” Boyd said.

One of those farmers is Lester Bonner, a multigenerational farmer in Dinwiddie County, Virginia.

Bonner, 74, who typically sells hogs, soybeans and hay, said he was counting on the money from the coronavirus aid package to take care of his roughly $20,000 in debt and to pay for seed and general improvements to his farm.

But the funding never came.

“I had to cut back. I couldn’t do nothing. I needed equipment. I need buildings,” Bonner said, “and by them taking my Social Security … I couldn’t really buy nothing, because they’ve taken everything I had to try to pay that loan off. So, I ain’t been able to develop the farm none hardly.”

Bonner said his situation is not unique, and noted many other Black farmers in his area have left the industry over the years due to similar obstacles.

“Very few Black farmers left in Dinwiddie County,” he said.

In some ways, the holdup of aid in 2021 for Black farmers is an extension of a decades-long struggle to receive their fair share of federal farm subsidies and aid. 

For example, the first months of the pandemic saw the Trump administration launch the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program through the USDA. In total, $9.2 billion was distributed, with white farmers receiving over 95 percent of that aid.

Similarly, when the Trump White House subsidized U.S. farm losses in 2018 due to the U.S. trade war with China, white farmers received 99 percent of what amounted to billions in aid.

The lack of sufficient government assistance, combined with discriminatory practices during the 20th century, has contributed to the dwindling number of Black farmers in the U.S.

In 1920, there were more than 900,000 Black farmers, accounting for roughly 14 percent of all farmworkers.

According to USDA data, there were about 35,000 Black-owned farms in 2017, or 1.7 percent of the nation’s 2 million farms. White-owned farms, by contrast, made up over 96 percent of all farms.

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

“When we represented 14 percent, we weren’t getting the money,” Boyd said. “And now we’re facing extinction, and we’re still not getting the money. And I think that that’s discriminatory in itself.”

Black farmers sued the USDA in the 1990s, arguing that racial discrimination led to them losing out on important federal assistance such as farm loans from 1981-1996.

The landmark class-action suit — Pigford v. Glickman — was eventually settled for $1 billion. Through the settlement, Black farmers who submitted a claim were supposed to receive $50,000 payments.

After complications led to many Black farmers missing out on the payments, a second Pigford settlement, for $1.25 billion, was agreed to in 2010.

However, the significant debt owed by many Black farmers was never resolved, due in large part to claims that went unprocessed and others that were denied. And the discrimination that created the inequities in the first place persisted.

“That’s when they were supposed to write off your debt. But they didn’t never do it. I went bankrupt three times trying to pay it … [and] when we couldn’t pay no more, they started taking money out of our Social Security checks,” Bonner said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was head of the USDA during the second Pigford settlement, is now serving in the same role under Biden.

Boyd, a vocal critic of Vilsack, said the issues with the 2021 payments are essentially history repeating itself.

“During my last call with Secretary Vilsack, that’s what I was explaining to him: You know, white farmers always manage to get the money, and the money is seemingly somehow some way kept from Blacks,” Boyd said.

“This is a perfect example of that. We have something that’s in law in writing, and now we can’t get it. … The secretary took too long to do his job. … It’s frustrating and we need new leadership at USDA.”

When asked about the lawsuits challenging the aid, as well as Boyd’s remarks about Vilsack and the agency, the USDA referred The Hill to the Justice Department. The Justice Department did not return a request for comment.

Adrienne Jones, an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College who also serves as its prelaw director, said the Biden administration and Congress must carefully coordinate their response to legal challenges, calling the current climate a “dangerous environment” to have these kinds of programs blocked by the court.

“They definitely need to think creatively … are there ways that they can solve this problem without taking it to the Supreme Court,” she said, noting the court “seems particularly interested in striking civil rights programs, or affirmative action programs.”

Under the legislation signed into law by Biden, Jones said she thinks chances are “slim” that Black farmers will get financial relief. But she said talks around the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package Democrats are trying to pass in Congress should definitely include the ongoing legal battle holding up aid for Black farmers.

She also said she doesn’t think it’s coincidental that a number of legal challenges were brought against the debt relief program given the political tensions around race, particularly after months of widespread protests against police brutality last year following the murder of George Floyd.

“To be bringing a discrimination claim at any point in American history is problematic … But today, I mean, the courts are extremely conservative, at least at the federal level,” she said, “and the law has shifted such that affirmative action programs of the kind that we saw coming out of the 1960s just are not as viable.”

Tags Agriculture Black farmers Debt relief Discrimination Farms Joe Biden Lawsuits Tom Vilsack USDA
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