It’s pretty sad that in 2021, Congress making an effort to not discriminate against Black farmers is seen as “historic.” Yet, legislation introduced by Senate Democrats is just that, as it seeks to both provide relief for farmers as a result of the pandemic, as well as address long systemic racism within the agricultural department.
According to the Hill, Democratic Sens. Raphael Warnock (Ga.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) introduced the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, a bill that would provide $4 billion in relief for non-white farmers, and put $1 billion towards addressing systemic racism within the Department of Agriculture. A second bill was also introduced by Booker, Warnock, and several other senators called the Justice for Black Farmers Act, that is intended to provide solutions to the numerous obstacles faced by Black farmers.
“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. Booker and Warnock are the first Black senators to ever serve on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
John Boyd, the president of the National Black Farmers Association, told the Hill that the bills are “a huge step in the right direction.”
In addition to providing relief, the bills also target areas that Black farmers have long been obstacles for Black farmers, including debt, securing a line of credit, and land acquisition. The Justice for Black Farmers Act would create a new Equitable Land Access Service that would return land to Black farmers that had been seized by the government, as well as provide land for Black farmers who wish to enter the industry. It would also see the creation of a new federal bank that would provide easier access to loans for Black farmers.
From the Hill:
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.
Of the nation’s 2 million farms, only 1.7 percent are Black owned. Additionally, The Hill notes that data from 2017 reveals that on average, Black farmers receive only half of the government payments that go to your average, white-owned farm. Black farmers have fought for the last 30 years over these disproportionate payments, settling a class action lawsuit against the USDA in 1999 for $1 billion. Thousands of Black farmers weren’t able to access these funds, so a second $1.25 billion settlement was reached in 2010. Still, this did little to address the discrimination that Black farmers continued to face.
Boyd told the Hill that discrimination tends to come on the local level from the county committees utilized by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. The committees are established in counties known for farming, and are typically made up of majority white panels who have historically discriminated against Black farmers. Loans, credit access, and basically all federal assistance for farmers are handled through these committees. Generations of discrimination have led to understandable mistrust in the USDA among Black farmers.
“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,” Dewayne Goldmon, executive director of the Black National Black Growers Council and a third-generation farmer told The Hill.
According to USDA communications director Matt Herrick, direct loans to Black farmers dropped by almost half during the Trump administration. Under the Biden administration, the USDA is hoping to reverse that trend. “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 told The Hill.
For Boyd and Goldmon, this is a welcome change of pace from the status quo they unfortunately have become accustomed to. “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 told the Hill.
“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.”