In 1997, 400 Black farmers sued the USDA for racial discrimination for about 15 years—and won. In the lawsuit, titled Pigford v Glickman, the court ruled that USDA officials had ignored complaints from Black farmers, and denied them farm aid, loans, and other support based on their race. The USDA admitted that they had delayed Black farmers’ paperwork until planting season was over, and denied them crop disaster payments. The landmark lawsuit and the case were settled for $1 billion in 1999.
That same year, another lawsuit—Keepseagle v Vilsack—made the case that the discrimination was not just towards Black farmers. Since 1981 USDA officials had discriminated against Native farmers and ranchers in loan programs and loan servicing, leading many of them to lose their lands and livelihoods. The case was settled in 2010 and the claimants received compensation, debt relief, and other programmatic relief which totaled to about $800 million. Once news of the Pigford vs Glickman case hit the news, many more black farmers came out to talk about the rampant discrimination they had faced. While farmers relied on loans from the Farm Service Agency to cover operating costs and hold on to their land, this option was rarely, if ever, available to BIPOC farmers.
WATCH: Catfish Kingdom
‘A system cannot fail those it was never built to protect’
The reality is that from the outset, federal and state agencies, and agriculture policy were not designed to include BIPOC communities. Legislation like the Homestead Act of 1862 which paved the way for farming in the Midwest was crafted with the explicit intent of forcing Indigenous people of the land which was then redistributed only to European settlers. Under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which forms the basis for today’s Farm Bill, crop subsidies were reserved for landowners (majority white)—sharecroppers and tenants (majority Black) who were excluded subsequently lost their land and livelihood. Labor laws like the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), and the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), also frequently left out farm labor and domestic labor, which were, and still are, overwhelmingly performed by People of Color. A historical lack of BIPOC representation in decision-making bodies has meant that BIPOC producers are still grappling with a system that was never meant to serve them. This explains why farming and agriculture continue to be overwhelmingly white, and federal and state agencies still fail to address the multitude of issues faced by small and medium-sized producers of color.
But even before BIPOC producers approach a loan agency, a multitude of factors are already working against them. Most loans are configured for large, high-yielding farms that are owned by white farmers or large corporations but because of a race-based wealth gap resulting from combined systems of oppression—white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism—BIPOC farmers are more likely to operate small to medium-sized farms with lower revenue. A lack of access to intergenerational wealth means that they cannot build strong credit histories, which can further a cycle of financial instability, making them ineligible for future loans. Because of a history of discrimination at financial institutions, they’re also more likely to lack clear titles to the land that they inherited. Similarly, other Farm Bill programs like federal crop insurance, conservation and environmental and research grants (like Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) or Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and a variety of other incentives and training are geared towards protecting the rights and livelihoods of white farmers, and the bottom lines of large agribusinesses.
Any steps the USDA has taken to address this problem, like carving out funds for “socially disadvantaged farmers & ranchers” throughout its suite of programs have failed to address the generational impacts of exclusionary policy. Furthermore, due to a lack of transparency on the part of agencies like the USDA, it’s often hard to judge how much has changed for BIPOC producers during this time but some reports point to things not having changed to a large extent. An investigation by The Counter revealed that not only is discrimination by the USDA still rampant, but it has also gone to lengths to conceal the impacts of this discrimination and paint a false picture of the revival of Black farming
The work of bridging racial disparities, including advocating for and working towards more BIPOC representation and more democratic forms of leadership in decision making, building new systems of community land stewardship and cooperative models, and holding the USDA accountable to BIPOC producers is now driven by BIPOC-led organizations. For example, at the HEAL School of Political Leadership session in Albany, GA, a Black organic farmer talked about how he was building community and engaging in policy at the federal level by planning farmer fly-ins with other Black farmers in the region. The session was also organized on land that is held and managed by New Communities Inc., one of the country’s first land trusts, started by Shirley and Charles Sherrod. Leaders like Savi Horne of the Land Loss Prevention Project are fighting to ensure that younger Black farmers have titles to, and can keep their families’ land. This organizing work is also taking place on municipal and state levels: In Philadelphia, Soil Generation is in protecting urban gardens from the city and developers, and in doing so, fighting both food apartheid and gentrification. In Richmond, CA, Urban Tilth is partnering with the county to use public land to grow food for their community. Statewide in California, the California Farmer’s Justice Collaborative passed the California Farmer Equity Act which begins to directly address the challenges faced by BIPOC producers. In New Mexico, La Semilla is among the organizations advocating for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative which provides resources that can help producers and small retailers to provide fresh food to low-income urban, and rural communities. On Navajo Nation, Black Mesa Water Coalition and others are cultivating restorative food economies and writing tribal policy for food sovereignty. Nationally, the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance is growing and trading seeds for cultivation.
WATCH: A Conversation with Savi Horne of the Land Loss Prevention Project, American University School of Public Affairs
These local-level policy changes model what could happen on a federal level, where change is harder to achieve because powerful agribusiness lobbies wield considerable power over policymakers. However, folks like Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network (SAAFON), National Black Food and Justice Alliance, Hmong Farmers Association, National Family Farm Coalition, Native Farm Bill Coalition, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Black Urban Growers and many more are continuing their work of advocacy, outreach, and research to expand BIPOC producers access to federal and state resources.