Farmers, like most Americans, have suffered significant financial losses as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The abrupt disappearance of critical markets like restaurants, hotels, and schools coupled with severe supply chain disruptions have cost farmers billions of dollars already, and it is likely that losses will continue to pile up as hard-hit states implement new safety precautions and shutdowns.

For many producers, a good portion of their losses have been offset by federal assistance programs. However, a number of Black farmers have reported that they received little, if any, government support, even though they’ve experienced damages comparable to those of their white counterparts. Considering that a large portion of farm income this year will come from pandemic assistance, those who were excluded are now at a significant financial disadvantage and may face higher risk of bankruptcy or closure as a result.

Racial inequities in the allocation of farm aid is not a new or unusual issue. The unequal administration of pandemic support is part of a much longer trend of government programs underserving minority populations. Over the past several years, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has offered relief to farmers and ranchers who were negatively affected by recent trade disputes through its Market Facilitation Program (MFP). By some estimates, white farmers received 99.5% of MFP funding, despite accounting for 95% of the total farm population. In states with a relatively high percentage of Black farmers, the disparities are even starker; for instance, while 14% of farm operators in Mississippi identify as Black, those farmers collected a mere 1.4% of MFP spending in the state.

Similar racial gaps can be observed in “every single category of aid, and for every crop,” according to a 2007 report published by the Environmental Working Group and the National Black Farmers Association. Using USDA data, the groups calculated that from 1995 to 2005, Black farmers consistently received less support than farmers of other races and ethnicities. Evidence like this extends at least as far back as 1965, when the USDA published an assessment of how the agency had shortchanged Black producers.

Because payment discrepancies are a rule and not an exception, they don’t just weaken farmers’ short-term financial stability—they also affect the trajectory of Black farmers as a whole. With fewer resources, Black farmers haven’t been able to fairly compete, and hundreds of thousands have been forced to downsize or go out of business. Consequently, there are proportionally far fewer Black farmers than there were a century ago, and those who remain tend to run smaller, less profitable operations; the average American farm is 444 acres, nearly three and a half times larger than the 132-acre average for Black-operated farms.

The fact that Black farmers own less land has contributed to the problem. Government farm programs are generally designed in a way that favors larger, wealthier farms that grow commodity crops and livestock, as was demonstrated by the division of both trade and pandemic assistance funding. During the first round of pandemic aid, for example, the top 1% of recipients claimed more than one-fifth of the money, while the bottom 10% received just .26%. Perhaps even more startling, 80% of funds were dedicated to three commodities: cattle, corn, and dairy. Most small-scale, diversified farmers who participated only received a few hundred dollars, while others didn’t even apply either because their crops weren’t covered or because the process of applying for each of their crops, one by one, wasn’t worth the time and effort for such a paltry payout. Though farmers of all races were affected by the program’s structural imbalances, their comparatively few acres made Black farmers disproportionately vulnerable.

The size of Black farmers’ operations can explain some of the racial disparities in government support, but there is a much older and more sinister force at play: systemic racism. Since its establishment in 1862, the USDA has intentionally denied Black farmers loans, disaster assistance, technical support, and other crucial resources. After thousands of affected farmers filed a class-action lawsuit, known as Pigford v. Glickman, the agency paid a settlement totaling more than $2 billion to about 33,000 claimants. Though this may sound like a lot of money, realistically, it’s only a drop in the bucket compared to the harm that has been done.  When accounting for the funds withheld as well as the resulting loss of land and generational wealth, USDA’s discrimination may have cost Black communities more than a trillion dollars.

Another important factor to consider is distrust. After enduring more than a century of racism from government agencies, many Black farmers understandably do not trust these institutions. Rather than risk mistreatment, some forgo participating in government programs entirely

Image: Maria Hesse.

What can be done to fix these problems and ensure Black farmers receive the support they need? 

For starters, we need better representation in USDA and congressional agricultural leadership. While the USDA’s workforce is much more diverse than it once was, more than 77% of employees are white. (For reference, 60% of the US population identifies as white.) Even more concerning, the position of assistant secretary for civil rights at the USDA, a critical leadership position in an office that fields complaints about discriminatory practices within the agency, has been vacant for the last four years.

With more than a third of its 26 members identifying as BIPOC during the 116th Congress, the House Agriculture Committee much more closely resembles the makeup of the broader US population than the USDA does. However, the Senate Agriculture Committee is in much rougher shape: From 2018 to 2020, all 20 of its members were white. (The difference between the two committees can largely be explained by the levels of diversity within each chamber of Congress; about 30% of House members identify as BIPOC, compared to 11% of senators who do.) As we finalize details for this story, ag committee confirmations for the 117th Congress are still pending.

It should surprise no one that predominantly white agencies and committees consistently underserve BIPOC communities. The best way to guarantee that government programs are meeting the needs of its constituents is by hiring and electing individuals who have personally experienced and understand the challenges they’re facing. As an added benefit, more racial diversity among personnel will also help mitigate some of Black farmers’ lingering misgivings about working with the USDA.

We have seen promising progress in this regard; Representative David Scott of Georgia was selected by his colleagues to lead the House Agriculture Committee, making him the first Black person to do so. In early interviews and statements, he has indicated that establishing racial equity in the agriculture industry is among his top priorities. Additionally, President Biden nominated Jewel H. Bronaugh to be Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, the second in command at the USDA; if confirmed, she will be the first Black woman to hold the position.

In addition to shifting staff composition, USDA and Congress can build out existing programs that support Black farmers and other underserved groups. One of the most noteworthy examples is the 2501 Program, which offers grants to universities, conservation districts, nonprofits, NGOs, and economic development corporations that provide outreach and assistance for “socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers and ranchers.” Per the USDA’s definition, groups that qualify as “socially disadvantaged” include African Americans, Indigenous Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, immigrants, and refugees. Since the program was established 30 years ago, it has distributed a total of $119 million to 484 institutions—which is a good start, but when considered in the context of the demonstrated needs of BIPOC farmers and the USDA’s multibillion-dollar annual budget, there is clearly a lot of room for growth.

Here, too, we’ve seen some encouraging movement recently. In the December stimulus package, Congress set aside $75 million for the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Program (FOTO), the umbrella program under which the 2501 Program is housed. This funding will be allocated to institutions and projects that support beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers and ranchers who have been affected by the pandemic.

The USDA has work to do in order to address some of the structural flaws that prevent smaller-scale and diversified producers from accessing assistance. Already, the agency has taken some steps to do this with its second round of pandemic aid by expanding the crops eligible for coverage as well as adding an option for farmers to be compensated based on lost revenue rather than on commodity price declines. This not only means that the loss of price premiums earned from things like local sales are incorporated into payment rates, but it makes it simpler for farmers who grow many different types of crops to apply for help. Similar changes should be made for other assistance programs to facilitate participation by farmers of all operation types and sizes.

Encouragingly, legislators are also endeavoring to establish racial equity within the agriculture industry. Most notably, at the end of November, Senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act—the most comprehensive piece of food and agricultural justice legislation proposed in modern American history. Per the senators’ description, the bill intends to address and correct “historic discrimination . . . that has caused Black farmers to lose millions of acres of farmland and robbed Black farmers and their families of hundreds of billions of dollars of intergenerational wealth.” 

Among other things, the bill would create a board to investigate civil rights complaints within the USDA, provide legal services to help Black landowners maintain ownership, restore lost land by offering land grants to existing and aspiring Black farmers, offer training to beginning Black farmers, and address corporate control of the food system. In doing so, the bill would go a long way towards correcting decades of racist policies and leveling the playing field for farmers who have been underserved. Given its myriad benefits, dozens of agricultural organizations including the National Farmers Union and many groups focused exclusively on Black farmer issues endorse the bill.

For far too long, US institutions have failed Black farmers and other farmers of color, undermining their success and ultimately leading to their departure from the agriculture sector. It’s time to right these wrongs and makes sure that the “people’s department” really serves all people equally, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

Image: Maria Hesse.
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About the Contributor
Hannah Packman
Hannah Packman currently serves as the communications director for National Farmers Union, a progressive, grassroots advocacy organization that represents 200,000 family farmers and ranchers across the country. Since completing a masters of science in Agriculture, Food, and Environment at Tufts University, she has spent her career building more equitable food systems, previously working at a number of organizations including Hazon, the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, and Wolfe’s Neck Farm. In her spare time, she can be found petting cats, hiking, or learning ASL.