USDA: The last plantation
Black farmers’ struggle with the federal government dates back to Special Field Order 15 issued on January 16, 1865. It promised each newly freed Black family 40 acres in a strip of land covering 400,000 acres, ranging from South Carolina to Florida. Nearly 40,000 freed slaves took up residence on this land.
The effort was for naught, though, as President Andrew Johnson rescinded the Special Field Order in the fall of 1865. This returned the land to its previous property owners, many of whom had been slave owners.
Thus, many Black farmers took up sharecropping, where white landowners would rent their land to Black farmers and collect half the crop, according to a 1982 publication titled “The Decline of Black Farming in America,” issued by the Commission on Civil Rights. Landowners also could finance the cost of seeds, fertilizers, and other crop inputs, but often at exorbitant interest rates. This left the farmers with little money for food, clothing, and other living expenses. Black farmers often were forbidden to seek better opportunities.
Years later, Black farmers wrestled with obtaining loans from USDA’s Farmers Home Administration and Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, agencies that were run locally by farmer-led boards of directors.
USDA has been called “the last plantation,” according to Lloyd Wright, USDA’s director of civil rights in 1997-98 and a 38-year employee for USDA. That’s because these agencies:
- Denied operating loans
- Delayed loan payments
- Provided limited access to programs
- Didn’t inform Black farmers of programs that could improve their farmland.
Meanwhile, white farmers had few of these problems, Wright says.
“That’s because of the local control, at the county level. You almost need to eliminate the county committees and local controls. Agriculture’s unique for that kind of county control, which sounds good for some folks. But not Black folk,” says Wright, who has since retired. “Local control is good, providing that you have a system of oversight to avoid having those local folk take care of themselves, their family, and their friends. In which case, Blacks have happened not to be any of the above, and they normally didn’t get services.”
In 1980, gripping drought suffocated much of the South. “A lot of white farmers responded by putting in irrigation,” recalls Dewayne Goldmon, an Arkansas farmer and head of the National Black Growers Council. “Black farmers were denied access to that money, or no one told them there was a way to structure their business to separate the farm from the home.”
Without irrigation, yields suffered and forced many Black farmers to lose their homes.
Black farmers were slaves just a few generations prior and sharecroppers after that, so there is little equity to fall back on, and local USDA offices often didn’t help Black farmers get the assistance they needed.
“I dream of the day when farmers can go in and actually get benefits based on the merits of their application only,” Goldmon says.
When farmers borrow money from USDA, the local USDA offices, with input from county committees, decide which farmers obtain loans. In many cases, loans for Black farmers would take two or three times longer to receive compared to loans for white farmers, according to USDA documents. As such, Black farmers had to wait to plant crops and so their yield suffered.
“The county committee was the guillotine,” says P.J. Haynie, a fifth-generation farmer from Reedville, Virginia. “The domino effect created a genocide of Black farmers, not because it rained on the white farmers’ side of the road and not the Black farmer side of the road. It was due to 25% interest rates and not getting a crop loan in time.”
Even if Black farmers grew high-yielding crops, the USDA might not update program yields correctly, says Ken Cook, cofounder and president of the Environmental Working Group.
In the early days of EWG’s Farm Subsidy Database launch, the agency received a phone call from a white whistleblower, who told staff members to stand by their fax machine.
“He sent all this internal documentation about Black farmers unfairly getting lower established yields assigned to them and not getting their yields updated the way white farmers were,” Cook recalls.
In a 2010 memo to USDA’s deputy chief of staff, Wright offered similar proof. A Black farmer in Clarendon County, South Carolina, earned honors for corn yields of more than 200 bushels per acre. However, FSA discriminated against the farmer by recording lower corn yields than comparable white farmers in the county, Wright says. The memo stated the average established yield for Black farmers in Clarendon County was 58 bushels of corn per acre, while white farmers had an average established yield of 101 bushels per acre.
“If you’re getting 50 bushels of corn per acre, hell no, you can’t cash flow. You can’t pay the loan back,” Wright explains. “But if you’re getting 200, you can probably pay it back, depending on what the loan is.”
Editor's note: This article is one of a multi-part series focusing on Black farmers' experiences in honor of Black History Month. Read the other parts of the story here.