Groups representing black farmers particularly hope that Biden’s Agriculture Department will keep its election promises. Some have rejected Biden’s election for Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who oversaw the USDA during the Obama administration, because of his civil rights record. But Vilsack met with nearly a dozen community-based groups earlier this month to convey the new government’s “commitment to fairness and justice for black farmers,” according to a statement from the Biden-Harris transition team.
Vilsack’s commitment to a diverse leadership team cleared some of the tension.
“We are very confident that President-elect Biden is genuinely fair and well represented,” said John Ella Holmes, executive director of the Kansas Black Farmers Association, which was part of the group that met with Vilsack. “We urgently need that. Our farmers are fighting. “
The government’s promise to focus on black farmers comes with renewed attention from Congress. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey plans to reinstate the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which will, among other things, fund farming programs at historically black colleges and universities. It would also create new training programs, land grants, and a civil rights regulator at USDA to investigate reports of discrimination both within the department and on the Farm Service Agency committees.
In the house, the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, David Scott (D-Ga.) hold the first full hearing of the committee on the status of the black farmers.
In 1920 there were nearly 1 million black farmers in the United States; today there are fewer than 50,000, Booker said in an interview. He estimates that an estimated 20 million acres of farmland have been stripped from black farmers across the country.
Black farmers owned 14 percent of all farms in 1920. Today they own 1.6 percent of all farms, according to the US Agriculture Census.
“The loss of these million acres of land was the result of well-documented systemic racism and discrimination against black farmers within the USDA, with the bulk of the land loss occurring since 1950,” Booker said. “It is time to address this structural discrimination and directly combat systemic racism within the USDA and reverse the loss of land by black farmers.”
Booker’s bill would also include a moratorium on foreclosures on civil rights investigations, create a federal government-chartered bank to provide loans and financial assistance to black farmers, and cancel USDA debt for those who filed claims under the 1999 milestone Pigford v. Glickman Black farmers class action lawsuit filed against USDA.
While Booker’s bill is unlikely to change if Republicans retain control of the Senate, he said he is looking for other ways to achieve his goals, possibly by adding some of his language to a potential agriculture bill. He also plans to work with the USDA and Biden administrations.
Proponents also hope that the USDA will look into the Booker bill for ideas on what to do.
“Even if the bill is not passed under a new administration, much of what is on the bill can be implemented within the USDA. Even if it is not passed, I hope it will move forward in other ways,” said Jillian Hishaw , the introduction of Family Agriculture Resource Management Services to serve farmers from historically disadvantaged groups in southeastern states.
A history of discrimination
Hishaw and others said the administration and Congress needed to make up for the shortcomings of previous settlements with black farmers.
The Pigford lawsuit, which was originally settled in 1999, left out some farmers who missed the deadline for filing claims, canceled farmers’ debts or addressed the USDA’s discriminatory structure, said Tracy McCurty, executive director of the Black Belt Justice Center.
In 2010 the government and farmers reached a second agreement. The total damage amounted to more than 2.3 billion US dollars.
“When people talk about the Pigford lawsuit, they often describe it as a win,” said McCurty. “But what they won’t say is that the lawsuit didn’t address the critical problem of debt. When farmers organized for this lawsuit, they wanted debt relief. [their] Land back, access to land, tax breaks and dismantling that culture of discrimination at USDA. “
For some farmers, the compensation payments were insufficient to cover legal fees, compensate for missed loans, or recover from lost operations, proponents say.
The changes that advocates of black farmers are seeking are not limited to just financial compensation. They also want reforms in the way the USDA manages its aid programs and better representation of color farmers in decision-making.
Proponents say the USDA Farm Services Committees, made up of local farmers and ranchers voted on by their peers, have often left black farmers out of committee positions, loan programs, and contacts. This contributed to dramatic declines in black-owned farmland in states like North Carolina, where black farmer acreage fell from more than a million in 1954 to 558,000 in 1969 and 133,000 in 2007, according to the North Carolina Land Loss Prevention Project.
“What interests me, and is very, very worrying, is that the civil rights era in North Carolina saw a decline in numbers,” said Savi Horne, the project’s executive director.
Data collected by groups like the Land Loss Prevention Project is more consistent over time than the USDA’s agricultural census, which changed the number of black farmers multiple times over time – including those considered “not white” .
Horne said her data shows the number of black farmers in North Carolina declined 57 percent from 1954 to 1969, with the number falling from 22,625 to 9,687. Over the same period, the number of farms run by white farmers fell from 201,819 to 106,275 – a 47 percent decrease.
“Part of that is the market economy, but part of that is the county committees, racism and all the evils Pigford has complained about,” Horne said. “From our perspective of how much arable land there is on the ground, there is more to complain about about the inner workings of the district committees and the racism that has kept farmers from accessing loans and programs.”
Hope for change in a new administration
When meeting groups representing black farmers on December 22nd, Vilsack reaffirmed his commitment to addressing their concerns.
The hour-long virtual meeting, led by Cornelius Blanding, Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives / Land Assistance Fund, focused on where USDA needs improvement. Blanding pointed to the importance of having a much more diverse leadership team working with Vilsack at USDA.
Holmes of the Kansas Black Farmers Association called the discussion “promising”.
“We know we’ve been heard,” she said.
Helena Bottemiller Evich contributed to this report.