On March 11, a $1.9 trillion economic package called the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 was signed into law, allocating nearly $10.4 billion for U.S. agriculture and food supply programs.
The Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act was one of the many articles passed along with this plan. This act has been floated across numerous media channels as the most significant legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, almost half of the American Rescue Plan funding for agriculture and food supply programs ($5 billion) has been allocated specifically as direct aid to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) farmers.
However, this legislation became quickly controversial.
Farmers across the nation are suing the federal government, claiming racial exclusivity of debt relief to farmers. White farmers argue that this act is, in fact, contradictory to the lines in the Civil Rights Act that “prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
From the perspective of an agriculturalist of color, I would argue that this claim is missing the true intent of passing the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, like many U.S. citizens, Black farmers went to work farming to make a living and feed their families. However, Black farmers were yet seen as completely equal.
With White-serving communities still normalized and Black folks seen as less than human, it was difficult for Black farmers to receive loans, land, or resources to keep up with the increased demand of the growing country in comparison to their White counter parts. Many Black farmers weren’t seen as productive members of society or even people, leading to many White businesses to deny the newly recognized citizens from attaining resources that could have sustained their farming practices.
Even further, as federal entities like the U.S. Department of Agriculture were beginning to form and structuralize, programs to protect farmers were formed — but didn’t account BIPOC farmers as they, again, were not seen as equal in the industry before, during, and after the Civil Rights movement. The programs may have adapted and changed since implementation, but there is still glaring inequities in programming that do not take into account BIPOC communities’ systemic challenges. Many of these challenges leading BIPOC farmers to not meet requirements for certain programs that others may have an easier time achieving; who themselves and their families having not faced those systemic discrimination issues that have affected BIPOC farmers generational wealth for decades.
Imagine building up our family farms, agribusinesses, or local community agriculture programs without aid in this increasingly rocky economic climate in our country? Could we sustain our productions? If no, then how do we expect our BIPOC farmers to sustain.
In 1910, Black Farmers owned around 17 million acres of farmland. After decades of this discrimination, which still occurred after 1964 and still occurs today, Black farmers own 1.1 acres of farmland. In 1920, there were close to 950,000 Black farmers in the country; there are now about 48,000. These statistics are alarming, especially as we make the comparison to our White counterparts, who, according to census data, totaled more than 5.4 million in 1920 and today still have around 3.2 million across the country.
So while farmland overall has shrunk considerably, the number of White farmers declined about 41 percent over the past century, while the number of Black farmers declined close to 95 percent.
Black farmers aren’t the only ones affected as we can certainly speak to the descent of Indigenous farmers as influence by colonization, and other stories that influenced the descent of farmers of color in agriculture. I will definitely make space to discuss this in future columns. But for the sake of this column, here is the deal:
This isn’t just a COVID relief issue for BIPOC farmers. As we have read, this chunk of aid is to rectify a systemic issue facing BIPOC farmers.
To give us a visual of what I mean, imagine the carnival game where we must shoot water at a target to fill up a long, plastic cylinder. This cylinder sends a rubber duck up to the top as it is filled. The goal is to get the rubber duck to the top before anyone else, and we get the prize. In order to do this, however, we must consistently shoot water at the target and not miss.
Imagine if BIPOC farmers and White farmers each had a turn at this game and were competing with each other. White farmers have no issues with the game. When the buzzer rings, they hit the target with unlimited water supply. Now, it’s not that BIPOC farmers can’t hit the target, but their squirter doesn’t have enough water to begin with. When the buzzer dings, they are still expected to get their rubber duck or token to the top with less water than their White counter part.
Even though a silly comparison, the visual still stands. We all have the opportunity to play the game, we all just weren’t set up equitably.
We include BIPOC farmers in the “American Rescue Plan” because it is a group of people that need a life raft, more water in their squirter to deter further decline. Looking at the numbers, I hope we aren’t too late to provide a hand up to our BIPOC community of farmers. Luckily for our country, we have folks who notice the decline in BIPOC farmers for years, even decades, and have an invested interest in the passage of the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act.
To aid their advocacy work and/or to learn more, visit their websites or follow their Instagram for more information on how to get involved:
Congressman and Chair of the House Agriculture Committee David Scott
Senator Cory Booker
National Black Food and Justice Alliance
National Latino Farmers and Ranchers Trade Association
National Young Farmers Coalition
Federation of Southern Cooperatives
Black Belt Justice Center
Black Dirt Farm Collective
Bre Holbert is a past National FFA President and studies agriculture science and education at California State-Chico. “Two ears to listen is better than one mouth to speak. Two ears allow us to affirm more people, rather than letting our mouth loose to damage people’s story by speaking on behalf of others.”