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The USDA Is Set To Give Black Farmers Debt Relief. They've Heard That One Before

President of the National Black Farmer's Association John Boyd stands in his fields in Baskerville, Va. He says the USDA's relief program is "like the fox watching the hen house."
President of the National Black Farmer's Association John Boyd stands in his fields in Baskerville, Va. He says the USDA's relief program is "like the fox watching the hen house."

Farmers of color are set to get some unprecedented debt relief starting this month from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The latest federal COVID aid package includes an estimated $4 billion for the USDA to wipe away these farmers' debts.

It's an unprecedented Congressional mandate to make up for the damage that decades of lending discrimination has had on farmers of color. The distrust runs so deep that the department has been dubbed "the last plantation."

"It's like the fox watching the hen house," says John Boyd, a Virginia row crop and cattle farmer who has long advocated for the USDA to do more to help Black farmers.

That's the type of skepticism that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack faced when he met with a group of Black farmers surrounded by pecan groves in rural Fort Valley, Ga. last month.

Vilsack called the new program "a very, very important first step," while acknowledging, "The Department of Agriculture has a lot of work to do."

"It's not the beginning and end with our announcement today," he told the crowd. "It's the beginning of a beginning."

Wholesale debt relief for "socially disadvantaged farmers," including Black, Native American and other farmers of color, is an unprecedented move by the department and its lending arm, the Farm Service Agency.

But this group, particularly Black farmers, has a tangled history with the agency. They've been promised compensation for discrimination twice before, even winning what was dubbed the largest civil rights class action settlement in U.S. history. Still the problem—disproportionately low access to the government help many in the agriculture industry rely on—has persisted.

"This discrimination that we're talking about, it's not just historic discrimination," said Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat who championed the relief. He points to the fact that farmers of color received 0.1% of the 2020 COVID-19 relief for farmers.

"If you go and stick your hand in a hole and a rattlesnake bites it the first time, then you go back there a second time, it bites you the second time, what do you think you are going to do the third time?" asked Lucious Abrams, a fourth-generation farmer from Keysville, Ga. who has been battling USDA in the courts for decades to win compensation for lending discrimination.

He spoke to a group of fellow Georgia farmers at an event organized by Warnock weeks before Vilsack's visit.

"That skepticism is very understandable. These folks have been disappointed time and time again," Warnock said. "That deep distrust was built over years. It didn't happen overnight. It's not going to be resolved overnight. But the best thing we can do right now is to deliver this."

Saving the next generation of Black farmers

Report after government report has documented how little access to government help farmers of color have had compared to White farmers. Multiple Congressional hearings have been held on the topic since the first in 1999.

Meanwhile, the proportion of Black farmers in the U.S. has shrunk, from 14% in 1920, to just under 2% in 2017. (Fewer than 3% of farmers are Native American, about 4% are Hispanic, and 1% are Asian American-Pacific Islander.)

Black farmers in the South have lost 90% of their land in the last century, amounting to a loss of $250 billion to $350 billion of accumulated wealth and income, according to an estimate by the Land Loss and Reparations Project.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., tells a group of farmers in Byromville, Ga. that debt relief will be coming soon from the USDA.
Emma Hurt / WABE
Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., tells a group of farmers in Byromville, Ga. that debt relief will be coming soon from the USDA.

There are myriad reasons for the decline. If you ask farmers, the USDA's lack of aid is chief among them. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack acknowledged as much during his recent trip to Georgia.

"When people do not have access to the broad array of services and benefits at the Department of Agriculture, they have been at a severe disadvantage," he said. "White farmers obviously had the full advantage. They had all the programs. And so they had a chance to grow, to expand. To buy the best equipment, to plant their crop in a timely way. Their yields were good. And so they got larger and larger."

But Boyd, the Virginia farmer, is skeptical of the USDA's ability to administer this latest round of relief. Now president of the National Black Farmers Association, he became an activist nearly four decades ago after facing loan discrimination.

"Just about every eight-and-a-half to nine years, something happens in this issue," he said. "I don't have many more eight-and-a-half or nine years left in my span here to get some real significant change in place so that we can save the next generation of Black farmers."

Civil-rights victory against USDA becomes bitter disappointment: "Debtor slaves until the day they die"

"When farmers tell you they're not sure yet, well, if you'd gone through the history of the last 150 years, you wouldn't be either," said Lloyd Wright, who served as head of the USDA's Civil Rights Division in the 1990s.

Wright was hired by the USDA to deal with a backlog of discrimination complaints getting renewed attention. The complaints had languished at the department after its civil rights office closed during the Reagan administration.

In 1999, Black farmers won what became the largest civil rights class action settlement in U.S. history, Pigford v. Glickman. The legal victory acknowledged discrimination by the department and its failure to address these complaints. But today, that case is infamous among Black farmers.

"Black farmers have a very, very, very negative opinion of it, because the outcome was not in the best interest of Black farmers," Wright said.

Ultimately, under Pigford, nearly 16,000 claims were approved for monetary payments. But just under 7,000 were flat out denied, and roughly 60,000 were rejected for being filed late.

"When you study this saga of the Pigford debacle, decisions were made without centering the farmer," said Tracy McCurty, executive director of the Black Belt Justice Center, an advocacy group that serves Black farmers.

She points to a requirement in the settlement that Black farmers find a "similarly situated" white farmer who had not been discriminated against, to receive compensation.

On top of monetary payments, many farmers also were hoping for and expected to receive debt relief. But just 425 of them had their debts forgiven Farmers felt betrayed, all while their interest and debts continued to grow.

"So many Black men and women have died, and it made their suffering and dying so hard to know they are going to stay in debt, because they are debtor slaves, until the day they die," said Eddie Slaughter, a farmer from Buena Vista, Ga. who has also become an advocate.

Stephen Carpenter worked as senior counsel for the court-appointed monitor tasked with overseeing the implementation of the two settlements. He blames "inaccurate and widely-repeated information about details of the lawsuit" for leading farmers to believe that all debt would be forgiven.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack addressed a group of farmers in Fort Valley, Ga. in May.
Emma Hurt / WABE
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack addressed a group of farmers in Fort Valley, Ga. in May.

"People understandably hoped that their USDA debt would be forgiven. In many cases it was. In many cases, however, it was not. So that was inevitably disappointing."

Yet for the 60,000 claimants rejected for being late, another reason for hope came more than a decade later. Vilsack was also agriculture secretary back then, in 2011, when the Obama Administration allocated another $1 billion for a second settlement.

While there were reports of non-farmers receiving claims under this settlement, farmers like Lucious Abrams, who was denied compensation in the first Pigford case, were locked out of this round too. He was told his claim didn't meet the conditions required by the consent decree, like finding a similarly situated white farmer. "How in the world am I supposed to find a similarly situated white farmer?" Abrams said.

He has been fighting that denial in court for decades, meanwhile his debt has ballooned.

"The stress that we've been under--there's no way to tell you what we've been through. It's unreal," Abrams said.

He has faced foreclosure multiple times. While Abrams used to be able to lease other farmland to run a nearly 2,000 acre operation with cotton, corn, hogs and cattle, today, he has to rent out his land to another farmer since he cannot afford to farm it himself.

It's impossible to know how many farmers of color lost their land to foreclosure after being denied help through the settlements, Lloyd Wright said. But when he was brought back in as a consultant to the department in 2011, he said all but one of the 30 original Pigford claimants he was able to interview had lost land acreage since.

'The World Is A Lot Different Today'

When Vilsack sat at a table in Georgia alongside Georgia politicians on that sunny Saturday last month, facing rows of Black farmers, he vowed that this new relief program would be different.

"What this circumstance is doing for the first time, is addressing the cumulative effect of discrimination against a class of people, not individuals, but a class," he said. "Frankly, it's taken us a while to get to this point."

He added, "The world is a lot different today than it was when I was secretary before."

There are no conditions on farmers to receive this debt relief, unlike the two settlements. The COVID-19 package also gave the USDA $1 billion for structural equity reforms. The idea, Vilsack said, is to reshape agriculture policy with these farmers in mind.

"We really have to do some very deep thinking about the structure of our programs, because...very, very few of them are designed for [socially disadvantaged farmers]," Vilsack said.

The USDA estimates roughly 16,000 farmers of color qualify for this new relief program. Ironically, that represents less than 10% of farmers of color in the U.S. Most don't seek credit from the USDA nowadays.

Many, like Alfred Greenlee, who grows hay and raises cattle in Albany, Ga., don't apply after hearing the horror stories.

"Once your grandfather or your father tell you he went through this, and they don't want you to go through this...then you're going to do everything you can to stay away from that process," he said.

Carpenter, who spent years overseeing implementation of the two settlements, is optimistic about this latest promise of debt relief for farmers of color, "but there will be a limited effect inevitably," he said. "For certain, this is not anything close to a 1:1 for discrimination and suffering for farmers of color."

"This is just the first step," said McCurty, with the Black Belt Justice Center, of the debt cancellation. "Then we want to recreate, we want to dismantle what the farmers call USDA, 'the last plantation,' and re-create the 'people's department.'"

"We are operating from a pretty extreme trust deficit among the farmers that we're trying to help," acknowledged the USDA's new racial equity advisor, DeWayne Goldman, himself a Black farmer from Arkansas. "And so we'd better be serious about it. And we better be forthcoming. That's kind of the approach we're taking: the proof is in the pudding."

Carl Parker is another Georgia farmer in debt to the USDA who has been skeptical of this relief program. Yet after hearing Vilsack speak, he sounded cautiously optimistic.

"Right now we've got our foot on the rattlesnake's head," he said. "He ain't dead yet, but we've got our foot on his head."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 21, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this report incorrectly said that "Harvard University researchers estimate Black farmers in the South have lost 90% of their land in the last century, amounting to a loss of $250 billion to $350 billion of accumulated wealth and income." In fact, the researchers presented at Harvard but are affiliated with several universities and the U.S. Census Bureau. Together, they call themselves the Land Loss and Reparations Project. And a previous version of this story incorrectly said 169 Black farmers received debt relief under the Pigford settlement. It was actually 425.