WASHINGTON — The Biden administration, which has made combating racism a centerpiece of its agenda, is pledging to reverse decades of discriminatory agricultural lending and subsidy policies that have left Black farmers at an economic disadvantage and is racing to deploy $5 billion in aid and debt relief to help them.

At the center of this initiative is the Agriculture Department, an agency that has long been derided by Black farmers as the United States’ “last plantation.” Now the department is in the middle of a drastic overhaul, both of its personnel and of policies that it acknowledges have perpetuated inequality in rural America for years.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden’s agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, said that he would work to root out the vestiges of racism at his agency and to redress “systemic discrimination” that Black farmers had faced.

“Let me be clear: There is no place in the USDA for discrimination — none,” Vilsack said of his department during a congressional hearing.

Let me be clear: There is no place in the USDA for discrimination — none.”
— Tom Vilsack, President Joe Biden’s agriculture secretary

The number of Black-owned farms has declined rapidly over the past century, to less than 40,000 today from about 1 million in 1920, the result of industry consolidation as well as onerous loan terms and high foreclosure rates. The Agriculture Department has faced sharp criticism from minority farmer groups for lacking diversity and ignoring complaints of bias in its programs.

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Reversing these trends represents a major test for Biden and Vilsack, whose nomination was met with skepticism from Black farmers because many of those complaints went unaddressed when he was agriculture secretary during the Obama administration. He is now under pressure to fix the issues amid a racial reckoning that is underway in the United States.

The Biden administration’s renewed focus on lifting the fortunes of Black farmers is yet another sharp departure from the past four years, when President Donald Trump lavished economic aid on rural America that disproportionately benefited white farmers. The shift has drawn some criticism from Republican lawmakers, who have described the racially targeted relief as reparations.

The $1.9 trillion economic relief package that passed this month includes more than $9 billion to help farmers.

That includes $8 billion that the Agriculture Department will use toward crop purchases, grants to food processors and distributors, and other programs to help farmers struggling with the pandemic. The stimulus bill also provides $1 billion of aid for farmers and ranchers of color, including outreach, training, grants and loans to improve land access. That money creates funding for a commission that will examine racial equity in department programs, and support for agricultural research and education at historically Black colleges and universities like Tuskegee University.

The bill also provides “sums as may be necessary” from the Treasury Department to help minority farmers and ranchers pay off loans granted or guaranteed by the Agriculture Department, providing debt relief and aid for members of minority racial and ethnic groups that have long experienced discrimination at the hands of the government. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the loan forgiveness provision would cost $4 billion over a decade.

Vilsack said Thursday that details on how the program would work would be coming soon. The department estimates that it could provide relief for as many as 15,000 loans. It is asking lenders to halt any farm liquidations tied to loans guaranteed by its Farm Service Agency that were moving forward as it works through its new debt relief process.

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American farmers have struggled in recent years as Trump’s trade wars, particularly with China, Europe, Canada and Mexico, cut off foreign markets. Farm sales to China have now strongly rebounded, but the pandemic continues to strain rural communities and food supply chains, creating painful disconnects between farmers and their markets. With the onset of the coronavirus, many farmers were forced to plow under crops or dump their milk, even as grocery store shelves emptied out and many American families went hungry.

Vilsack said Thursday that the pandemic relief money for the agriculture sector disproportionately benefited white-owned farms and that the provisions in the latest stimulus bill were intended to rebalance that.

That was also the case with the trade-related aid money was doled out in recent years. From 2018 to 2020, the Agriculture Department gave out $23 billion under its market facilitation program to help farmers hurt by Trump’s trade war. But because those payments were based on a farmer’s crop size, much of the money ended up going to larger and wealthier farmers, who are disproportionately white.

A driving force behind the provisions for minority farmers was Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., whose election in January helped give Democrats control of the chamber. Warnock had proposed some similar measures in the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, legislation he introduced in February with his Democratic colleagues, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., who played an influential role in helping Biden secure the party’s presidential nomination, has also been a major voice highlighting the experience of Black farmers and helped drive the stimulus provisions, according to congressional staff aides.

The funding aims to address long-standing problems with discrimination at the Agriculture Department — particularly its refusal to grant farmers of color the same access to capital that helped tide over white farmers during difficult periods in history. Minority farmers have confronted other issues, like a lack of access to legal services that have complicated farm inheritances, and a lack of public investment in rural communities and on reservations, including in the water supply and roads and transportation to get farm products to market.

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Those factors led to a substantial loss of land. While the number of farmers in the United States has fallen sharply over the past century as farms mechanized and more people found work in factories and offices, Black farmers suffered disproportionately.

According to Agriculture Department data, in 1920, the United States had 925,708 Black farmers, making up 14% of farmers in the country. But by 2017, only 35,470 of the nation’s more than 2 million farms were run by Black producers, or 1.7%.

Joe Patterson, 70, whose family has farmed in the Mississippi Delta for decades, said discriminatory lending had forced many Black farmers around him out of business over the years, and led to some lean times for his own family.

“When it all boiled down to it, it was a lack of funds that kept the Black farmers down,” said Patterson, who spoke by phone from the cab of a tractor he had pulled over to the side of the road. “If we had the same amount of investment that the other farmers had, a lot of Black farmers would still be farming this date.”

If we had the same amount of investment that the other farmers had, a lot of Black farmers would still be farming this date.”
— Joe Patterson, 70, farmer

He added, “But because they didn’t have those funds, each year would get worse and worse.” Anthony Daniels, a Democrat in Alabama’s state Legislature who serves on the board of One Country Project, a Democratic group focused on rural issues, said that many Black farmers were still suffering from burdensome debt, and that the stimulus provisions would help them pay off loans and related taxes.

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“You think about the acres that have been taken due to systematic racism, whether it’s through the USDA or others,” said Daniels, who was raised on a small farm in rural Alabama by grandparents who had been sharecroppers. “It’s long overdue.”

Injecting race into the relief effort has stirred backlash and criticism from some Republican lawmakers who have described the program as a kind of “reparations” for discrimination toward Black farmers.

“If you’re white person, if you’re a white woman, no forgiveness,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said this month on Fox News. “That’s reparations. What does that have to do with COVID?”

Heidi Heitkamp, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota, said that the label was an effort by some to politicize and denigrate the issue, and that policymakers often prioritized small businesses or groups in need.

The same people who are complaining and using language to try to vilify this priority for African American farmers are the same people who didn’t say a peep when tens of billions of dollars went out to the richest farmers in America. The hypocrisy is overwhelming.”
— Heidi Heitkamp, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota

“The same people who are complaining and using language to try to vilify this priority for African American farmers are the same people who didn’t say a peep when tens of billions of dollars went out to the richest farmers in America,” she said, referring to payments made to farmers during the Trump administration. “The hypocrisy is overwhelming.” The sharp focus on racial equity for farmers is an opportunity for redemption for Vilsack, who was at the center of a racial firestorm during his first stint on the job.

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In 2010, he hastily fired Shirley Sherrod, a Black official in the Agriculture Department, after a conservative blogger released a misleading video clip that appeared to show her admitting antipathy toward a white farmer. He later apologized and tried to rehire Sherrod, who is now executive director of the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education and was a witness in the virtual hearing Thursday.

At the Agriculture Department, Vilsack is creating a commission to be a watchdog for racial equity issues at the agency. Under his watch this time, the department has hired the first Black deputy secretary, the first Native American as general counsel and the first Latina woman as deputy undersecretary for farm programs.

At the hearing Thursday, John Boyd, the president of the National Black Farmers Association, told Vilsack that the onus was on him to integrate minority farmers into the agriculture sector.

“Mr. Secretary, Black farmers need to hear from you that USDA is open for business for Black farmers,” Boyd said. “Black farmers don’t trust the United States Department of Agriculture.”