Fighting to Grow: Black farmers continue to battle systemic discrimination

Hello all,

The following article is a must-read and can be found, along with much more great material, at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website ( If you aren’t familiar with the center’s work, please visit the site.

Written by Dwayne Fatherree

February 18, 2022

By any definition, Kendall Rae Johnson is an exceptional child. 

It all started when her parents saved some collard green stems and planted them for a garden in honor of her great-grandmother.

“A week later she came in and said, ‘Hey, we got something growing,’” said her mother, Ursula Johnson. “Then she was inspired. She planted cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers. She watched it, touched it, made sure there were no bugs. That was the beginning.”

Now, at the tender age of 6, Kendall Rae is the youngest certified farmer in Georgia history, fulfilling those requirements last fall. 

“I like playing in the dirt,” she said. 

Kendall Rae Johnson holds a tomato

Kendall Rae Johnson, 6, is the youngest certified farmer in Georgia history. (Credit: Family photo)

What sets Kendall apart from other children is her fascination with – and passion for – learning about raising plants and animals. A century ago, that would not have been so unusual for an African American child. Then, Black farmers made up 14% of the producers in the United States. As of 2017, that number had dropped to just 1.4%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) most recent agricultural census. They also lost 90% of their property, some 16 million acres worth up to $350 billion, during that time, compared with just 2% for white farmers.

Like all people who work the soil, Black farmers have had to contend with Mother Nature and her whims. But unlike their white counterparts, they have had to fight a war on two fronts. While the federal government has provided loan and subsidy programs on a large scale to farmers, studies have shown that the bulk of that aid has historically gone to white farmers and has been largely withheld from Black farmers.

And that is not just an issue from days gone by. Even today, government programs intended to help farms survive the market effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have largely missed Black farmers. In fact, efforts aimed directly at socially disadvantaged producers – those who have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice or cultural bias within American society – are tied up in a Texas court, where a trial judge ruled that programs aimed at rectifying more than a century of discrimination are in and of themselves discriminatory.

“(T)he Government puts forward no evidence of intentional discrimination by the USDA in at least the past decade,” according to the court’s opinion on the matter. “To find intentional discrimination, then, requires a logical leap, as well as a leap back in time. In sum, the Government’s evidence falls short of demonstrating a compelling interest, as any past discrimination is too attenuated from any present-day lingering effects to justify race-based remedial action by Congress.”

Basically, the court has ruled that there is a time limit on how far back Congress can go to remediate intentional discrimination by the government. This has enormous implications for other kinds of reparations as well.

No place at the table

The challenges facing Black farmers go back to the abolishment of slavery and to the Reconstruction era that followed. In fact, two pieces of legislation that have primarily aided white farmers over the years – the Homestead Act and the Morrill Land Grant Act– were passed in 1862. By 1934, more than 270 million acres – 10% of U.S. lands – were transferred from the Tribal Nations into the hands of more than 1.6 million largely white homesteaders. Many of these transfers were made prior to the 1868 adoption of the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to formerly enslaved people.

Much of the discrimination was far more overt and directed. Over the years, courts have determined that Black farmers were discriminated against at every level. Government officials withheld loan and grant funds, making it difficult, if not impossible, for Black farmers to compete against their white counterparts.

Additionally, the lack of established wealth and land being passed from generation to generation left the Black farmers at a significant disadvantage, even before the detrimental actions of the U.S. government.

These are not just allegations. They have been documented for more than a half century. In its 1965 report on Black farmers, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found numerous problems in the way federal programs treated farmers of color. The report documented how the USDA’s Cooperative Extension Service, Farmers Home Administration, Soil Conservation Service and Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service denied thousands of Black farmers access to services provided to white farmers to help them diversify their crops, increase production, achieve adequate farming operations or train for off-farm employment.

Sugarcane field

A laborer walks through a sugar cane field, where the work can be intense and arduous. (Credit: iStock photo) 

The report also showed that of almost 5,000 county committeemen for the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service in 11 Southern states, none were Black, even though these committees had huge power over who received farm program payments and who did not.

Those findings, in various degrees, were repeated in similar reports in 1982 and 1997. The efforts to hold back Black farmers continued well into the 21st century. 

In the landmark Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit, a federal judge in 1999 ruled that the USDA had systematically denied assistance to Black farmers. Under the consent decree settling the case, payments totaling $1 billion were distributed to some 20,000 Black farmers. 

But the discrimination didn’t stop there. Another $1.2 billion was awarded a decade later to settle claims in subsequent litigation that the USDA had continued its practice of ignoring Black farmers; many farmers who should have been compensated in the first settlement were denied payments because of delays and foot-dragging on the part of government officials. Even then, the amount each plaintiff received was relatively small despite the overall size of the settlement.

‘White nationalist litigation’

In recent years, efforts to offset the systemic discrimination against Black farmers are themselves being targeted as discriminatory.

Shortly after the passage of President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a group called America First Legal filed a lawsuit on behalf of Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for North Texas, argues that two portions of the act, Section 1005 and 1006, are discriminatory because they set up some $5 billion in aid specifically to pay off loans and provide other aid to farmers who have been discriminated against because of the smaller size of their operations.

Not surprisingly, America First Legal was established by former Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller, who has a long history of promoting white nationalist ideology and policies, both before and during his service in the White House. His connections to far-right and white nationalist groups have been heavily documented, most notably in a series of stories based on emails leaked to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s HateWatch.

A trial judge blocked the distribution of aid to Black farmers under the two sections of ARPA pending a resolution of the lawsuit, meaning that much of the aid is in limbo. While other funds are being released, the farmers depending on the ARPA funds to level the playing field instead must fight not only systemic discrimination but also the challenges of operating in the midst of a global pandemic.

Working within a broken system

While there is litigation underway to help remove the systemic roadblocks Black farmers face, other groups are trying to help those farmers operate within the existing flawed infrastructure. The SPLC, for example, has partnered with organizations including the EcoWomanist Institute and the Center for Community Progress to expand and deepen its on-the-ground advocacy for Black farmers.

“We are working to support several community organizations in Georgia essentially to help farmers develop the skills and expertise to scale up their farming operations,” said Clara Potter, a staff attorney for the SPLC’s Economic Justice Project. “These are folks who applied for microloans through a rural FSA [Farm Service Agency] office in Georgia and were denied loans on grounds we don’t think totally add up.”

Potter said that even though there is a history of discrimination, there is not always a long legal paper trail to follow.

Kendall Rae Johnson tends to her garden

Kendall Rae Johnson, 6, tends to her garden, which she has grown into her own urban agriculture business. (Credit: Family photo)

“It’s rare to find individual farmers challenging FSA offices on discrimination grounds,” Potter said. “As you can imagine, there are a lot of hurdles to bringing these lawsuits. There’s a lot of opacity in these processes. We’re helping these farmers first reapply for these microloans and hoping that they get approved or, if they are denied, assist them with the appeals process.”

As these processes aimed at resolving historic discrimination move forward, Kendall Rae Johnson is cultivating hope for a brighter future. She is growing her own urban agriculture business, aGROWKulture, creating produce baskets for local customers. Because of the national media coverage of her certification, she has had a successful GoFundMe effort to expand the footprint of her garden.

She is also about to set another milestone, becoming the youngest person to charter her own 4-H classes.

“She’s going to start off with four classes,” Ursula Johnson said. “Beekeeping, gardening, public speaking/leadership and animal companionship. She’s using horses for that.”

In the meantime, while winter hovers over the South, Kendall Rae is more focused on the things within her control that farmers have contended with for centuries. 

“I put on a warm coat and get out there,” she said. “I get out there and keep the cold away.”

Top picture: 6-year-old Georgia farmer Kendall Rae Johnson is the youngest person to charter her own 4-H classes. (Credit: Family photo)

Drama in Texas

The 3 videos I’ve posted below provide more context for the NPR story (U.S. Farmers of Color Were About To Get Loan Forgiveness. Now The Program Is On Hold by Joe Hernandez) I shared back on June 14, 2021, regarding the Biden Administration’s efforts to provide a financial remedy to farmers of color who have suffered from years of discriminatory practices by the USDA.

Thanks to TikTok content producer @bodegabites for discussing how a law suit filed by Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is one more obstacle facing the Biden Administration’s loan forgiveness efforts, and how Miller’s actions are a slap in the face to Texas’ Black and Brown farmers.

(NPR published this story on Friday, June 11, 2021)

U.S. Farmers Of Color Were About To Get Loan Forgiveness. Now The Program Is On Hold

June 11, 20212:17 PM ET


A new federal program created by the Biden administration to reverse years of economic discrimination against U.S. farmers of color has ground to a halt.

On Thursday, a federal judge in Wisconsin ordered the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop forgiving loans on the basis of race under a novel effort included in the American Rescue Plan relief package.

The ruling was a blow to the nascent USDA program but a victory for the conservative law firm behind the case and the 12 white farmers it represents, who say they are ineligible for the debt forgiveness because of their race.

“The government has created a program that distributes government benefits based solely on the race of the farmer, and Supreme Court precedent is very clear the government can’t do that without a very good reason,” Luke Berg, deputy counsel with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, told NPR.

“The government hasn’t identified such a reason. It’s only pointed to societal discrimination, systemic discrimination, but the courts are clear that that’s not enough,” he added.Article continues after sponsor message

The news was first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

U.S. District Court Judge William C. Griesbach of the Eastern District of Wisconsin, who issued the temporary restraining order, said in his opinion that Congress cannot create a program that discriminates on the basis of race and that the USDA did not provide any evidence it was attempting to correct a specific act of discrimination.

“The obvious response to a government agency that claims it continues to discriminate against farmers because of their race or national origin is to direct it to stop: it is not to direct it to intentionally discriminate against others on the basis of their race and national origin,” Griesbach wrote.

A USDA spokesperson said the department will be prepared to resume the loan forgiveness program if and when the restraining order is lifted. “We respectfully disagree with this temporary order and USDA will continue to forcefully defend our ability to carry out this act of Congress and deliver debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers,” the spokesperson said.

A history of discrimination against farmers of color

The USDA has a decades-long track record of discriminating against Black farmers and other farmers of color — a history top officials in the department now acknowledge.

“The fact is that there was discrimination in the ’70s and ’80s and into the ’90s at USDA that made it very difficult for socially disadvantaged producers to access fully and completely the programs at USDA,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told NPR in March.

“The result, of course, is that over a period of time, they get further and further behind,” he added.

The racial division between those farmers who receive federal aid and those who don’t was evident as recently as last year, according to Vilsack.

The USDA distributed tens of billions of dollars to farmers impacted by COVID-19 in 2020, but only 1% of the aid went to what the department calls “socially disadvantaged producers” — a catchall term for farmers of color.

The government’s ongoing pattern of discrimination toward farmers of color has bred skepticism among some growers and ranchers, who say they remain unsure of whether the USDA will follow through on its most recent promise.

“If you go and stick your hand in a hole and a rattlesnake bites it the first time, then you go back there a second time, it bites you the second time, what do you think you are going to do the third time?” Georgia farmer Lucious Abrams said at a recent event, as NPR reported earlier this month. Abrams has been battling the USDA in court over lending discrimination.

What the Biden program does

The new debt relief program is open to farmers who are Black, Hispanic or Latino, Asian, Native American, Native Alaskan or Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander.

The federal government will pay up to 120% of the total amount eligible farmers own on Farm Service Agency (FSA) Direct and Guaranteed Farm Loans and Farm Storage Facility Loans (FSFL) as of January 1.

What it does not do is include indebted white farmers, a dozen of whom from 9 states including Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota took the USDA to court over the program.

Berg acknowledged that the USDA does have a history of discriminating against Black farmers and other farmers of color. But he said that discrimination was “decades old at this point” and that Congress did not tailor the relief plan in question to the needs of current farmers.

“Instead it chose to pick certain racial groups and not others for complete loan forgiveness and entirely exclude other racial groups, and that is breathtaking in its scope and clearly unconstitutional,” Berg said.

At a recent event, as NPR reported, Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock said the skepticism Black farmers have about the program is “very understandable.”

“These folks have been disappointed time and time again,” he said. “That deep distrust was built over years. It didn’t happen overnight. It’s not going to be resolved overnight. But the best thing we can do right now is to deliver this.” 

Happy Spring!

This article was posted today on the USDA’s website, so I thought I’d repost it here. In the weeks to come, I look forward to following the rollout of the program mentioned below and to speaking with farmers who qualify for it. My goal is to document this process in hopes of gauging the impact of what could be a monumental boost for Black farmers who were not included in the Pigford v Glickman suit or who still found themselves in debt after receiving settlement relief.

FAQs on American Rescue Plan Debt Relief for Socially Disadvantaged Borrowers

Posted by Zach Ducheneaux, Administrator, Farm Service Agency in FarmingApr 16, 2021 

A person holding a vegetable at a farm
A person holding a vegetable at a farm.

Earlier this week, we posted important information about the American Rescue Plan debt relief payments for socially disadvantaged producers. The American Rescue Plan includes provisions for USDA to pay up to 120% of loan balances, as of January 1, 2021, for Farm Service Agency (FSA) Direct and Guaranteed Farm Loans and Farm Storage Facility Loans (FSFL).

If you are a Black, Native American/Alaskan Native, Asian American or Pacific Islander, or are of Hispanic/Latino ethnicity, with one of the loans listed above, you are eligible for the loan payment. FSA is working hard to ensure that we provide this relief as expeditiously as possible to those who qualify. As a producer myself, I understand the importance of being able to plan finances accordingly. That’s why I encourage you look at our frequently asked questions at to learn more about the process and how to prepare. And please check back periodically at for updates. In the meantime, USDA and FSA will continue to do outreach to the socially disadvantaged producer community to ensure you have accurate, timely information.

When the time comes, there will be no application fee, and the FSA is making plans to do any necessary paperwork on your behalf. We understand that there are community-based organizations that you trust to assist you with USDA activities. Our FAQs provide guidance on working with trusted organizations. My goal as Administrator of FSA is to build and earn that same trust.

Our frequently asked questions also give guidance to eligible borrowers who may be uncertain of their demographic designation on file with FSA. If this applies to you, I encourage you to call your local Service Center to verify your classification on record. If an update or correction is needed, you may either fill out an AD-2047 form (PDF, 234 KB) and return it to your local service center or call them to update your record, including race and ethnicity. Find your local Service Center at

If you have questions, we’ve developed a list of those that we’re getting most often, and if yours isn’t answered, please don’t hesitate to let us know.

For our friends in the lending community, your cooperation, commitment to our shared customers, and patience as we navigate this process is greatly appreciated. We value our partnership. If you have questions about the process as it applies to your institution, please reach out to your FSA contacts.

For the rest of our stakeholders, the Farm Service Agency is open for business and delivering programs and services to all producers at an historic pace; all the while taking every precaution to help us turn the corner on the COVID-19 pandemic and get our lives and our economy back on track.

The Farm Service Agency is at your service and we look forward to providing updates on this important topic. Please continue to watch for more.

Please view the article linked below for more context on Pigford v Glickman.

In Case You Missed It…

This story aired February 2, 2021 on and was reported by Leoneda Inge (click on title to listen to the story).

New generation is helping to revive Black-owned farms

For generations, Black-owned farms have struggled, and they’ve all but disappeared in many parts of the country. Julius Tillery, a fifth-generation cotton farmer, is trying to turn that around.

“You can call me the Puff Daddy of cotton,” Tillery said. “People like to call me that.”

Julius Tillery is a fifth generation cotton grower and founder of Black Cotton.
Julius Tillery, a fifth-generation cotton grower, founded Black Cotton. (Photo by Leoneda Inge)

Tillery works with his family on Tillery Farms in Northampton County, North Carolina. He has witnessed Black farms like theirs disappear, he said, but he has also seen signs of revitalization from Black millennials, like himself. Tillery said young folks were coming back home. It was time for him to get his hands dirty.

“So I looked at what my great-grandfather was able to do and grandfather and even my father, utilizing cotton and keeping our family farm going,” Tillery said. “I wanted to make sure that we changed the narrative so people can see pride … and ownership around cotton.”

So, the 34-year-old Tillery founded Black Cotton — selling a small patch of cotton from the farm as wreaths, bouquets and other home décor items. He spends a lot of time packing and shipping boxes for the online business.

Just over 100 miles away is the Tall Grass Food Box, run out of Durham County. When schools, restaurants and farmers markets closed in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, it was especially hard for small-scale Black farmers to sell their food. Hard to survive.

Gabrielle E.W. Carter and two friends jumped into action. The 30-year-old helped re-create a supply chain to get fresh food from Black farmers to customers. 

“Very fulfilling for me personally,” Carter said. “Just kind of reconnecting to some of the work that I feel like Black people, Black women in our communities especially, thinking about my grandmother. This is the type of work we do a lot of times.”

A box of sweet potatoes brought in from a farmer to distribute in the Tall Grass Food Box.
A box of sweet potatoes brought in from a farmer to distribute in the Tall Grass Food Box. (Photo by Leoneda Inge)

The Tall Grass Food Box uses a simple model. It stays in contact with a dozen or so farmers, and people go online and pay $50 for a box of fresh produce, like collard greens, mustard greens, sweet potatoes, carrots, radishes, whatever is coming out of the ground.

Anna Huckabee of Moonlight Farms said the boxes saved her mushroom business. She said it has been going well ever since she met the team at Tall Grass.

“I mean, just so much exposure just being with them,” Huckabee said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Huckabee said dropping off her goods for the food boxes also gave her the chance to meet other Black farmers.

By the end of December, Tall Grass said it had raised $80,000 for Black farmers in the community.

Correction (Feb. 9, 2021): Derrick Beasley’s name was misspelled in the original photo caption for this story.