Fighting for relief for Black farmers
John Boyd Jr., a civil rights advocate and fourth-generation farmer, has a message to share as he fights for farmers of color to receive billions in coronavirus relief funds held up by white farmers alleging discrimination.
“I’m not going away,” Boyd says.
Almost a year has passed since the government approved the aid as part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package President Biden signed in March. But the minority farmers the money was intended to help have been shut out from receiving the relief as it remains tied up in court battles.
Boyd has been applying pressure to lawmakers and the administration to get the $4 billion in stalled aid for socially disadvantaged farmers released.
A Virginia-based farmer and president of the thousands-strong National Black Farmers Association, he told The Hill in a recent interview he’s been filing amicus briefs in different courts across the country.
“It’s a do-or-die for a guy who owes a couple hundred thousand dollars to the government,” said Boyd, who added he’s also been reaching out to members who helped draft the legislation for assistance in tackling the issue.
“They’re saying they can’t interfere with the courts is what they’re telling me … and I’m saying that it’s got to be something that can be done,” he said.
Boyd said he’s now seeking a meeting with the president for serious action, as many Black farmers burdened by debt have struggled to stay afloat amid the pandemic.
Boyd said the president told him they “would have a formal meeting” that has yet to materialize.
“I still would like to have that meeting to see what he can do from his inkpad to help us,” he said.
The White House did not return a request for comment from The Hill, while a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said in a statement that it “continues to work closely with the Department of Justice to vigorously defend” the funding allocation.
Boyd and others say the funding could be transformative for many Black farmers, who historically have had less access to land and resources after decades of racial discrimination.
In recent years, the USDA has found that Black farmers own less than 2 percent of the nation’s farms, while white farmers own more than 96 percent.
The number of farms overall has declined significantly since its peak in the 1930s.
Black Americans accounted for about 14 percent of total farmworkers in the nation in 1920. In its own reports, the USDA has named discrimination as a contributing factor in the significant decline in Black farmers seen in the decades that followed.
Boyd, one of the most visible Black farm advocates on Capitol Hill who said he bought his first farm when he was 18 years old, told The Hill he has experienced that discrimination firsthand.
As a young farmer in the 1980s, Boyd said it was “commonplace” for him and other Black farmers to be met with “racial epithets” at the local office run by the Farmers Home Administration, a former government agency that would provide loans to farmers under the Agriculture Department.
Boyd recalled his previous experience with James Garnett, a then-USDA agent he said in a previous interview with NPR denied him a loan, and whom he’s publicly accused of discrimination.
“He was only seeing Black farmers on Wednesday, and he carried on with the discrimination like this is what he does every day,” he said.
Boyd said he had no intention of becoming an activist when he entered farming as a young adult.
“[I] personally wanted to save my farms at the beginning, and, as the fight moved on, I started fighting for everybody else,” he said.
Over the years, Boyd has gained attention for his eye-catching demonstrations, including riding his tractor or his mule Struggle to Washington to protest unfair treatment.
“I couldn’t get the bills passed, the attention by calling up the chief of staff and trying to get a meeting with them, a member of Congress … it just wasn’t working that way. So I’ve done things that were out of the box and just different to try to try to move the needle for us,” Boyd said.
Struggle, who died about three years ago, was part of the Capitol Hill protest in the late 1990s surrounding Pigford v. Glickman, a landmark class-action suit in which Black farmers alleged rampant discrimination by the USDA in loan programs, reaching a $1 billion settlement.
As part of the settlement, Black farmers eligible for the aid were to see $50,000 in payment each. But data gathered by the Environmental Working Group showed less than 75 percent of farmers who sought claims saw adequate payment, and more than 50,000 were left out of that round of aid after making claims too late.
“There were a lot of discrepancies and a lot of eligible Black who should have got the money that didn’t, and few and far between, only a handful of track B cases, have been paid up,” said Boyd, who added he’s still fighting for farmers to receive that relief.
He says he’s keeping up the pressure on businesses and lawmakers to do more to stamp out market discrimination he said is still faced by farmers, particularly in corporate America.
“We can’t just be consumers as Blacks. We got to be at the table and a part of these companies making sure that we get our part here, too,” he said.
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