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Debt relief for minority farmers needs more thought, say critics

The USDA definition of socially disadvantaged farmers includes Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian or Pacific Islander farmers and in some instances women.

The House Budget Committee approved an estimated $4 billion of debt relief for minority farmers on Monday as part of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package on Monday, with one member protesting that the aid was unfair. The Congressional Budget Office said due to incomplete data, the cost of paying off USDA loans and USDA guaranteed loans held by socially disadvantaged farmers could be higher, or lower, than $4 billion.

Proponents of the debt relief plan were not immediately available to say how many farmers would be aided. The USDA definition of socially disadvantaged farmers includes Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian or Pacific Islander farmers and in some instances women. The number of Black farmers has shrunk dramatically over the years. The USDA acknowledged discriminatory treatment of Black farmers in the so-called Pigford settlements of 1999 and 2010.

House Democrats plan to pass the coronavirus relief bill by the end of this week and send it to the Senate. The bill is patterned on the American Relief Plan proposed by President Biden. The House Agriculture Committee approved its $16 billion part of the bill last week. The Budget Committee assembled provisions submitted by nine committees into the overall $1.9 trillion bill and cleared for a floor vote on a 19-16 vote that broke along party lines.

“We should never discriminate… and that goes both ways,” said Rep. Trent Kelly, Mississippi Republican, who criticized the debt relief proposal. “Why should the color of your skin be the measure or whether you should get a USDA payback plan?” Kelly, who voted last month to overturn Biden’s election, is also a member of the Agriculture Committee.

In comments submitted to the Budget Committee, Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee said the debt relief plan was a hasty solution when it would be “prudent to hold a hearing prior to enacting unvetted legislation that could have unintended impacts.” They questioned if there was a connection between the pandemic and the financial condition of disadvantaged farmers.

House Agriculture chairman David Scott said minority farmers deserved the assistance because they were overlooked in the record $46 billion in farm subsidies last year and the trade-war payments of 2018 and 2019.

White farmers collected nearly 97% of the $9.2 billion in USDA pandamic payments from May through October 2020, said the Environmental Working Group, which tracks farm payments. The average payment to whites was $3,398 while Black farmers averaged $422. A second round of coronavirus aid was released in the fall and a third round in January. In all, $23.8 billion has been paid by USDA.

Four Democratic members of the Senate Agriculture Committee unveiled the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act in early February. It was incorporated into the House Agriculture Committee’s $16 billion package. It calls for payments of 120% of the outstanding indebtedness on loans issued directly by USDA and loans made by private lenders and guaranteed by USDA. The additional 20% would pay taxes that would be assessed on debt relief, say sponsors Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the committee chairwoman.

The relief plan also allots $1 billion for land access, “heirs property” issues, and legal aid for socially disadvantaged farmers.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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