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COVID-19 bill includes at least $4B in debt relief for Black farmers

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Sen. Raphael Warnock, one of the newly installed U.S. senators who won a historic runoff election in Georgia, has quickly made his mark on one of the most prominent pieces of legislation in Congress: the COVID-19 relief bill. But perhaps not in the way many would have expected. Warnock spearheaded the inclusion of the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act — which provides at least $4 billion in debt relief for Black farmers and other farmers of color — into the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 coronavirus package.

His measure includes references to several other issues that are a priority for the Black agricultural community, such as heir’s property, access to the legal system, and better support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The goal of the measure is also to help instill generational wealth into Black farming families.

“We are one more important step closer to bringing emergency debt relief to Black, Native American and other Farmers of Color in this country,” John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, said in a statement. “Generations of discriminatory behavior by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has contributed to significant economic differences between white farmers and farmers of color that directly impact their access to credit. Sec. 1005 and Sec. 1006 of H.R. 1319, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 will help address the ongoing effects of discrimination by reducing the risk of foreclosure and increasing access to credit.”

Warnock, who is the first Black senator to serve from Georgia, told Rolling Stone magazine that this federal assistance “will not only help farmers of color, but will also lift up the economies of our rural communities working to recover from the economic turndown.”

Among its many facets, the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act directs the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack (who was confirmed last month), 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.”

Vilsack said that he is ready to implement the bill’s provisions once it clears Congress and is signed into law by President Joe Biden.

Black agriculturalists have faced challenges throughout U.S. history, even after the Civil War and the formal end to slavery. The amount of farmland owned and/or operated by Black farmers is but a fraction of what it was 100 years ago, and many Black farmers struggle for equity at farmers markets and on supermarket shelves. There has long been barriers for this community to “land ownership, capacity to scale, access to labor, capital, and markets,” said Richard Morris, Urban Agriculture Collective Farm and Foodroots Program Director at Cultivate Charlottesville. “Black farmers are hampered at every step of the way due to systemic discrimination.”

The Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act comes at a time when other efforts are being made to address the racist history of the USDA and other organizations that crippled advancements of Black farmers. Recently, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker reintroduced his Justice for Black Farmers Act, which seeks to “address the history of discrimination against Black farmers and ranchers, to require reforms within the Department of Agriculture to prevent future discrimination, and for other purposes.” Though the bill stalled when originally introduced late last fall, the reintroduction has a broader number sponsors, including Warnock.

The Justice for Black Farmers Act would initiate the study of historical and continuing discrimination by the USDA against Black farmers and ranchers, and puts tens of millions of dollars into heir’s property efforts, while ultimately transferring more land back into the hands of Black farmers.

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