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Blog | February 9, 2021

Two Bills to Support Farmers of Color Introduced

by Jennifer Fahy

If you care about farm policy, yesterday was a big day, with two bills introduced to strengthen farmers of color and attempt to respond to injustices and discrimination long suffered by farmers of color.

Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act

New Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA), who is also a new member of the Senate Ag Committee, introduced the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act yesterday, which was co-sponsored by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), Senator Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). The legislation aims to deliver $5 billion in direct relief to Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic farmers and other agricultural producers of color to help them respond to the devastating consequences of the pandemic and resulting economic downturn, as well as address longstanding inequity in agriculture.

Historically, Black, indigenous, Hispanic, and farmers of color have struggled to keep their farms and ownership of land in rural communities due to discrimination by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other government agencies. Black farmers in America alone have lost more than 12 million acres of farmland over the last century, mostly since the 1950s. According to data from USDA, while at its peak in 1920 there were approximately 925,000 Black farmers in the United States, accounting for roughly one-sixth of U.S. farmers, by the year 2017 USDA’s Census of Agriculture reported there were only about 35,000 farms with Black producers — just 1.7% of the total number in the U.S. Additionally, hundreds of millions of acres of farmland have been lost across all communities of color due to discriminatory practices at the federal level, and many farmers of color who remain in agriculture struggle with burdensome debt.

The legislation:

  • Provides $4 billion in direct relief payments to help farmers of color pay off outstanding USDA farm loan debts and related taxes, and help them respond to the economic impacts of the pandemic.
  • Provides another $1 billion fund to support activities at USDA that will 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. Specifically, this $1 billion fund will include:
    • Grants and loans to improve land access & address heirs’ property issues;
    • Support for one or more legal centers focused on agricultural legal issues of farmers of color;
    • Pilot projects that focus on land acquisition, financial planning, technical assistance, and credit;
    • A racial equity commission and related activities to address systemic racism across USDA;
    • Support for research, education, and extension at HBCUs and other institutions of higher education that historically serve communities of color;
    • Scholarships at 1890’s land grant universities and for indigenous students attending land grant institutions;
    • Outreach, mediation, financial training, capacity building training, cooperative development training and support, and other technical assistance; and
    • Assistance to farmers, ranchers, or forest landowners of color that are former farm loan borrowers and suffered related adverse actions, or past discrimination or bias.

We are pleased to see strong support for this bill from the USDA via a statement from Katharine Ferguson, USDA Chief of Staff, which read in part: “The bill is the culmination of hard work and collaboration among members of the Senate and House and new leadership at USDA who share a common purpose to end inequity in our food and agricultural systems. It’s a bill crafted to address the immediate need for debt relief among those who have been marginalized and are hurting while also advancing long-term issues such as Heirs’ Property, tackling the root causes of discrimination via an Equity Commission, and investing in building back a new generation of farmers of color.”

Justice for Black Farmers Act

With a new Congress, comes the need to reintroduce legislation that was introduced in the past session without being passed. Yesterday the Justice for Black Farmers Act was re-introduced by Senator Cory Booker, picking up additional support from Senator Reverend Warnock, Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The bill had originally been introduced in November of 2020, and was co-sponsored by Senators Warren (D-MA) and Gillibrand (D-NY). Farm Aid supported the bill in 2020 and continues to support this important reform of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This landmark and urgently needed legislation seeks to address and correct historic discrimination within the USDA in federal farm assistance and lending that has caused Black farmers to lose millions of acres of farmland and robbed Black farmers and their families of the hundreds of billions of dollars of inter-generational wealth that land represented. In 1920, there were nearly 1 million Black farmers in the United States. Today, due to this history of discrimination, it is estimated that there are less than 50,000 remaining Black farmers.

The Justice for Black Farmers Act will enact policies to end discrimination within the USDA, protect remaining Black farmers from losing their land, provide land grants to create a new generation of Black farmers and restore the land base that has been lost, and implement systemic reforms to help family farmers across the United States.

Specifically, the Justice for Black Farmers Act will:

  • End Discrimination within USDA: The Act takes steps to once and for all end discrimination within USDA. The Act creates an independent civil rights oversight board to conduct reviews of any appeals of civil rights complaints filed against USDA, to investigate reports of discrimination within USDA, and to provide oversight of Farm Service Agency County Committees. In addition, the Act creates an Equity Commission whose responsibilities include developing recommendations to reform FSA County Committees. The Act also puts reforms in place within the USDA Office of Civil Rights, including placing a moratorium on foreclosures during the pendency of civil rights complaints.
  • Protect Remaining Black Farmers from Land Loss: The Act increases the funding authorization for the USDA relending program created in the 2018 Farm Bill to resolve farmland ownership and succession, or “heirs property,” issues. The Act provides funding for pro bono assistance, including legal assistance, succession planning and support for development of farmer cooperatives, to Black farmers. The Act will also create and fund a new bank to provide financing and grants to Black farmer and rancher cooperative financial institutions, and will forgive USDA debt of Black farmers who filed claims in the Pigford litigation.
  • Restore the Land Base Lost by Black Farmers: The Act creates a new Equitable Land Access Service within USDA to acquire farmland and provide land grants of up to 160 acres to existing and aspiring Black farmers. These land grants will allow hundreds of thousands of new Black farmers to return to the land in the next decade. To help ensure their success, these new Black farmers will be provided access to USDA operating loans and mortgages on favorable terms.
  • Create a Farm Conservation Corps: The Act creates a USDA program where young adults from socially disadvantaged communities will be provided with the academic, vocational and social skills necessary to pursue careers in farming and ranching. Participants in the program will be paid by USDA and will serve as on-farm apprentices at no cost to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, beginning farmers and ranchers, and organic farmers and ranchers with annual gross farm income of less than $250,000.00. Black participants who gain experience through this program will have priority for land grants.
  • Empower HBCUs and Advocates for Black farmers: The Act provides substantial resources to 1890s and to nonprofits who serve Black farmers so that they can provide pro bono assistance in identifying land for USDA to purchase and provide as land grants, help new Black farmers get up and running, provide farmer training, and provide other assistance including succession planning and legal assistance to Black farmers. The Act also provides new funding to HBCUs to expand their agriculture research and courses of study.
  • Assist All Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers: While Black farmers have suffered a unique history of discrimination, other socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers have also been harmed by discrimination. The Act substantially increases funding for USDA technical assistance and for programs such as CSP and REAP, and gives priority for these programs, as well as increased access to capital, to all socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
  • Enact System Reforms to Help All Farmers and Ranchers: In order for existing Black farmers and the new Black farmers created by this bill to have a real chance to succeed and thrive, broader reforms to our broken food system must be enacted. The Justice for Black Farmers Act substantially reforms and strengthens the Packers and Stockyards Act in order to stop abusive practices by big multinational meatpacking companies and protect all family farmers and ranchers.

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