Black farmers across the South call Cornelius Blanding every day to ask when the money might arrive from the US Department of Agriculture. Updates do not come in any other way.
Blanding and his staff at the Southern Cooperative Federation are doing their best to keep abreast of a federal debt relief program that should have started paying farmers in June. They make calls and answer questions with limited information from the USDA, knowing only that a small percentage of black farmers and an even smaller percentage of cooperative members are eligible.
The $ 4 billion debt relief has been dubbed a reparations package to correct long-standing USDA discrimination against black farmers, but implementation of the payments has been delayed due to lawsuits brought by white farmers left out. of this loan forgiveness program. Designed to support all farmers of color, actually more Native American farmers than Black farmers could benefit from the program.
“This is not a problem for black farmers, it is a problem for black farmers. It has been wrongly framed as black against white, ”said Blanding, the federation’s executive director.
Of the 20,200 farmers eligible for the program, nearly half, about 9,950, are Native American. According to the last agricultural census, in 2017, 79,198 producers identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, compared to 48,697 who identified as black, representing 2.3% and 1.4%, respectively, of the 3.4 million producers in the country.
While leaders in the Native American farming community think those numbers are accurate, many black leaders say they are too high. Lloyd Wright, former USDA director of civil rights, estimates there are more than 38,000 black farmers.
Many black farmers stopped trying to get money from the USDA at least a generation ago due to the rampant discrimination they faced, which has led to the loss of 90% of black farmland over the last century. Today, far fewer than 10% of the nation’s black farmers, according to the Wright or USDA estimate, or just 3,337 black farmers are eligible for this debt forgiveness, according to the Washington DC Agricultural Services Agency (FSA). , the loan arm of the USDA.
“If you don’t have loans,” Wright said, “you can’t get debt relief.”
In March, $ 5 billion was allocated for the Farmers of Color Emergency Aid Act: $ 4 billion for USDA loan debt forgiveness and $ 1 billion for outreach, scheduling, and financial support for research and education in historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) and lands. subsidize universities.
Thirteen lawsuits filed in 10 states and three nationwide court orders alleging discrimination against white farmers are delaying unprecedented debt forgiveness for Black, Hispanic, Native American, Alaska Native, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native American farmers. Hawaii. Only four borrowers received checks before payments were stopped in June in response to a lawsuit filed in Wisconsin.
Colby Duren, policy director for the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC), said that when USDA was created in 1862, it was based on the idea of tribal community ownership and inheritance and expropriations. “Many tribal producers, as well as African American producers, were not seen as original stakeholders in the department. Now we have to take advantage of these programs that were never planned for tribal peoples to be part of. “
The IAC is a non-profit organization that advocates for the preservation of indigenous land and the well-being of its producers. “We view this as the debt relief that Congress provided to support socially disadvantaged producers, many of whom did not have access to many of the rounds of relief that other producers received,” Duren said. White farmers received 97% of Covid’s $ 9.2 billion in federal farm bailouts last year. “We want to make sure that tribal and all Bipoc voices are involved in this to get the help they need.”
The IAC has been in discussions with other organizations representing farmers of color, including Blanding’s.
“We need to have a unified voice in the future as we weather this perfect storm of drought, flood and Covid. We need relief for everyone to keep as many producers in business as possible. We should have a unified front that includes all producers, ”said IAC Executive Director Kari Jo Lawrence.
Like black farmers, Native American farmers have stories of blatant abuse at FSA offices. Lawrence recalls one: “One of the council founders was working with people who would go to the FSA office, they sat down and told them they would help them, so they waited only for the FSA staff member to return to the office. at the end of the day and say ‘We’re closed.’
Both black and Native American farmers have settled multi-million dollar class action lawsuits against the USDA alleging that they were denied farm loans due to discrimination. While the cases were triumphs in terms of the USDA admitting decades of bias, most of the plaintiffs received no direct payments and far fewer received debt relief.
One notable difference between the groups is that nearly three times as many Native American farmers have outstanding FSA loans than black farmers. More indigenous farmers have continued to apply for them, while many black farmers have given up. “Basically, there are no other options. Private credit does not want to serve the Indian country. Sometimes people have to keep knocking on the door because they are the only one who receives an answer, ”said Duren.
“You can’t call this the great rescue of black farmers when hardly any of them will get anything. Even if they did, it’s not what was sold. But we probably won’t even get it, ”Wright said. “They could have done it in a few weeks. They knew that some angry people were trying to stop him. I think we’ll get debt relief around the same time we get the 40 acres and a mule, ”referring to the government’s unfulfilled promise to give black citizens land to farm and an animal to help plow it towards the end of the year. civil war. . Black farmers were able to express the impact of the department’s long-standing racism to the House agriculture committee for the first time just five months ago.
“Many of us call [the USDA] the last plantation, ”said Wright, who worked for the agency for 37 years. “After having worked there for many years, that is what it is. It doesn’t change much from one administration to another. So when you give them a job to do and give us someone like Vilsack to implement it, it shouldn’t surprise people when it’s not happening. “
Wright grows soybeans on 100 acres in Northern Virginia and is on the board of the Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Research Center at Alcorn State University, the oldest historically black public land grant institution in the United States. . His name appears repeatedly among black agricultural leaders as the most informed person. Still, when asked if he’s aware of the show, he quickly replies “No.”
The silence around where debt relief is found is deafening to the Black and Native American farmers who count on it.
Working with the USDA tribal relations office has helped the IAC obtain information. “Our producers ask if we have heard any updates and we tell them anything did we ever listen. There hasn’t been much to tell them since the court orders, ”Lawrence said. “Everyone wants answers, including us. I hope it happens. Our growers need some relief. “
Blanding said he and his staff at the Southern Cooperative Federation Land Assistance Fund are struggling with the information they can get. The Federation was founded directly out of the civil rights movement in 1967 and is the only organization in the country formed and owned by black farmers and landowners.
Updates on debt relief “are very general, indicating that the department supports the law passed by Congress,” which, according to Blanding, gives him and his members some hope that the USDA will fight the debt. demands and continue with the original plan. But timing is crucial.
“Many black farmers will be executed before this is resolved,” he said. “This will not only lead to further loss of land in communities of color, especially in black communities, but it also sets a precedent that all USDA programs designed to address equity and decades of systemic racism will now be targeted. same type of demand. That is the precedent that we hope not to set. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism