(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 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.


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_


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.


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).