Earlier this year, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan. Included in the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill was $5 billion allocated to the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act — what some are calling a landmark piece of legislation for Black farmers. The plan, introduced by Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock, requires the Department of Agriculture to “provide assistance for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers,” with $4 billion going towards loan forgiveness and an additional $1 billion for support and resources for farmers of color.
A few months later, the USDA announced that the loan forgiveness process would begin in June — only to have it come to a grinding halt on June 10th, when a federal judge in Wisconsin issued a temporary restraining order on the program. The 17,000 farmers who currently qualify for assistance are now left waiting in limbo due to a lawsuit brought by White farmers arguing that the program discriminates against them based on race and is thus unconstitutional.
In reality, this program is a long overdue acknowledgement of the history of discrimination that farmers of color, particularly Black farmers, have faced at the hands of the government and the USDA. Here’s why it’s so important that this program moves forward, as a policy that both addresses racial injustice and has significant climate implications.
Over the past century, the proportion of Black farmers in the U.S. has plummeted. In 1920, there were 925,000 Black farmers in the U.S., and 14% of farms were owned by Black farmers. Today, that number is just 2%, due to racial violence and racist lending and land ownership policies. For example, during the Jim Crow era, Black farmers became the targets of violent attacks and intimidation from White landowners. As a result, many fled North, often to cities, in the Great Migration. Then during the Civil Rights era, White supremacist Citizens’ Councils, concerned about increasing numbers of Black voters in the South, targeted Black farmers and drove them out of their communities. Robert Patterson, one of the founding fathers of Citizens’ Councils, wrote documents envisioning a master plan to bring about the decline of small independent farmers through economic pressure. Indeed, even without following such a master plan, individual actions by White people ultimately had the same effect. Outright violence and intimidation were used to dispossess Black landowners. Local banks and private lenders would deny loans to Black farmers — often as retaliation against Black farmers and landowners who were involved in Civil Rights advocacy. Private and public lenders ran schemes to force Black landowners to default on their loans and lose their land.
Even at the USDA, well-documented discriminatory lending practices made it incredibly difficult for Black farmers to secure monetary aid. Loans made to Black male farmers were 25% lower than loans made to White male farmers, and took longer to be approved if they weren’t denied outright. Virginia farmer John Boyd, who founded the National Black Farmers Association, described how in the ‘80s, USDA employees would tear up and throw out loan applications, “spit on” and “humiliate” Black farmers.
After decades of discrimination, Black farmers picketed the USDA in 1996 — only to find that the Civil Rights office at the USDA had been closed for years, and the complaints they had sent in sat unopened. This was followed by a series of legal settlements in the 1990s, which were supposed to provide some financial compensation to Black farmers who could prove “direct discrimination.” For instance, after a class action discrimination lawsuit against the USDA in 1999, thousands of Black farmers were supposed to receive up to $50,000 each as part of the settlement. But most never received that money.
As a result, Black farmers struggled to keep up with White competitors. Since peaking in the early 20th century, Black land ownership has fallen by 90%, and today there are fewer than 35,000 Black farmers. Black operated farms also tend to be disproportionately smaller and make less money, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.
Present Day Discrimination & Attempts at Redress
These kinds of inequities have continued in recent years as well. In 2015, the USDA issued $5.7 billion in microloans. Less than 0.2% of that money went to Black farmers. Under Trump’s Market Facilitation Program, 99% payments went to White farmers, with White farmers receiving payments 10 times greater on average than those received by Black farmers. And most recently, in October of 2020, White farmers received nearly 97% of the $9.2 billion provided through the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). White farmers received $6.7 billion in CFAP payments compared to the $15 million Black farmers received. And the average White farmer received 4 times more than the average Black farmer. Because the program linked payments to production, larger and more successful farmers actually collected more money — that is, the farmers who needed and could have benefited most from aid weren’t the ones who received it.
Several legislative actions being taken this year are first steps in an attempt to right some of these past wrongs. At the state level, North Carolina is following the lead of several states by introducing heirs’ property reforms. Heirs’ property is land that has been passed down through generations without a will or legal documentation proving ownership. People who can’t prove land ownership face barriers building on or developing the land, are denied farming loans, disaster relief, and foreclosure protection, and can be forced into selling land through court orders by predatory developers. This phenomenon disproportionately affects Black families, with the USDA calling heirs’ property the “leading cause of Black involuntary land loss.” The Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act, already adopted in 18 states since 2010, was introduced in North Carolina this legislative session, and attempts to protect families from forced sales of their land.
Steps are being taken at the federal level as well. For instance, in February, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act. The bill has not been sent to committee yet, but it aims to reform the USDA, provide debt relief, and create a land grant program to support Black farmers. Congressman David Scott of Georgia, the first Black chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, also plans to invite Black farmers to give testimony on racial discrimination in federal aid programs.
And of course, the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act is supposed to provide support to “socially disadvantaged” farmers, defined by the USDA as “those belonging to groups that have been subject to racial or ethnic prejudice. [Socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers] include farmers who are Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Hispanic or Latino, and Asian or Pacific Islander.” Under this program, eligible farmers will have the entirety of their loans paid off by the U.S. Treasury. Some will also receive an additional 20% of the loan as a cash payment to cover the tax burden from significant debt relief. The program is just a first step in acknowledging the deep history and legacy of discrimination that continues to impact Black farmers and landowners to this day. According to Texas A&M law professor Thomas W. Mitchell, the overall economic harm from the historic loss of Black rural landholdings amounts to an estimated $350 billion. A $4 billion loan forgiveness program only covers 1.1% of that.
These policies supporting Black farmers also have important climate implications. This historic and present-day discrimination has made it harder for Black farmers to obtain organic farming certifications, even though organic farming is actually more profitable for farmers. Relieving their debt burden, making it easier to hold on to land, and improving access to support and funding can make it less cumbersome for Black farmers to acquire organic certification or transition to organic farming practices if they have not yet done so. (Indeed, many land trusts and organizations in the South that have been working for years to bring Black Americans back to farming have already been placing emphasis on sustainable farming practices.)
This also dovetails with the Biden administration’s emphasis on implementing agriculture policies that put farmers on the forefront of the fight against climate change. The Biden transition team, for instance, had posed the idea of a federal soil “carbon bank” that would provide credits to farmers for sequestering carbon in the soil through sustainable farming. They claim this could reduce annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 50 megatons, equivalent to the emissions from more than 10 million cars driven for a year. The bipartisan Growing Climate Solutions Act, which recently passed in the Senate and now heads to the House of Representatives, similarly would create an environmental credit system to support farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners who use practices that reduce emissions or sequester carbon. While uncertainties remain about the extent to which farmers can sequester carbon, organic farming has in fact been shown to have climate benefits. Compared to conventional farming methods, organic farming has lower emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, and is more effective at drawing down and storing climate-warming carbon dioxide in the soil.
The implications of all these policies are clearly manifold. They’re an attempt to support the farmers and ranchers who are so essential to our communities, bring together agriculture and climate solutions, and begin to correct historic inequities. Meanwhile, the court case that has stalled the loan forgiveness program only further disrespects and harms farmers who have already faced the cumulative effects of centuries of racial discrimination. If the program is instead allowed to be implemented, while it wouldn’t nearly make up for all the harm done, it would be a positive step for racial justice and climate progress.