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POLICY

Farmland is lucrative. Acreage denotes wealth and provides multi-generational investment returns. Racial inequity and farm policy, in this country, have long been indivisible; discrimination in agrarian land ownership and by the USDA has made a farce of an already flimsy bid for equality, for financial freedom and freedom to farm and ranch American land with the nonpartisan support of government. The Covid-19 pandemic has both exacerbated and highlighted the racism within the USDA’s treatment of farmers. Two bills, the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act and the Justice for Black Farmers Act seek to begin the remediation of racial disparity in US agriculture.

Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act

USDA Chief of Staff, Katherine Ferguson, states the bill is “crafted to address the immediate need for debt relief among those who have been marginalized and are hurting while also advancing long-term issues such as Heirs’ Property, tackling the root causes of discrimination via an Equity Commission, and investing in building back a new generation of farmers of color.” The Chief’s support speaks to a shift in USDA policy to support small farms – keystones of cleaner farming practices and the diversification and strengthening of local economies – and a far more assertive stance on remedying past injustices propagated by the USDA itself. The bill cites that “numerous reports over 60 years have shown a consistent pattern of discrimination at the Department of Agriculture against Black farmers, Indigenous farmers, and farmers of color.”

Introduced by Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA); co-sponsored by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow.

To be included within the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief stimulus package.

The legislation provides:

  • Over fiscal years 2021 to 2025 $4 billion in total direct relief. These payments will help farmers of color to pay off USDA farm loan debt and/or taxes, and mitigate the economic impacts of the pandemic.
  • A fund of $1 billion to be used for gaining greater understanding of systematic racism within the USDA itself and greater farming policies. This fund will:
    • Confront the inherent problems of heirs’ property;
    • Boost legal assistance for farmers of color through the support of attorneys representing minority farmers and by providing broad legal education, policy research and guidance to farmers of color;
    • Support new land acquisition, financial and technical training for the sustained maintenance and growth of efficient land use;
    • Develop a commission within the USDA to deconstruct prevalent systematic racism and prevent the formation of new racist policy;
    • Increase scholarships at 1890’s land grant universities;
    • Provide assistance for former farm loan borrowers who have been subjected to and suffered financially from acute past discrimination.

Justice for Black Farmers Act

Senator Booker comments: “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. The Justice for Black Farmers Act will work to correct this historic injustice by addressing and correcting USDA discrimination and taking bold steps to restore the land that has been lost in order to empower a new generation of Black farmers to succeed and thrive.”

Originally introduced in November 2020 by Senator Booker; co-sponsored by Senators Warren (D-MA) and Gillibrand (D-NY). Reintroduced with support from Senators Warnock, Smith (D-MN) and Leahy (D-VT).

The legislation will:

  • Address discrimination within the USDA by:
    • Creating an independent civil rights oversight board, serving to address complaints filed against the USDA and investigate reports of discrimination within the USDA;
    • Providing much needed supervision of the Farm Service Agency County Committees and developing an Equity Commission responsible for active reformation of the FSA County Committees. Attention to local injustices will serve Black farmers by working to provide fair and equal access to loans, credit and government assistance.
  • Protect remaining Black farmers from land loss by:
    • Addressing heirs’ property issues;
      • Provides funding for pro bono assistance, including legal assistance, succession planning and support of farming cooperatives.
    • Creating and funding a new bank that will provide financing for Black farmers and rancher cooperatives.
    • Forgiving USDA debt of Black farmers who filed claims in the Pigford
  • Restore the land bse lost by Black farmers by:
    • Creating within the USDA a new Equitable Land Access Service;
    • Providing land grants of up to 160 acres to existing and aspiring Black farmers.
  • Create a Farm Conservation Corps:
    • Creating within the USDA a program for young adults from socially disadvantaged communities providing education relevant to farming.
    • Participants are to be paid by the USDA and will serve as on-farm apprentices at no cost to farmers and ranches with gross farm income of less than $250,000.00.
    • Black participants will be given priority for land grants.
  • Provide resources HBCUs; advocate for Black farmers through the provision of resources for:
    • 1890s land grant universities and other historically black colleges and universities;
    • Nonprofits who assist Black farmers in acquiring and maintaining farmland.
  • Assist all socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers:
    • The bill makes note that while Black farmers have suffered a singularly oppressive history of discrimination, discrimination in agriculture is broad-reaching. The act increases funding for USDA technical assistance and programs that benefit all socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, such as CSP and REAP.
  • Reform the Packers and Stockyards Act:
    • Prevent abusive practices by multinational meatpacking companies, protecting all families and ranchers.

 

ANALYSIS

The tapping by President Biden of Tom Vilsack as Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture brings to the fore historical civil disparities in rural and agricultural development. Vilsack is a returnee to this appointment; he served as USDA Secretary under the Obama Administration, and though his veteran leadership offers the potential for stability after the factional chaos of the last four years, Vilsack has been previously a disappointment to those hopeful for a narrowing of the growing racial gulfs in agrarian sectors. However, and with the support of the USDA, two senate bills offer the potential for some balancing of inequities – the beginning of what many hope to be a trend. The $5 Billion Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act and the Justice for Black Farmers Act, introduced respectively by Senators Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Booker, respond both to the historical racial injustice within and outside of the USDA and to the heretofore ineffectual measures of the federal government during the pandemic year to provide aid for marginalized farmers.

Since 1920, the number of Black-owned farms in America has decreased from 14% to 1.7% in 2017. Black American farmers have lost 12 million acres over the last century. Debt, difficulties in land acquisition and unequal access to credit play obvious roles in this decline. So too, does the growth of Big Ag, whose owners and dictators are not farmers, but mega-corporations and their investors, who follow money to its roots. At the pinnacle of corporate America, Black people hold just 3% of all senior and executive roles in companies with more than 100 employees. As Big Ag gets bigger, Black leadership gets left behind.

Farming is not a sure-fast money maker – this holds especially true in smaller scale farms, of which owners are families or individuals reliant on the fair consideration of lenders. And it is especially true that in farming, one must invest money in land, feed, seed and equipment to compete.

The USDA’s Farm Service Agency has many small bureaucratic branches in farming counties. These are called County Committees and it is to these committees that farm owners must go for loans, credit and – stupendously relevant in a pandemic year – government assistance. County committees have had very few Black members, historically. Under the Trump administration, direct farm loans to Black farmers were nearly halved. Pigford vs. Glickman, a class action lawsuit brought against the USDA in 1999, highlights the racial discrimination Black farmers have and do experience when applying, as any farm owner must, for loans and government assistance through the FSA County Committees. Nearly $1 billion has been paid to more than 13,300 plaintiffs. Pigford is ostensibly the largest civil rights settlement in US history. Pigford II addressed late-filed claims and claims mis-managed by the insufficient legal representation of Pigford I. In 2010, Congress appropriated $1.2 billion for Pigford II. While these settlements were undoubtedly wins, they did little to ratify change within the USDA with any substantial longevity. A several billion dollar bandaid, if you will. The settlements, beyond the financial boost, are mostly symbolic in nature. The recent Justice for Black Farmers and Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Acts suggest a more durable change.

Farming is generational. Successes and failures are passed parent to child, and are magnified by the repetitious qualities of time and the failure of legislatures to support equal protection and stimulus for marginalized people. Land – and especially lucrative farmland – is conflict-sown. American planting soil was stolen from Indigenous people. African slave labor tilled and amplified white land owner’s wealth. Following the Civil War until 1920, Black land owners amassed 20 million acres. Heirs’ property – the fractionation by which land, after the death of the owner, is divided between heirs – is a significant cause of land loss in Black farming families. Parcelled land is sold and statutorily stolen, diminishing an otherwise returning investment. Lack of access to the legal system during the Reconstruction and distrust of the legal system during and beyond the Jim Crow era dissuaded Black Americans from reliance on legal wills, relying instead on heirs’ property to keep land within familial lineages. Because heirs’ property is an inherently unstable system offering little protection, this resulted in a regressive ownership trend. This history is not ancient. Today, the amalgamation of small farms to large by big businesses with lobbying power furthers socioeconomic and racial inequities.

These bills are aggressive. The language in them is plain: though systematic racism has been a normalized facet of the USDA and within agrarian communities, it can be dismantled. The bills do not and cannot remedy the entirety of racial injustice within the business of farming and ranching. As in any financial ecosystem, diversification of agri-business lends itself to stability; supporting farmers of color boosts small, locally-owned businesses, and vice versa. The Justice for Black Farmers and Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Acts provide the first blueprint of a more ethically and logically sound USDA and agricultural future.

Engagement Resources

Building Local Food Economies:

Maintaining and strengthening local economies through diversification of food and food suppliers. https://cefs.ncsu.edu/food-system-initiatives/local-food-economies/a-government-guide-on-building-local-food-economies/

Farm Aid:

Works with local, regional and national organizations to promote fair farm policies and grassroots organizing campaigns designed to defend and bolster family farm-centered agriculture. https://www.farmaid.org/

National Black Farmers Association:

Encourages the participation of small and disadvantaged farmers in gaining access to resources of state and federal programs administered by the United States Department of Agriculture. https://www.blackfarmers.org/

 

Sources Cited: 

Cowan, Tadlock, and Feder, Jody. “The Pigford Cases: USDA Settlement of Discrimination Suits by Black Farmers.” Congressional Research Service (12 March, 2013), retrieved February 18 from:

https://web.archive.org/web/20130927183133/http://www.nationalaglawcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/assets/crs/RS20430.pdf

“Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act 2021.”  117th Congress (2021), retrieved February 18 from: https://www.warnock.senate.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Emergency-Relief-for-Farmers-of-Color-Act-of-2021.pdf

Fahy, Jennifer. “Two Bills to Support Farmers of Color Introduced.” Farm Aid (9 Feb, 2021), retrieved February 18 from:

https://www.farmaid.org/issues/farm-policy/two-bills-to-support-farmers-of-color-introduced/

Johnson, Marty. “Democrats make historic push for aid, equity for Black farmers.” The Hill (15 Feb. 2021), retrieved February 18 from: https://thehill.com/policy/finance/538598-democrats-make-historic-push-for-aid-equity-for-black-farmers

Newkirk, Van R. II. “The Great Land Robbery.” The Atlantic (29 Sept. 2019), retrieved February 18 from:

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/09/this-land-was-our-land/594742/

Presser, Lizzie. “Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery. The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave it.” ProPublica (15 July, 2019), retrieved February 18 from: https://features.propublica.org/black-land-loss/heirs-property-rights-why-black-families-lose-land-south/

Statement by Katherine Ferguson, USDA Chief of Staff, on the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act (2021, February 9) retrieved February 18 from: https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2021/02/09/statement-katharine-ferguson-usda-chief-staff-emergency-relief

Tabuchi, Hiroko, and Nadja Popovich. “Two Biden Priorities, Climate and Inequality, Meet on Black-Owned Farms.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 Jan. 2021, retrieved February 18 from: www.nytimes.com/2021/01/31/climate/black-farmers-discrimination-agriculture.html.

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