Black farmers say congressional work has only just begun | Main edition


Black farmers are entering their most promising moment of policy change in a generation, but several told lawmakers last week that there was still a lot of work to catch up for white farmers.

“Too many black farmers have died with their cry for help fallen on deaf ears,” PJ Haynie, a Virginia grain farmer, told the United States House Agriculture Committee. United at a hearing on March 25.

Haynie and her colleagues may have finally found a time when politicians are ready to both listen and act.

The Agricultural Committee is chaired by its first black president, Georgia Representative David Scott.

Agricultural secretary Tom Vilsack made racial justice a top priority – although after activists said he had not done enough on this front during the Obama administration.

And most importantly, the recently past American rescue plan gives USDA $ 5 billion to spend on improving the domain of black farmers and other socially disadvantaged farmers.

Some $ 4 billion of that money will be used to forgive loans from black farmers, with the remainder going towards technical assistance, outreach, and a commission to examine the USDA for vestiges of racism.

John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, speaks March 25 during a House Agriculture Committee hearing.

Vilsack has estimated that 13,000 to 15,000 loans could be canceled following the resuscitation of the pandemic, which took effect on March 11.

The USDA has resolved specific cases of discrimination, including the Pigford v. Glickman, which debuted in the 1990s.

But the US bailout is designed to tackle the long-term effects of discrimination.

The aid is a reversal of fortune for black farmers, who for years have struggled to grow and stay in business due to unfair lending practices that have denied them USDA funding.

“The result of decades of discrimination is that black farms are smaller and our income is lower than our white neighbors,” said John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association. “As a result, eligible black farmers are receiving less USDA support and falling further and further behind.”

White farmers received $ 5.6 billion from last year’s coronavirus food aid program, while black farmers only received $ 20 million, Vilsack said.

Whites reached a larger scale by leaving farming more slowly than black farmers.

Since 1920, the number of white farmers has declined by 40%, but the number of black farmers has fallen by 95%.

It was not for nothing that Boyd said, “We are threatened with extinction.”

Scars of the recent past

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And while it started a long time ago, the discrimination black farmers described at the hearing is also newer than many Americans would like to imagine.

Boyd said he was treated rudely when he applied for loans from the predecessor to the Farm Service Agency in the 1980s.

“I was called ‘boy’. I was spat on. My loan applications many times were torn up and thrown in the trash while I was watching, ”said Boyd, of Baskerville, Va.

In the 1990s, Haynie said, he went to his county office only to ask a USDA official to wave a pistol at him and discourage him from getting into farming.

“The discrimination of the USDA has caused many young black people not to want to be part of their family’s farms,” said Haynie, president of the National Black Growers Council.

Many black farmers are also held back by murky land ownership situations caused by the passing of plots without a will.

Called heir ownership, this problem prevents farmers from accessing USDA programs and is one of the main reasons black people lose their land, said Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.

The 2018 Farm Bill included a program to help address heir ownership issues, but it has yet to be implemented, Blanding said.

Potential solutions

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With $ 5 billion and an equity mandate from the president, Vilsack aims to reshape the agency that black farmers dubbed the last plantation.

For Oklahoma farmer Arnetta Cotton, the first step is to promote USDA programs with the help of organizations that farmers already trust.

“Please help us stay grounded in spreading this information,” said Cotton, who runs an agricultural community development group with her husband.

Vilsack liked the idea and said he intended to work with local groups and extension systems to do the awareness funded in the US bailout.

“We need to restore confidence in the countryside,” he said.

Republicans have been both receptive and skeptical of Vilsack’s plan.

Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., Said the audience’s focus on the struggles of black farmers seemed too narrow given that farmers of all races are struggling.

“It’s hard for me to tell (my constituents) that there is help on the way, but only if you have a certain skin color. And it appears to be discrimination in and of itself, ”DesJarlais said.

Beyond the racial justice component, the US bailout includes $ 4 billion in programs that will benefit farmers of all types.

This funding will go to commodity purchases, support to agricultural markets and small-scale food processors, and efforts to strengthen the resilience of the food supply chain.

In addition, the Supreme Court has ruled that the government can take race-based measures that are narrowly tailored to address the effects of discrimination, said Representative Alma Adams, DN.C.

Senior Republican on the committee, Pennsylvania Rep. Glenn Thompson, said the loan forgiveness could help in the short term, but it does not address the reasons racist loan officers have been allowed to keep their jobs.

“Their time has passed,” he said.

Thompson voted against the US bailout, which he said contained too much spending that was unrelated to the pandemic. Indeed, no Republican voted for the $ 1.9 trillion package.

Yet Thompson agreed with the larger goal of eradicating discrimination.

“If we are serious about achieving this vision that I think we share of restoring a robust rural economy, it means we have to uplift everyone, and we can’t leave anyone behind,” he said.

Scott, the chairman, chose to focus on the common ground between the parties.

“We have done God’s work here today, Republicans and Democrats together,” he said, sounding one of many religious references during the hearing.

Scott said he intends to craft more laws that will increase the number of black farmers, the acreage they own and the market share they capture.

Perhaps to nod to the GOP’s feeling of being left out of drafting the US bailout, Scott said the new proposal would be worked out in concert with Republicans.

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