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House ag hearing explores ‘State of Black Farmers in the U.S.’

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Thursday afternoon, Black farming leaders and House Agricultural Committee members gathered for a landmark hearing titled A Hearing to Review the State of Black Farmers in the U.S. This hearing set out to explore the detrimental impact of longstanding, systemic discrimination by private and government institutions on Black farmers over the past century, including discriminatory practices from the USDA, private lenders, and others. 

House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott made opening remarks at the hearing, calling this a historic event that is helping to create a new conversation between Black farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This hearing came the same day that an interview Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack conducted with The Washington Post was released, during which he noted that just 0.1 percent of the Trump administration’s coronavirus relief money went to Black farmers. Black farmers received $20.8 million of nearly $26 billion in two rounds of payments under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, Vilsack told the Post.

By contrast, Vilsack acknowledged the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 — a coronavirus package that includes $4 billion in debt relief for farmers of color and an additional $1 billion in other assistance. Biden’s relief package included a specific element called the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, which directs Vilsack to “pay to each lender of farm loans guaranteed by the Secretary an amount equal to the principal and interest outstanding as of the date of enactment of this Act on all farm loans held by the lender, the borrowers of which are socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, such that the borrowers shall be relieved of the obligation to repay the principal and interest due on those guaranteed farm loans.”

“We saw 99 percent of the money going to White farmers, and 1 percent going to socially disadvantaged farmers, and if you break that down to how much went to Black farmers, it’s 0.1 percent,” he said. According to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, Black farmers make up 1.4 percent of the country’s 3.4 million total producers. While Vilsack’s statement suggests an unwarranted disparity in financial distributions, it’s unclear how many Black farmers applied for the money that went to their White counterparts and whether anything untoward took place.

During the Thursday afternoon hearing, the committee’s minority leader Glenn Thompson also provided remarks and was critical of the debt relief provided in Biden’s package. Thompson called it hyper-partisan and said it was a band-aid that failed to address the actual roots of inequality from the USDA.

Related reading: Agriculture and race: The complexities of rhetoric and reaction

Vilsack was among the first to testify at the House Agricultural Committee meeting. He affirmed his agency’s commitment “to do everything we can over the next four years to root out systemic racism.” He also noted that they have plans in place to encourage accountability and that he is putting the Biden administration’s equity plans into action.

Vilsack was being joined in testimony by leaders in the Black ag community, including John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association; Cornelius Blanding, executive director, Federation of Southern Cooperatives; and Phillip Haynie III, chairman of the National Black Growers Council; among others.

Boyd spoke of being thankful that a committee like this is finally hearing the cries of the Black ag community, and that there needs to be improvements in program delivery at local USDA offices. He highlighted the 0.1 percent figure that Vilsack shared with the Post and said, part of it is that “Black farmers don’t trust the United States Department of Agriculture.”

Blanding, who’s work at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives focuses largely on heir’s property (the lack of clear titles for many Black-owned farms), estimates that that 60% of Black land in the U.S. South has heir’s property issues and that access to government services needs to be available for all producers. 

“The reality is that Black farmers are going out of business and have lost the highest percentage of land across the country,” he said.

The hearing is viewable on the House Ag Committee’s YouTube channel.

Black farmers in the United States have seen reductions in number of farmers and total acres in the past century. Between 1900 and 1974, the number of farmers declined by approximately 60 percent, while the number of Black farmers declined by 94 percnet during the same period. Additionally, in 1920 Black farms operated 45 million acres, primarily in the South. By 2017, that shrunk to just 1.1 million acres.

“The NBFA continues to call on Congress to assure accountability and transparency from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and USDA,” Boyd said in a statement prior to the hearing. “While Black farmers had legislative successes during the Obama Administration, far too little was done during his tenure to address the long legacy of discrimination against Black farmers. Doors continue to be closed to many Black farmers and today our members face enormous challenges – including a system that disproportionately leaves them behind. To level the playing field and right these historic wrongs, Mr. Vilsack as Secretary must expand Black farmer access to land and credit and reform USDA’s income support and insurance programs to end systemic discrimination. He must create outreach programs to help Black farmers participate in these programs and lift the veil of secrecy that hides the true extent of racial discrimination at USDA. I stand ready to work with Secretary Vilsack to meet these challenges – and to hold him accountable.”

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