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Debt relief is just the first step toward racial equity in agriculture, say senators

Under the debt relief provision, the USDA would pay up to 120% of the amount due on loans it made directly to minority farmers or made by private lenders with a USDA loan guarantee.

The federal promise of $4 billion in debt relief for minority farmers, part of the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, is a step toward justice, said three Democratic senators on Monday. They said the next step should be passage of legislation to root out discrimination at the USDA, transfer up to 32 million acres of land to Black farmers, and assure producers of a fair price when they sell livestock to meat processors.

Advocates call the debt relief provision the most pivotal civil rights legislation since the 1964 civil rights law that prohibited segregation and banned discrimination in employment because it could preserve farming as a way of life for Black Americans. Less than 2% of U.S. farmers are Black today. A century ago, roughly one in six farmers — 17% — were Black.

“USDA recognizes that socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers have faced systemic discrimination with cumulative effects that have, among other consequences, led to a substantial loss in the number of socially disadvantaged producers, reduced the amount of farmland they control, and contributed to a cycle of debt,” said Dewayne Goldmon, USDA adviser on racial equity.

Under the debt relief provision, the USDA would pay up to 120% of the amount due on loans it made directly to minority farmers or made by private lenders with a USDA loan guarantee. The additional 20% would cover taxes associated with debt relief.

“We are considering a tiered approach which will allow us to process debt relief in different stages and will announce some next steps in the coming days,” said Goldmon in a statement. “We are in the process of seeking input from borrowers and incorporating their suggestions into the implementation.”

During a video news conference, Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, Raphael Warnock of Georgia, and Ellen Warren of Massachusetts applauded USDA debt forgiveness as a breakthrough.

“This is our first step. We must provide more access to credit and land for these farmers who have suffered this long history of wretched and painful discrimination,” said Booker. “I plan with my allies and friends to fight to have the rest of the Justice for Black Farmers Act enacted as quickly as possible.”

First introduced in late 2020, the bill would create an independent board to review appeals of civil rights complaints filed against the USDA, investigate complaints of discrimination within the department and oversee the farmer-elected county committees that guide operations at local USDA offices. It also would increase funding for a USDA program to resolve issues related to heirs’ property, which occur when land is passed from one generation of a family to another without a clear title. A new Equitable Land Access Service would issue land grants of 160 acres apiece to up to 20,000 experienced Black farmers annually through 2030. It also would provide funding for historically Black colleges to expand agricultural research and new agricultural courses, and it would provide additional credit assistance to Black farmers.

“We need to do more to restore Black farmland,” said Warren. “We need to do more to create economic justice for historically marginalized farmers and ranchers. We need to do more to provide access to land and credit to achieve a new farm economy that works for everyone.”

The bill also would strengthen the hand of producers in dealing with the mammoth companies that dominate meat processing through steps such as limiting packer ownership of livestock, prohibiting “tournament” systems for paying contract growers, and making it easier for producers to show they were treated unfairly.

“This is COVID relief,” said Warnock. “In addition to helping our nation’s farmers, this legislation helps the rural communities that surround our precious farmland.”

The Trump administration sent $23 billion in pandemic aid to farmers and ranchers last year: Only 1% of it reached Black producers, said Booker.

Booker, Warnock, and Warren were among the sponsors of the Justice for Black Farmers bill filed in February. Warnock and Booker also were among the sponsors of debt relief for farmers of color.

Groups such as the Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign have argued for a generation for debt forgiveness. In the so-called Pigford settlements of 1999 and 2010, the USDA acknowledged years of bias against Black farmers. The government paid $2.2 billion to claimants but only a relative handful received debt forgiveness. Most of the money in the 1999 settlement went to individual cash settlements, set at a maximum of $50,000 apiece.

The payments were inadequate; farmers needed $250,000 to get a fresh start, said Tracy Lloyd McCurty, co-organizer of the Cancel Pigford Debt Campaign. The campaign says “over 17,000 Black legacy farmers are delinquent on their loans to USDA ranging from five to 30 years.”

“We who are Pigford legacy farmers, we have lost so much,” said Bernice Atchison. She said loss of farmland that had been in the family since 1866 “caused my husband’s early death.” Kansas farmer Bernard Bates said “my livelihood was taken from me” because of discrimination at USDA offices when he wanted to apply for loans. “To this date, I have not received any compensation.”

To read a summary of the Justice for Black Farmers bill, click here.

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