Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) have often faced enormous barriers in accessing US Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs and services, due to racism. Two overlapping forms of racism have been at play, often simultaneously: 1) overt or interpersonal racism, in which USDA employees have denied program support to individual applicants based on race, and 2) institutional racism, in which program requirements, loan conditions, or other rules are written in ways that only consider the realities of white producers, thereby excluding BIPOC and resulting in discriminatory and unequal outcomes.
Providing Opportunities for All Producers
Lack of Access to Capital and Credit
For a long time, USDA’s agricultural lending programs have discriminated against BIPOC producers. In some cases, USDA credit and disaster relief programs have rejected, stalled, or provided unfair terms to Black and Indigenous applicants on the basis of race and subsequently failed to address applicants’ discrimination claims. For example, when Black producers won the 1999 Pigford v. Glickman discrimination lawsuit, the federal government promised to compensate claimants and write-off their debts. However, USDA has stalled on debt forgiveness and has continued to foreclose on Black farms, sending surviving claimants even deeper into debt. Faced with multiple lawsuits and compensation claims, USDA has made cosmetic program changes, but has continued to discriminate against BIPOC farmers and distort demographic statistics.
Even before BIPOC producers approach USDA agencies, program requirements are set up to favor large, high-yielding farms owned by white farmers or corporations. For example, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) has stringent and prejudicial loan conditions, even though FSA loans are designed to support farmers who may not have access to private lending. FSA will not lend to applicants with previous debt write-downs and imposes limited time periods until borrowers are expected to “graduate” to commercial lending. The FSA also sets collateral and credit history requirements that stack the deck against BIPOC producers, who often lack intergenerational wealth and operate small to medium-sized farms with lower revenues, due to histories of overlapping forms of discrimination. Other farm bill programs, like federal crop insurance and conservation programs, similarly end up benefiting white farmers and corporate mega-farms that can afford expensive premiums and are better positioned to navigate bureaucracies and meet strict program requirements.
The farm bill has created funds and support for producers considered to be “socially disadvantaged” (defined by the USDA as belonging to racial or ethnic categories that have historically faced discrimination), but these programs do not go far enough in addressing generational impacts of exclusionary policy. BIPOC farmers and women still receive disproportionately less credit than white men, and programs originally designated for BIPOC producers have been stretched to accommodate other groups. For example, the 2014 Farm Bill expanded the 2501 Program to include military veterans in addition to socially disadvantaged producers.
Throughout the US, white settlers and their government seized land through genocide and forced removal of Native tribes and nations. Through various legislative acts, like the Homestead Act of 1862, the federal government provided grants to white people to establish farms on Indigenous land.
Meanwhile, other legislation has heavily restricted BIPOC producers’ access to land. After the Civil War, the government promised to redistribute 400,000 acres of Confederate soldiers' land to formerly enslaved Black people, but this policy (known as “40 acres and a mule”) was swiftly reversed, with the vast majority of land remaining in white producers' hands. Subsequently, some states passed codes barring Black people from owning or leasing land, and some made it illegal for Asian immigrants to own land. Although Black land ownership increased in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, between 1920 and 1997 over 90 percent of Black landholders lost their land, as a result of discriminatory lending by the USDA and private lenders, violence and intimidation by local white people, and a lack of legal recognition for heirs’ property (land inherited without a formal property title or will).
In light of legacies of discrimination, various initiatives have proposed debt relief packages, a critical step in enabling many BIPOC producers to maintain their operations and keep their farms. Unfortunately, this relief rarely reaches BIPOC farmers who need it. For instance, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) allocated $4 billion in debt relief and cancellation for BIPOC producers, as a means of addressing the fact that nearly 97 percent of the $9.2 billion for farmers in USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program went to white farmers. However, lawsuits by right-wing organizations blocked USDA from disbursing the funds set aside by ARPA. When the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) passed similar provisions, lawmakers removed the funding pool specifically for BIPOC producers. Instead, IRA allocated general pools of $3.1 billion for USDA to provide relief for any distressed FSA borrowers and $2.2 billion in financial assistance for farmers who must prove that they experienced discrimination in USDA’s farm lending programs. Like many other “race-neutral” programs, these provisions in debt relief programs risk upholding and exacerbating inequity by not prioritizing the BIPOC who have endured discrimination and instead continuing to provide funding support primarily to white farmers.
What can we do?
- Support the Justice for Black Farmers Act (J4BF), which aims to enact policies to end discrimination within the USDA, protect remaining Black farmers from losing their land, provide land grants to create a new generation of Black farmers and restore the land base that has been lost, and implement systemic reforms to help family farmers across the United States.
- Support and authorize funding to existing programs that provide support, aid, and relief for BIPOC producers, and encourage existing USDA programs to prioritize these producers.
- Push for the farm bill to include provisions that make USDA services more accessible, increase USDA staff training against discrimination, and require more transparency and public reporting on equity outcomes of USDA services and programs.
- Push for a moratorium on farm foreclosures for BIPOC-owned small and mid-size farms until racial equity is achieved.
- Establish new grants, incentives, and subsidies to provide reparations, return land to Indigenous groups, and transfer ownership of land to BIPOC producers.