(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

JOE HERNANDEZTwitter

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 www.farmers.gov/americanrescueplan/arp-faq to learn more about the process and how to prepare. And please check back periodically at www.farmers.gov/americanrescueplan 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 farmers.gov/service-locator.

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 www.farmers.gov/americanrescueplan for more.

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

https://grist.org/food/what-happened-to-americas-black-farmers/

In Case You Missed It…

This story aired February 2, 2021 on marketplace.org 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.https://d0931a11d9af18e97ec8395b188b8aa1.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

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.

Noble Labor

Anthony Noble: Connecting Justice, Food and Land 

(one small college farm at a time)

–Dorothy Weiss, 2/01/2021, Princeton, NJ

Anthony Noble rescued Miller Farm on the campus of Earlham College farm  in Richmond, Virginia from abandoned weeds to a place that grows both food and new ideas about people, food, racial justice and the future of our relationship to land. (Photo from @_millerfarm_)

“Once in southwest Michigan I saw a Black man on a tractor and thought, ‘Wow! I think I might want to move here.’”

Throughout the United States, there are numerous colleges with farms, where students can participate in learning how to grow their own food. I am a student at Earlham College, located in Richmond, Indiana. Earlham’s college farm, Miller Farm, is small, but robust, with areas dedicated to permaculture, fields of sunflowers, basil, and tomatoes, ginnehens, bees, an outdoor kitchen, and more. With the farm just a minute away from my dorm, I often meander its greens to enjoy the instant peace it gives me. But Miller Farm was not always as lush. My first year at Earlham, the farm was set to get rejuvenated by a new faculty member, Anthony Noble. In just three and a half years, the farm was teeming with life. I spoke to Noble outside of our Environmental Sustainability building on an unusually warm autumn day, with leaf blowers raging in the background. 

Anthony Noble grew up on a family farm located in New Castle, Indiana. When he was in the fifth grade, his father sold the farm due to a lack of interest from his children to continue on the path as farmers. However, Noble understood later on that in fact he did want to pursue farming, and reminisces how a slight gap in generational farmers can disrupt the entire lineage. After studying engineering, urban planning, and permaculture, Noble realized that farming coincided with many of his skills and sought work that felt honest, rewarding, and meaningful. Noble senses the danger to society that, in not knowing where our food comes from or how to grow it, we will lose valuable skills in how to grow food. Noble comments, “farming used to be a lot more collective and the only way we can rediscover that is to practice it and practice collaborative farming and making that purely ritual and figure out how to keep passing that knowledge.”

Now, Noble passes his knowledge of farming at Miller Farm, a student run farm at Earlham College. He has worked there for three and a half years, expanding the farm in terms of growth capacity, infrastructure, and student involvement. Noble has high hopes for Miller Farm that one day it will be able to generate a sufficient income to further expand the farm and its capabilities. Noble hopes that Earlham College itself will integrate with Miller Farm so that every student interacts with it, whether it be through growing and eating the food to creating experiments about the farm. Noble emphasizes the need to re-create a culture of caring and self-sufficiency. 

I spoke to Noble to know more about his experience as a farmer of color, along with his hopes for the future of farming in the United States. 

“It’s one of those things that you either want to farm or you don’t. But I really want to open it up and make it welcoming for all types of people”

DW: Do you want to speak to the lack of people of color involved in farming?

AN: Yeah, it was harder for me to get into farming being that people of color are not always welcomed in rural areas, feeling like I always had to be on my guard. That’s been one big thing and not seeing other people of color farming. I remember a couple times in my life seeing black farmers. Once in southwest Michigan I saw a black man on a tractor and thought “wow! I think I might want to move here. How is this happening?” I grew up in Indiana and I’m not afraid to go around rural parts but I don’t see many black people in rural Indiana, much less on a tractor or gardening. The second time was driving through Mississippi, and going through areas that are predominately African American and seeing lots of people farming so that was another wow moment for me. 

DW: What about your time living in Oregon, did you encounter mostly white farmers?

AN: Mostly. There were Mexican farm workers that I didn’t see a lot of. I think a lot of the black farmers were few and far between. In rural areas there were more people doing community gardens. I managed a farmers market in an African American part of town so I got to see a lot of people starting to bring things to farmers markets. 

DW: What’s your hope for farming in the future for the U.S.?

AN: I would like to see a lot more small farms and developing more tools and techniques that people could use especially for collaborative farming. Figuring out how to heal the land that’s been misused, how to get the resources, putting good land to use and rehabilitating land that has lost its organic matter, its microbial life, nitrogen, and the things that reach towards what this fertile land used to be like. In Indiana we have so much farmland that has been farmed for so long. Early on land was given to people for homesteads where the land was used for one crop and when that crop finally failed they picked up and they moved farther, at least that’s what I’ve read for grain crops. I think we need to figure out how to reverse that and think about a regenerative farming culture where we take land and we make it better than it was before. 

DW: What do you think is the biggest obstacle in Indiana for achieving that goal?

AN: I think there is a lot of status quo and we need people who are visionaries who can really figure out how to engage communities and create new culture, and salvage old culture, of farming.

I asked Noble about his plans to further expand Miller farm and bring a greater diversity from the student body. For Noble he says, “I don’t want to push people too hard to become a part of it. It’s one of those things that you either want to farm or you don’t. But I really want to open it up and make it welcoming for all types of people” One way in which Noble plans to do so is by giving more talks on campus to spread awareness of the farm and to grow  produce from around the world so international students can have a piece of home at school. For me, Miller Farm has been a way to get my hands dirty with my classmates to reconnect with the land and find a sense of purpose outside of the academic world. 

“I think we need to figure out how to . . . think about a regenerative farming culture, where we take land and make it better than it was before.”

Photo from @_millerfarm_

https://millerfarmers.wixsite.com/millerfarm

Black Farmers

For those of us who may not be that familiar with the continuous challenges faced by Black farmers, I thought I’d start off the first day of Black History Month 2021, by reposting an article that appeared yesterday in the New York Times.

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/31/climate/black-farmers-discrimination-agriculture.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage

Below, I have listed a few organizations that provide assistance to Black farmers who live in the South:

Federation of Southern Cooperatives: Provides assistance to farmers living in states located in the Deep South (www.federation.coop).

Land Loss Prevention Project: Provides assistance to farmers living in North Carolina (www.landloss.org).

New Communities Land Trust : Provides assistance to farmers living in Southwest, Georgia (www.newcommunitiesinc.com).

Growing Appalachia: From the Ground Up

By Dorothy Weiss, Berea, Ky, 1/26/2021

Mark Walden on building stronger communities

Mark Walden
Mark Walden is a program manager for Grow Appalachia. Photo courtesy of Grow Appalachia.

“Food connects people and provides equity in communities and opens the doors for conversations.”

Grow Appalachia is an organization that focuses on cultivating a vibrant local food system in central Appalachia. Grow Appalachia partners with local organizations in communities to provide education to beginner farmers, help families start their own gardens, provide technical assistance for farming, and feed local communities through community kitchens and the Berea Kids Eat program. I spoke to Mark Walden who manages two programs for Grow Appalachia, educating beginner farmers, and high tunnel construction. In Covid fashion we spoke via zoom, while both situated in the town of Berea, Kentucky where the program is headquartered through Berea College. 

The children shown above are participating in a Kids Eat program activity that was held at the Boys and Girls Club of Bristol, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of Grow Appalachia.

“women are leading the charge in agriculture in our region and conferences”

Mark began his work with Grow Appalachia in 2012, after attempting to start a family farm with his wife. After the loss of his brother to cancer, Mark and his wife were seeking a life with access to healthy, chemical free foods, and minimal stress. However, farming turned out to be very demanding, with the multiple roles one must fill to create a successful business off of the land. So, while maintaining a garden to sustain their family, Mark started working for Grow Appalachia, to help foster healthy communities throughout the Appalachian region. He educates new farmers, especially on how to grow organic food. Grow Appalachia only supports organic products, so those who seek their help have to learn organic farming practices. This is intentional in not just creating fresh vegetables, but for having chemical free produce, where cancer is rampant. Mark comments how most people going through the farmer education program are from ages thirty to fifty, and mostly female saying, “women are leading the charge in agriculture in our region and conferences”. Mark also works with the Natural Resource Conservation Service through the USDA to provide high tunnels to farmers. He said that the application process was complicated and through the assistance of Berea College, Grow Appalachia was able to secure sufficient funding, demonstrating how seeking federal funding for farmers can be quite difficult. For the future of Grow Appalachia, Mark hopes to see more outreach to communities of color, seeing that the program predominantly addresses white folk. And as for the future of food systems in America, Mark hopes for, “vibrant local and regional food systems where healthy food is accessible to all. Food connects people and provides equity in communities and opens the doors for conversations.”

Grow Appalachia is one of the many programs seeking to address food insecurity and health issues in the Appalachia area. Through its work communities learn to see the power in their own self reliance. 

Above a Grow Appalachia program participant installs plastic on a hoop house. Photo courtesy of Grow Appalachia.

Land Ownership vs. Urban Agriculture

Back to the Land,’ Really?

How does urban farming compare to rural farming in terms of land ownership, food justice, and community?

The food justice movement is an important example of how communities of color are reclaiming collective power in a society that is systematically set up to hinder their wellbeing and success. Access to nutritious food is one of the most foundational aspect to health and wellness. Through nourishing communities of color and setting up food systems that work on the borders of our capitalist society, the food justice movement is reimagining what a more sustainable economy and society could look like. However, there appears to be an urban-rural divide in strategies, both tied to food production and land access but at different scales and with different implications about points of investment. Are there opportunities to connect the two and bridge rural and urban activism around farming, food, and community? 

To address food access in urban communities, many activists have turned to urban agriculture as a means to grow food and build networks.  For over 100 years, we have seen examples of urban agriculture projects – from community gardens to urban farms –   taking underutilized, debilitated land and transforming it into thriving urban gardens. These efforts – from Philadelphia to Chicago and San Francisco to New Orleans – have been effective means to make fresh vegetables accessible and affordable to communities of color that lack access to healthy, culturally appropriate, affordable fresh food. But what urban community gardens and farms often lack is space and secure land tenure. As blog contributor Laura Lawson’s research has found, most urban community garden programs have been opportunistic, relying on borrowed land and short-term leases, and only recently have mechanisms such as urban land trusts come into play to address long-term land security.  Another challenge these urban gardens face is scale – urban lots of ⅛ to ¼ acre can be productive but are a far cry from the acreage needed to address the needed food production. Access to larger parcels is complicated by urban real estate pressures and urban planning presumptions of “higher and better use” that tend to downgrade the economic and social benefits of urban farms and gardens. Thus, while urban gardens and farms are often powerfully networked into local activism and carry a heavy weight of intended benefits, how much they can really achieve in improving quality of life remains unclear. 

Another option is to go to where the land is – rural communities in need of new energy and able to contribute much more in the way of agriculture as livelihood and food production. The Great Migration shifted many families from rural communities to urban ones, and now the tide had turned to “back to the land.” Such is the case described in a recent article, “Fighting Food Apartheid and Finding Freedom on a Virginia Farm,” in Ecofarm Daily.   Author Leigh Glenn interviews Renard Turner, a black homesteader in Virginia and food sovereignty advocate, who describes  long-term issue of urban farming in that they “don’t equate to food sovereignty and do little toward decreasing the numbers of food scarcity in inner cities.” In order to create long-term change, Turner asserts that people of color need to own land and control their own economy of food from growing to distribution. For Renard Turner, that is the path towards true food sovereignty. 

Since its inception, the Cultivating Justice blog has sought to share stories of both urban and rural farmers in order to highlight the passions propelling their efforts and the challenges they face. We have heard from both rural and urban growers that cultural connection and seeking healthier lives are important factors driving their work. For both urban and rural growers, getting access to quality land can be a tricky business. Land ownership has often come up, whether it is urban farmers wanting to scale up production but not finding adequate land or rural growers concerned about the next generation picking up farming and caring for rural communities. And the need for education and training is often raised as both a rural and urban concern. People are no longer raised gardening and growing food, so the prospect of scaling up production often requires access to advanced agricultural education. 

How might food sovereignty reframe the urban-rural divide into a shared concern? When it comes to food justice, how can we support connections between urban and rural food production and access? What kinds of programs might be needed to enable ambitious urban gardeners to apprentice with experienced rural farmers? What supports might they need to buy land and farm on a larger scale in the country? And how can this come back to the city to satisfy local food needs while also building power within the community? 

These are questions we pose and hope to hear back from our readers, many of whom have unique perspectives to share.

Fighting Food Apartheid and Finding Freedom on a Virginia Farm

-Dorothy Weiss, Princeton, NJ

– Laura Lawson, Highland Park, NJ 

01/21/2021

A Bright Light

Ms. Estes and I are organizing produce prior to the mid-week farmers market that was held at the garden. Photo courtesy of Anne Clay Kenan. Circa 1997.

If memory serves me correctly, it was late summer 1999 when Ms. Lillie Mae Estes agreed to “demonstrate” how she tended her community garden plot. At the time, I was the site’s director and eager to document the gradual transformation of the vacant lot located in Northeast Central Durham, North Carolina into the community green space. It would eventually become a space which included both a mural and garden plots where local residents could grow organic vegetables. On this day, I had invited cinematographer Roger Beebe to come to the garden to capture Ms. Estes’ actions with his 16mm camera. My goal was to produce a feature-length film about the garden and the neighborhood using Roger’s footage and the Super 8 film I had captured over the course of several months. Ultimately, what I produced was an audio soundscape that meshed interview soundbites with the sounds of garden and neighborhood activities. While the finished product differed from what I originally intended to produce, this period marked the moment when I realized my passions for urban agriculture, green spaces, and doing documentary work.

Now more than 20 years later, I am so thankful to have this footage of Ms. Estes. One of my favorite images is a freeze frame of her gardening that I used as cover art for the cultivating justice blog. Another is the image at the top of the blog that shows Ms.Estes and I preparing to sell leafy greens at the mid-week market that was held on site. At the time, she was one of my North stars—no matter what, during the growing season, you could always count on her presence at the garden. Most days, barring bad weather or a previously scheduled trip to the grocery store or another errand, she would arrive early usually wearing a baseball cap or wide-brimmed hat with a hoe in hand and a teasing look of disappointment if I arrived after her. Born in 1919, Ms. Estes was “raised on a farm in the country,” where she acquired her knowledge of all things gardening before later moving to Durham in the ’70s. In mid-August of 1994, our paths crossed when I was hired to assist with the transformation of the vacant lot, and my life was forever changed. Ms. Estes is no longer with us and I am decades removed from my time at that garden, but every time I visit the blog and see her image, I am transported back to that time.

Ms. Estes demonstrates how she tends her garden. Filmed by Roger Beebe circa 1999.