The $900 billion COVID-19 relief package includes $13 billion for agriculture programs. But for Black farmers, there is a long history of discrimination in federal funds distribution and structural barriers that make it more difficult for them to access aid than their white counterparts.

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund is a cooperative association of Black farmers, landowners and cooperatives in the South. Cornelius Blanding is the executive director of the organization. Blanding spoke to “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal about the ways in which systemic racism manifests in Black agriculture. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: For those who are not familiar, give us the 30-second spiel on on your group and and your members.

Cornelius Blanding: We are simply a cooperative association of Black farmers, landowners and cooperatives all around the South. Our primary goals are providing cooperative economic development, land retention and advocacy for our members.

Ryssdal: So how has economic development been going for your members the last, you know, nine months or so as this economy has gone through what it’s gone through?

USDA food box program

Blanding: We’ve been challenged like everybody else in this country, everybody else in this world. We’ve had farmers, we’ve had cooperatives who’ve lost a lot of business because of the pandemic, like many people, but it’s been on top of a number of record years of losses. But with every disaster, there are some opportunities, and so there had been some opportunities to cooperate better. But it’s been a challenge.

Ryssdal: Yeah, I hear you. I want to ask you about one of the aid programs from the Department of Agriculture, the food box program, where the government would, in essence, buy produce from, you know, all farmers, but including your members, and distribute it to families in need. That worked for a while for y’all, but then kind of stopped, right?

Blanding: Yes, the food box program for us, it was a godsend, it was the kind of program that we needed, something that could have been built upon. We’re able to buy food directly from our membership from Black farmers, who otherwise would have lost income. And we were able to supply that food directly to the communities that need it the most. And it was a direct relationship. But then as you know, this program started to change. They started leaning back toward large agriculture, large corporations. And when it started morphing, those farmers started being left out.

Ryssdal: So we did a lot of work on this program in the summer and fall after George Floyd about the systemic racism in this economy. And we talked about, you know, big, big companies, Fortune 500 companies, and we talked about the economics profession and academia. I’m just going to throw out here that my guess would be that there is systemic racism in Black agriculture too.

Heirs property

Blanding: Your guess would be right. There’s a reason that there’s so few Black farmers. In 1910, there were 218,000 Black farmers, and they owned roughly 15 million acres of land. Over the turn of the century, according to the 1992 census, there were only 18,000 black farmers with a little over 2 million acres of land. And so you’re talking about an enormous loss of land, enormous loss of farmers. And so that isn’t by accident. Those are some things where there’s some issues that are in the system. One of the things that we do to combat Black land loss is we deal with this issue called heirs property. It’s the issue that we —

Ryssdal: Sorry, when you say heirs property, you mean as in heirs to a will or heirs to an estate?

Blanding: Exactly, OK, exactly. And traditionally you have these Black land owners who die, and they don’t have a real estate plan, and they leave their property to all of the heirs. That causes a problem of what you call an unsecured title. You have to have a clear title to access resources. You don’t qualify because you might have property that’s in heirs property. Majority of Black landowners are in that status. And instead of trying to fix that problem, many folks have found ways to use debt against Black farmers to force the sale of their land, including some unscrupulous lawyers.

Ryssdal: You probably travel a lot, right?

Blanding: Yeah.

Ryssdal: So when you go out and you talk to your members, and you sit down and you have a cup of coffee or maybe a beer or a drink after work, or whatever it is, do your members and your clients, do they understand these problems and see them? Or are they just too busy working the land to pick their head up and, I guess, think about big picture?

Discrimination in pricing

Blanding: There’s a broad range. There are some who do understand what’s happening to them. There are some who see this in simple black-and-white terms. They know they’re getting less for their crops then their white neighbor down the street is getting for his crops —

Ryssdal: Sorry, say that, say that, say that again — racism and discrimination in pricing because of the race of the farmer.

Blanding: Exactly. So they know that they get a smaller price for their goods than their neighbor down the street. And many times it’s because their neighbor down the street talks with them. They know that. And as a matter of fact, Kai, our organizations is a 54-year-old organization. It was founded by 22 cooperatives. We’ve had co-ops in Mississippi that knew they got less for their collard greens then their neighbor did. So they had to form a cooperative so that they can ship their products to Chicago to get a better price. That’s been a reality for Black farmers for centuries.

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