Black Farmers Have Long Faced Discrimination. New Aid Aims To Right Past Wrongs

Mar 13, 2021
Originally published on March 13, 2021 3:34 pm

Tucked into President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law are provisions meant to help Black farmers, who have faced generations of systemic discrimination.

As part of the American Rescue Plan, $4 billion is going toward debt relief for "socially disadvantaged" farmers to pay off debts that have prevented their farms from growing, the Department of Agriculture said. Another $1.01 billion is being used to create a racial equity commission.

Socially disadvantaged farmers are a group that includes African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and Native Americans.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the plan is an "acknowledgement that acts of discrimination took place. And that you not only have the specific result of the act, but that there is a cumulative effect of being discriminated against that grows over time. And in order for us to have an equitable and a fair USDA, it's necessary for us to address that gap."

Over a century, official and unofficial policies and practices have decimated the number of Black farmers and the amount of land they farm.

Despite plenty of Black people wanting to farm after the end of slavery, white people worked to prevent them from owning land. Black farmers could be pushed off their lands by force or through tax fraud. Banks were unwilling to lend and farm equipment sellers wouldn't sell to Black farmers.

Local offices with the Department of Agriculture would also deny or delay loans to Black farmers, documented in a series of government reports starting in the 1960s.

In 1920, Black-run farms were about 14% of the total in the U.S. Today, Black farmers are less than 2% of all farmers. Their farms also tend to be smaller in size. As of 2017, Black-operated farms made up 0.5% of the total farmland in the U.S.

Previous to the American Rescue Plan, the last big payout to Black farmers only came after a class action lawsuit that began in 1990s.

Vilsack, who was previously agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, talked with Michel Martin on All Things Considered about the debt relief plan, how to increase diversity in farming, and how farmers could help fight climate change. Here are excerpts of the interview:

Why this approach? What informed it?

I think there are two basic reasons for the importance of this and the necessity of it in the American Rescue Plan. First, the fact is that there was discrimination in the '70s and '80s and into the '90s at USDA that made it very difficult for socially disadvantaged producers to access fully and completely the programs at USDA. And the result, of course, is that over a period of time, they get further and further behind.

And the reason being is many of the programs at USDA are designed to benefit those who produce. And if your loan wasn't granted on time, if your interest rate was higher, if you didn't get a loan, then you couldn't necessarily keep up with your neighbor in terms of production. You weren't able to buy the newest equipment. You weren't able to get the best seed. You weren't able to buy the farm next to you to be able to expand your operation. So over a period of time, a system that basically rewards production created a gap between those who were advantaged and those who were socially disadvantaged.

Would you wish that this program would affect the number of Black farmers in some way, or do you think that it's just too big of a matter to be addressed by any program?

I would certainly hope that we would see an increase in Black farmers. I think we want to see an increase in farmers overall. We've seen an increase, frankly, in women farmers, white women farmers. ... We want younger farmers. We want beginning farmers. We want returning veterans seeing the opportunity. We want people of color. We want a great diversity in American agriculture.

We don't necessarily want only large-scale agriculture. We want the opportunity for local and regional systems, smaller and mid-sized farming operations to be successful.

Here's a statistic that is also troublesome, which suggests that we do need to look holistically at this, and that is that 89.6% of American farms today, the income from those farms is not the majority of the money made by the farmers. In other words, farmers have to have ... other income, which represents a majority of what they make for a living. It doesn't come from farming. So I think that statistic suggests that we have to look at ways to create better markets and newer markets and deeper markets. We want diversity and we want diversity across the board.

And by diversity, you mean what?

It's diversity of producers. It's diversity of size. It's diversity of methods of production. It's diversity of crops being produced. It's across the board. And a diversity of income opportunities.

In the current state, take the Midwest, for example ... it's pretty much corn, beans, hogs and some cattle. So you've got basically three or four opportunities to benefit. We got the renewable fuel industry, which created a new potential opportunity for farmers to benefit from processing of their crops.

But could we possibly create a new revenue stream to pay farmers to sequester carbon? Could we pay them and encourage climate-smart agricultural practices that would result in cover crops and crop diversity and crop rotations that would be different? So instead of only getting what they get for their corn and soybeans, they get a carbon payment.

So it's a new, exciting opportunity that creates a chance for there to be more income, a better rural economy. And if we can do this in an equitable way so that we have greater diversity, maybe we can reverse the aging nature of American farmers today and maybe we can enjoy farms of all size and see a repopulated, reenergized rural area.

Jeffrey Pierre and Natalie Winston produced and edited the audio interview.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to dig into that $1.9 trillion relief package President Biden signed into law earlier this week. Now, you've probably heard about the direct aid many Americans will receive and the expanded child tax credit. But what you might not have heard much about are provisions that have to do with America's farmers, specifically farmers who are Black, Hispanic or Native American. Four billion dollars in debt relief has been allocated for farmers of color in this latest package.

In a statement, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, quote, "for generations, socially disadvantaged farmers have struggled to fully succeed due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt," unquote. And he noted that these farmers are also experiencing the COVID-related burdens of disproportionate infection rates, hospitalizations, death and economic hurt.

For more on this, we're joined now by Secretary Vilsack. He was just recently confirmed, again. He also led the department under President Obama. Secretary Vilsack, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

TOM VILSACK: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the provisions for minority farmers. I mean, you've proposed wiping out several billion dollars in debts of Black, Hispanic and Native farmers. I understand that there's also a substantial amount for technical assistance, for example, like an equity commission to evaluate the USDA's practices. So why this approach? What informed it?

VILSACK: Well, I think there are two basic reasons for the importance of this and the necessity of it in the American Rescue Plan. First, the fact is that there was discrimination in the '70s and '80s and into the '90s at USDA that made it very difficult for socially disadvantaged producers to access fully and completely the programs at USDA. And the result, of course, is that over a period of time, they get further and further behind. And the reason being is that many of the programs at USDA are designed to benefit those who produce.

And if your loan wasn't granted on time, if your interest rate was higher, if you didn't get a loan, then you couldn't necessarily keep up with your neighbor in terms of production. You weren't able to buy the newest equipment. You weren't able to get the best seed. You weren't able to buy the farm next to you to be able to expand your operation. So over a period of time, a system that basically rewards production created a gap between those who were advantaged and those who were socially disadvantaged.

MARTIN: So some of the legislators who support this approach, like Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, have said these provisions are meant to respond to, you know, decades of - if perhaps not even longer but let's just say decades of discrimination that, particularly, the descendants of enslaved people face. So do you see this as a form of reparations? I mean, and, of course, you are aware that Republican critics of this program are also calling it reparations, which is how they're vilifying it. I mean, do you see it as reparations?

VILSACK: What I see - it is a acknowledgement that acts of discrimination took place and that you not only have the specific result of the act but that there is a cumulative effect of being discriminated against that grows over time. And in order for us to have an equitable and a fair USDA, it's necessary for us to address that gap.

MARTIN: And that then would of course - one of your critics, Austin Scott, who's a Republican of Georgia, issued a statement asking why women aren't included.

VILSACK: Well, the reality is that women will be included to the extent that they fall within the Hispanic, Black, Native American definition of socially disadvantaged. The reality is that many white women who are farmers are basically farmers with their husbands. Those farmers - again, many of them have already received significant benefits under the existing structure.

For example, with the COVID relief resources that were provided prior to President Biden being elected, 60% of those resources went to the top 10% of American farms. My guess is I believe it's fair to say that the vast majority of those farmers who received the benefits, 60% of the benefits were white. And that's - you know, that's the problem because the lower 10% received less than 1% of the payments. And my guess is I believe I'm probably right about this. The majority of those people were socially disadvantaged people of color. And so this COVID relief - it was designed, obviously, to provide help and assistance to those who produce and who had significant losses. Totally understand that. But it was structured in a way that it continues to exacerbate the gap that has existed for some time.

MARTIN: Well, you know, you're at the - sort of at a pivot point here where you are saying that systemic issues are going to be addressed, systemically. This is a big change. I mean, as you just pointed out, you know, this isn't the first time farmers have received aid in a relief bill. But in the past, it's just as you described to us. The aid's been distributed based on production. So the bigger the farm, the greater the aid.

I'm just wondering - how are you going to explain to farmers who are used to being advantaged under this system, you know? How do you explain to them why this is the right thing to do? Farmers are known to have, particularly within, you know, certain states, you know, a lot of political influence. And I'm just - and by definition, what you're saying is you're kind of rebalancing the scales here for people who haven't been so advantaged in the past. I'm just interested in how you have this conversation with people who are used to the system working for them and seeing that there are some changes happening here?

VILSACK: Well, I think the first part of that conversation needs to be to make sure that folks understand and appreciate that because of prior acts of discrimination, farmers of color in particular were put in a position where they were disadvantaged in a system that basically is based on production. And I think people understand that. And then I think the equity commission that we're putting in place is going to ask the tough questions.

In the past, it's been easier when you're compensating people for specific acts of discrimination. That's sort of a one-off kind of conversation. Here, what you're talking about is - how do we impact and change the system? Do we change it dramatically so that folks who are currently benefiting under the system will stop benefiting? I doubt that that's the case. I think we have to figure out a creative way to close this gap in a way that people will understand and accept.

MARTIN: You know, a century ago, there were almost a million Black farmers in the United States. And, today, it's estimated at - what? - maybe 40,000, 50,000 at most. Would you wish that this program would affect that number in some way? Or do you think that it's just too big of a matter to be addressed by any program?

VILSACK: Well, I would certainly hope that we would see an increase in Black farmers. I think we want to see an increase in farmers, overall. We've seen an increase, frankly, in women farmers, white women farmers. We've seen those numbers increase over time. I would hope that we would see continued increase. We want younger farmers. We want beginning farmers. We want returning veterans seeing the opportunity. We want people of color. We wanted great diversity in American agriculture. We don't necessarily want only large-scale agriculture. We want the opportunity for local and regional systems, smaller and mid-sized farming operations to be successful.

Here's a statistic that is also troublesome, which suggests that we do need to look holistically at this. And that is that 89.6% of American farms today - the income from those farms is not the majority of the money made by the farmers. In other words, farmers have to have - and 89.6% of farms in America today - other income, which represents a majority of what they make for a living. It doesn't come from farming. So I think that statistic suggests that we have to look at ways to create better markets and newer markets and deeper markets. We want diversity, and we want diversity across the board. We think that's a healthier system.

MARTIN: And by diversity, you mean what? Diversity of producers?

VILSACK: Everything.

MARTIN: Diversity of product? What did you mean by that?

VILSACK: It's diversity of producers. It's diversity of size. It's diversity of methods of production. It's diversity of crops being produced. It's across the board and a diversity of income opportunities. In the current state - take the Midwest, for example. In the current state in the Midwest, it's pretty much corn, beans, hogs and some cattle. So you've got basically three or four opportunities to benefit. We got the renewable fuel industry, which created a new potential opportunity for farmers to benefit from processing of their crops. But could we possibly create a new revenue stream to pay farmers to sequester carbon? Could we pay them and encourage climate-smart agricultural practices that would result in cover crops and crop diversity and crop rotations that would be different?

So instead of only getting what they get for their corn and soybeans, they get a carbon payment. So it's a new, exciting opportunity that creates a chance for there to be more income, a better rural economy. And if we can do this in an equitable way so that we have greater diversity, maybe we can reverse the aging nature of American farmers today, and maybe we can enjoy farms of all size and see a repopulated, reenergized rural area.

MARTIN: That was Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Mr. Vilsack, thank you so much for joining us. I do hope we'll talk again.

VILSACK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.