(Beyond Pesticides, March 12, 2021) The American Rescue Plan, legislation that will provide nearly $2 trillion to help a broad variety of people, state and local governments, and businesses struggling with the huge and myriad impacts of the COVID pandemic, has a number of less-touted features embedded in it. One of those is that $5.2 billion of the bill’s funds will be directed to help disadvantaged farmers, 25% of whom are Black; thus, approximately $1.3 billion will directly support Black farmers. As reported by The Washington Post and other outlets, advocates are calling this “a step toward righting a wrong after a century of mistreatment of Black farmers by the government and others,” and a boon to Black farmers not seen since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bill, passed by the U.S. Senate and House, was signed by President Biden on March 11.
The bill will provide a menu of benefits to Black farmers, including: debt relief; grants and loans to improve land acquisition and address heritable property issues, such as when a farmer dies intestate (without a will) and land assets are to be allotted to legal heirs; financial support for research, and education and training programs; and establishment of a racial equity commission to address systemic racism at the USDA.
Given the urgency of the needs to transition to organic, regenerative agriculture, and to contend with the environmental injustices imposed on communities of color, the ability for Black farmers to thrive and participate fully in these issues is critical. Beyond Pesticides wrote, early in March, “The greatest impediment to entering organic farming is access to land. Since organic farming requires a long-term commitment to avoiding prohibited substances, building soil, and conserving biodiversity, it is difficult to manage on rented land or land farmed on ‘shares.’ Black, Indigenous, and other people of color are especially disadvantaged because of institutionalized racism embodied in U.S. policies, which has either prevented access or has undermined land ownership.” The support for Black farming housed within the American Rescue Plan has the potential to be a good beginning boost to the goals of thriving Black farmland ownership and production, and contributions to a less-toxic agricultural sector.
The nature of the relationships between Black people, and the North American lands on which they have lived during the past four centuries is a study in the impacts of racism and colonialism since European arrival in North America. Black Americans’ ability to farm, especially on land that they themselves own, has been thwarted since the moment of the Emancipation Proclamation, when formerly enslaved people could consider agriculture as a relatively ready step to economic independence (given the farming knowledge and skills most had possessed or been forced to develop and use under slavery). The various kinds of discrimination deployed during the ensuing century and a half, from the post-Reconstruction backlash, to the long period of Jim Crow laws and practices, to current institutional codifications, have made it challenging for Black farmers to own land and to thrive as farmers.
Some metrics will help tell this story. In 1910, one in seven (14.3%) of U.S. farmers was Black. That proportion has dropped since 1910 to a mere 1.3%, or 45,000 of the current 3.4 million U.S. farmers. The average Black-owned farm comprises 100 acres, whereas the average white-owned farm is 440 acres. The average farm income of a full-time white farmer in 2017 was $17,190, while the average full-time Black farmer saw $2,408 in on-farm income. Farmland ownership by African-Americans peaked in the U.S. in 1910 at 16–19 million acres, or 14% of all U.S. agricultural land.
By 2010, 90% of that ownership, and the wealth it represented, was lost — dispossessed, as Beyond Pesticides wrote, “through discriminatory practices at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and various federal programs.” White farmers now own 98% of farmland acres in the country. The 12 million acres of Black-owned farmland lost between 1910 and 2010 represent a devastating erosion of the economic well-being of Black families and communities. Agricultural experts and Black farming advocates assert that this loss, much of which has occurred since the 1950s, is the result of “a combination of systemic racism, biased government policy, and social and business practices that have denied African Americans equitable access to markets.”
The historic and current damage and threats to Black farmers have garnered increasing attention in recent years. Advocates, members of the public, and some Democrats have called more vigorously for compensation of various sorts — some termed “reparations” — to African Americans for the ongoing impacts of slavery, discrimination, and segregation. This conversation has increasingly extended to the plight of Black farming and land ownership.
Beyond Pesticides recently covered two legislative initiatives that seek diversity and equity in agricultural policy: (1) Senator Cory Booker’s Justice for Black Farmers Act (co-sponsored by Senators Warren, Leahy, Warnock, Gillibrand, and Smith), which addresses the history of USDA injustice and discrimination toward Black farmers; and (2) Senator Raphael Warnock’s Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, which would provide $5 billion to farmers of color. Across the bills, obstacles to Black farmer success are addressed through aspects of the legislation:
- issues of debt: through debt forgiveness
- technical and business skills gaps: via training programs at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities)
- discrimination at USDA and its FSA (Farm Service Agency): via a civil rights oversight body, and funding for programs at USDA to “root out systemic racism, provide technical and legal assistance to agricultural communities of color, and fund under-resourced programs that will shape the future for farmers and communities of color”
- impacts of the pandemic: via direct relief payments
- loss of, or lack of access to, farmland: through land grants
Such iitiatives hope to redress some of the historic deprivations Black farm families have endured. Reporting by The Atlantic, “The Great Land Robbery,” for example, covers the dispossession of a million black families from their Mississippi Delta farms. A large portion of acreage that used to be farmed by African Americans is now in control of large corporate entities, such as TIAA (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association). These huge tracts host industrial farming operations typical of conventional agribusiness: e.g., they use genetically engineered seeds and their accompanying herbicides, laser-guided tractors, pesticide-dusting drones, and intensive chemical fertilizer inputs. Corporate investors across the country have bought up hundreds of thousands of prime agricultural acres in the Delta. A few examples include Hancock Agricultural Investment Group, which owns and manages more than 65,000 acres; the real-estate trust Farmland Partners, owner of 30,000 acres; and AgriVest, a subsidiary of the Swiss bank UBS, which owned 22,000 acres as of 2011. “Fewer and fewer farms are still owned by actual farmers,” the magazine writes.
Among the impacts on Black majority communities in some Delta counties is that, “unlike their counterparts even two or three generations ago, Black people living and working in the Delta today have been almost completely uprooted from the soil — as property owners, if not as laborers.” African Americans in counties with 70–80% Black populations now commonly own only 6–20% of the farmland. TIAA is a minor part of the story, but The Atlantic maintains that “the company’s newfound dominance in the region is merely the topsoil covering a history of loss and legally sanctioned theft in which TIAA played no part. But TIAA’s position is instrumental in understanding both how the crimes of Jim Crow have been laundered by time and how the legacy of ill-gotten gains has become a structural part of American life.”
The Great Migration northward (from roughly 1916 through 1970) no doubt added to the attrition of Black farming in the South, especially. But more consequentially, half a million Black-owned farms across the country failed between 1950 and 1975. Civil rights and environmental justice advocates have noted that USDA owns some of the blame for the steep losses in farmland ownership by, and generational wealth in, Black families. The set-up for such massive losses happened, in part, with the creation of the FSA in the late 1930s. Established ostensibly to help small farmers, in reality, white FSA employees “often ignored or targeted poor black people — denying them loans and giving sharecropping work to white people.” In 1961, President Kennedy created the ASCS (Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service that provided farm loans; however, program funds were distributed by local elected officials during a period when suppression of Black votes was rampant.
Through these federal programs, and those such as the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), USDA “became the safety net, price-setter, chief investor, and sole regulator for most of the farm economy.” Loans made from these programs accelerated the trend of large farms becoming even larger, industrial “crop factories” — while small farms collapsed. These large concerns held undue sway over federal agricultural policy and funding, directed unsurprisingly to those entities themselves. Critically, “at every level of [agricultural] government, the leaders were white.”
The Atlantic writes, “Major audits and investigations of the USDA have found that illegal pressures levied through its loan programs created massive transfers of wealth from black to white farmers, especially in the period just after the 1950s. In 1965, the United States Commission on Civil Rights uncovered blatant and dramatic racial differences in the level of federal investment in farmers. The commission found that in a sample of counties across the South, the FmHA provided much larger loans for small and medium-size white-owned farms, relative to net worth, than it did for similarly sized black-owned farms — evidence that racial discrimination ‘has served to accelerate the displacement and impoverishment of the Negro [sic] farmer.’”
Historic Black land loss, unlike losses for white farmers, happened largely via “illegal pressures, including discrimination in federal and state programs, swindles by lawyers and speculators, unlawful denials of private loans, and even outright acts of violence or intimidation. Discriminatory loan servicing and loan denial by white-controlled FmHA and ASCS committees forced black farmers into foreclosure, after which their property could be purchased by wealthy landowners, almost all of whom were white. Discrimination by private lenders had the same result. Many black farmers who escaped foreclosure were defrauded by white tax assessors who set assessments too high, leading to unaffordable tax obligations. The inevitable result: tax sales, where, again, the land was purchased by wealthy white people. Black people’s lack of access to legal services complicated inheritances and put family claims to title in jeopardy. Lynchings, police brutality, and other forms of intimidation were sometimes used to dispossess black farmers. . . . Through a variety of means — sometimes legal, often coercive, in many cases legal and coercive, occasionally violent — farmland owned by Black people came into the hands of white people.”
The article summarizes: “Thousands of individual decisions by white people, enabled or motivated by greed, racism, existing laws, and market forces, all pushed in a single direction.” A relatively unknown feature in the history of African American farming in the U.S. — and an example of determined resourcefulness in the face of those thousands of decisions — is the brief heyday of Black farming cooperatives, from the latter 1950s through the 1970s — one of the outgrowths of the Civil Rights movement. These cooperatives helped develop the kinds of trusted local relationships on which successful rural farming enterprises depend. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC), an umbrella cooperative organization “housing,” at one point, 130 different local co-ops, provided a “comprehensive range of services for rural community development, including help for farmers to secure their ownership of land and operating independence. The scope of FSC programs [included] training, consulting, and research, as well as capital for land and business project development.”
Even now, USDA’s “Section 2501” program, Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers — the only Farm Bill program specifically addressing needs of these underserved populations in agriculture — was negatively impacted by an administrative USDA decision. Beyond Pesticides covered this earlier in 2021: USDA “redirected $2 million of this funding . . . to a separate, administratively created initiative. USDA’s new Centers for Community Prosperity initiative seeks to address economic development in persistent poverty communities, with a focus on faith-based initiatives.” Beyond Pesticides has advocated that Congress ensure that funds earmarked for this program in the late-2020 COVID-relief bill actually remain in the program.
The American Rescue Plan may signal a monumental shift in the role of government for Black farmers (and many others). Historian Heather Cox Richardson commented, on the day of the bill’s final passage in the House of Representatives: “The bill . . . is a landmark piece of legislation, reversing the trend of American government since Ronald Reagan’s 1981 tax cut. Rather than funneling money upward in the belief that those at the top will invest in the economy and thus create jobs for poorer Americans, the Democrats are returning to the idea that using the government to put money into the hands of ordinary Americans will rebuild the economy from the bottom up. This was the argument for the very first expansion of the American government — during Abraham Lincoln’s administration — and it was the belief on which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the New Deal. Unlike the previous implementations of this theory, though, Biden’s version, embodied in the American Rescue Plan, does not privilege white men (who in Lincoln and Roosevelt’s day were presumed to be family breadwinners). It moves money to low-wage earners generally, especially to women and to people of color.”
Paul Waldman, writing in The Washington Post, notes that the “American Rescue Plan . . . has gotten a large amount of press coverage, especially the $1,400 checks that will be going to most Americans. But if anything, we’ve underplayed how significant this bill is. . . . [It] would benefit ‘Black farmers in a way that some experts say no legislation has since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.’”
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack acknowledged the plight of Black and other “socially disadvantaged” farmers in a March 6 statement, in which he said, “For generations, socially disadvantaged farmers have struggled to fully succeed due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt.” In another statement, issued shortly after House passage of the bill, Secretary Vilsack said, “The American Rescue Plan provides historic debt relief to Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, and other farmers of color who for generations have struggled to fully succeed due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt. We cannot ignore the pain and suffering that this pandemic has wrought in communities of color. The American Rescue Plan answers that call to action.”
Response to the bill from Black Americans in or near the agricultural sector might be described as cautious and somewhat optimistic. Tracy Lloyd McCurty, executive director of the Black Belt Justice Center (which provides legal representation to Black farmers), has commented, “This is the most significant piece of legislation with respect to the arc of Black land ownership in this country. . . . [The bill is] reparations, but it’s more than that. It is historic. When Black farmers did acquire land through our own grit and determination, the USDA did what they could to erode those gains. Once again, Black farmers, because of their dedication to organizing, have created liberation for farmers of color. Our farmers are due a field of flowers, not a bouquet, for the sorrow they’ve carried.”
Others insist that, though a good step, the $1.3B in the American Rescue Plan hardly constitutes “reparations” because it represents, optimistically, 2% of lost wealth. Professor of public policy at Duke University and an expert on reparations, William Darity, comments: “The best estimates I have seen of the economic loss to Black farmers due to USDA policies and overall processes of land appropriation by Whites has been between $250 and $350 billion. This is approximately 10 percent of total Black wealth in the U.S., about $2.5 trillion. The notion that this approaches a program of reparations is nonsense. Reparations for Black American descendants of slavery must be designed to eliminate the gulf in Black and White wealth.”
Lloyd Wright, former director of the USDA Office of Civil Rights in the Clinton and Obama administrations, noted that this bill might be the most significant for Black farmers in more than 50 years, but also warned that how the law and funds are administered will be telling. He commented, “Hopefully the money won’t go to conducting studies — Black farmers have been studied to death. . . . [The bill] looks like plain English: We’re going to forgive the debt for people of color. But for people who don’t want to do it? They will try to figure out how not to do it. If they really forgive the debt with this bill, it’s the greatest thing ever.”
Fourth-generation Black Virginia farmer John Boyd, Jr. is president of the nonprofit National Black Farmers Association. He noted that the lack of (almost exclusively Republican) legislator support for the bill was a “sickening realization,” adding: “It shows how disconnected half the Senate is from Black farmers. I’ve been trying to get this relief for 30 years. Now we have to make sure Secretary Vilsack defines it in the same way it was intended, with outreach and technical assistance for Black farmers included. We as a group are going to have to get reintroduced to the USDA.”
Beyond Pesticides wrote, in December 2020, that Mr. Vilsack’s “record on racial justice has been criticized by the National Black Food and Justice Alliance (NBFJA), National Black Farmers Association, USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, and others.” In advocating for leadership at USDA that would advance the transition to organic agriculture, Beyond Pesticides advocated for consideration of “organic and regenerative farmers and ranchers who, because of historic discrimination, have never been offered political appointments, but have proven themselves as leaders, includ[ing] John Boyd, Karen Washington, co-founder of Black Urban Growers, and Winona LaDuke, founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project.”
Instead, Tom Vilsack was (again) nominated and confirmed as Secretary of Agriculture; he served in the same role for the entirety of the Obama administration. Beyond Pesticides has weighed in on what the new Secretary must do at USDA to enact meaningful and foundational changes to our social, economic, and environmental norms.
Nevertheless, Beyond Pesticides celebrates the passage of the American Rescue Plan for (among other reasons) its supports directed to the Black farming community, and welcomes Secretary Vilsack’s recent comments on those features. We will, of course, continue to monitor how the law, once signed and enacted, plays out on the ground for Black farmers, environmental justice, and the advancement of the transition to organic approaches to all land management.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.