The American Rescue Plan unveils revolutionary relief for farmers of color

The new round of COVID relief that emerged this month out of Washington includes a lot of the usual stuff (“usual” since spring of 2020, that is, when the whole world seemed to implode after the coronavirus ran rampant around the globe). By now we’re used to the run-of-the-mill offerings of stimulus checks, small business loans and direct payments to impacted farmers. Blah blah blah, more money here, more money there…As necessary and welcoming as this for so many people, it’s become… Not that newsworthy.

However, tucked into a few small paragraphs at the beginning of the 242 pages of the American Rescue Plan, signed into law on March 11, is something mighty newsworthy, indeed. In the space of less than a page, this law unveils a program “benefiting Black farmers in a way that some experts say no legislation has since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” (See Washington Post article, March 9, 2021.) Less can sometimes be more…

The program aims to provide USDA loan assistance and other support to “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers, which includes members of groups that have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice, such as Black or African American, American Indians or Native Alaskans, Hispanics, Asians and Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders. Approximately $4 billion is allocated for loan debt relief and another $1 billion is will go towards technical assistance, education, extension and financial assistance for land access and to set up a commission to address long-standing racial equity issues at USDA. (See Commercial Appeal article, Mar. 18, 2021.)

This potential opportunities this could create for BIPOC farmers is not a small thing. Jeffery Webb is an Arkansas farmer who needs cash for spring planting but faces high debts. He says, “There just isn’t much information out there. I am at the brink of bankruptcy right now. This forgiveness could keep me from going bankrupt.” (See Commercial Appeal article, Mar. 18, 2021.) Thomas Burrell, President of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association in Memphis, says “McDonald’s has a program to buy from minority vendors. But we don’t have the resources to process and distribute our products on a large scale. Corporate America is willing to do business with us but we don’t have the infrastructure in place. This could be our chance.’’ (See Commercial Appeal article, Mar. 18, 2021.)

John Boyd, President of the National Black Farms Association, says about the new law, “It’s an important step, but it is not the final step on the road to justice for Black farmers.” In an op-ed in Civil Eats, he tells his story of the 30 years leading up to this moment, and of the blatant discrimination tactics the USDA used against Black farmers to deny them loans. He was one of those Black farmers on the receiving end of bullying, name-calling and a refusal to process his application. He talks about the historic class action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, which he initiated in the late 1990s to seek justice for all these Black farmers who were denied loans.

Pigford didn’t quite deliver on its promise of $50,000 cash payments to Black farmers who experienced discrimination, as few farmers actually received payments. In 2010 Pigford II was initiated to give the 70,000 farmers who missed the Pigford I deadline, and payments are still underway.

With Black farmers having a chance for economic relief through Pigford II and now the American Rescue Plan, it seems like America is on the right track with righting the wrongs to farmers of color, which date back to The Homestead Act and the failure to provide Black farmers with the “40 acres and a mule” the government promised. But, with the dismal drop in non-white farm ownership (14% in 1910 and now barely 2%) and white farmers receiving the bulk of subsidy payments and other benefits, it’s clear we still have a long row to hoe in racial equity in American agriculture.