Black farmers expect billions in promised debt relief

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There was a time when black farms thrived.

Just two generations out of slavery, by 1910, black farmers had amassed over 16 million acres of land and made up about 14% of farmers. The fruits of their labors have nourished much of America.

Now they have less than 4.7 million acres. Black farms in the United States have fallen from 925,000 to less than 36,000, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s latest farm census. And only about one in 100 farmers is black.

What happened?

They were successful in overcoming the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule” to newly freed slaves – a military order, later rescinded. But again and again over the past century, they have faced one obstacle after another because of their race.


Lenders – chief among them, the USDA – often refused to give them money and often rushed to foreclose. Suppliers and customers undermine them. Inheritance laws led to the break-up of family properties.

Now the government wants to make amends by giving billions of dollars in debt relief to farmers of color. But a judge put the money on hold amid lawsuits by white farmers claiming the program is unfair – reverse discrimination.

Today’s black farmers and the descendants of black farmers who have lost their shares argue that it is they who have been the victims of injustice:

A farmer who was barely able to keep part of his farm when the USDA threatened to auction it off. A man who lost the land his grandparents once owned. A farmer hanging by a thread, praying for federal help to arrive on time.

It was racism, says farmer John Wesley Boyd Jr. And it still is.

“I think discrimination is still pervasive. I think it’s done in a much more subtle way, ”Boyd says.

Boyd was only 18 when he took on an existing USDA loan when he bought his first farm in the early 1980s. He says walking into his local USDA office was like a comeback. in the Jim Crow era. Black farmers had supervised accounts and could only get appointments with the local loan officer on one day of the week, a practice that came to be known as Black Wednesday.

Boyd endured racist slurs. A loan officer once spat tobacco juice at him – he accidentally missed the spit box, the official allegedly said. Another time Boyd saw an official tear up his claim and throw it in the trash.

In 1996, the USDA took only 30 days to seize some of its farmland. Then the ministry decided to auction off the remaining 110 acres.

Boyd joined other black farmers at a protest in Washington, tying a mule named 40 Acres to the door of the White House. Less than a week later, then Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman declared a moratorium on farm lockdowns. Boyd had just enough time to save his farm.

Documents from an internal USDA review show investigators found that its operating loan applications had not been processed for years, despite explicit instructions from the agency’s state director. He also found that his account was wrongly reported to a credit bureau as overdue when it should have been restructured, exacerbating his financial difficulties.

These types of practices led to the approval of the historic Pigford v. Glickman filed by black farmers in 1999. Although the USDA paid more than $ 2.4 billion, state taxes eroded collections, debt relief was incomplete, and settlements failed. not solved the problems encountered. by minority farmers.

Government lawyers noted in a court record that between 2006 and 2016, black farmers were subject to 13% of USDA foreclosures – despite receiving less than 3% of direct loans.

Nestled amidst vast plains are the remains of what was once the bustling black colony of Nicodemus, Kansas. A few miles outside of town are the 200 acres that Theodore Bernard Bates’ grandparents once owned.

The black farmer and his father purchased the homestead in 1970, taking a loan from what was then the Production Credit Association of Stockton, Kansas.

The USDA farm loan agency even refused to give them an application to fill out, said Bates, one of the first plaintiffs named in the Pigford lawsuit. He received, as he puts it, “not a cent” from this settlement.

Three years before the former president of the Production Credit Association died, he swore in a 2012 affidavit that there was a plan to get Bates “out of farming.” Elvin D. Keiswetter said the lender’s board of directors had decided they “would rather foreclose, even if they lost money” than take Bates’ money, no matter if it got paid. on tickets.

After taking everything, Bates says the family was forced to have food stamps to survive.

The USDA was not responsible for all the woes of black farmers. Other structural obstacles have also taken their toll. One concerns family land that is passed on to several surviving relatives without a will, known as “heir property”.

The result: a lack of access to money, as lenders are generally reluctant to grant loans without a clear land title. Congress authorized in the text of the Farm Bill of 2018 that would facilitate lending to these farmers. But it wasn’t until this year that the USDA funded a $ 67 million heir reimbursement program to address land ownership and inheritance issues.

USDA spokeswoman Kate Waters said the agency is committed to eliminating systemic racism and reducing barriers to accessing services. She says the ministry plans to launch an equity commission later this year to identify problems and resolve them.

Congress, meanwhile, approved $ 4 billion in debt relief for 16,000 farmers of color in March as part of the $ 1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package.

White farmers have filed lawsuits in Illinois, Florida, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming and Minnesota. A nationwide preliminary injunction halted the program in June.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who is suing in his personal capacity as a farmer, argues that the debt relief is unconstitutional because it excludes white farmers on the basis of their race or ethnicity.

“It’s just plain wrong,” Miller said.

But minority farmers still suffer disproportionately. As of May 31, 11% of white farmers were in arrears on a government farm loan, compared to 37.9% of black borrowers, 14.6% of Asian borrowers, 17.4% of Native American borrowers, and 68% of Hispanic borrowers, according to court documents.

For Abraham Carpenter, a 59-year-old black farmer whose family grows fruits and vegetables near Grady, Arkansas, the injunction means he must wait and hope for help with about $ 200,000 in loans.

“I’ve had some really, really tough times, you know, but I’ve always been able to survive because of God’s blessing, mercy and grace. … ”Says Carpenter. “So, I’m not going to say I’m going to put my stomach in the air. I will work a little more and I will pray a little more.


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