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Black Farmers Have Long Faced Discrimination. New Aid Aims To Right Past Wrongs

Rod Bradshaw, pictured in January 2021, says he's the last Black farmer in Hodgeman County, Kan. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack talked with NPR about debt relief coming for Black farmers.
Charlie Riedel
Rod Bradshaw, pictured in January 2021, says he's the last Black farmer in Hodgeman County, Kan. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack talked with NPR about debt relief coming for Black farmers.

Tucked into President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law are provisions meant to help Black farmers, who have faced generations of systemic discrimination.

As part of the American Rescue Plan, $4 billion is going toward debt relief for "socially disadvantaged" farmers to pay off debts that have prevented their farms from growing, the Department of Agriculture said. Another $1.01 billion is being used to create a racial equity commission.

Socially disadvantaged farmers are a group that includes African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and Native Americans.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the plan is an "acknowledgement that acts of discrimination took place. And that you not only have the specific result of the act, but that there is a cumulative effect of being discriminated against that grows over time. And in order for us to have an equitable and a fair USDA, it's necessary for us to address that gap."

Over a century, official and unofficial policies and practices have decimated the number of Black farmers and the amount of land they farm.

Despite plenty of Black people wanting to farm after the end of slavery, white people worked to prevent them from owning land. Black farmers could be pushed off their lands by force or through tax fraud. Banks were unwilling to lend and farm equipment sellers wouldn't sell to Black farmers.

Local offices with the Department of Agriculture would also deny or delay loans to Black farmers, documented in a series of government reports starting in the 1960s.

In 1920, Black-run farms were about 14% of the total in the U.S. Today, Black farmers are less than 2% of all farmers. Their farms also tend to be smaller in size. As of 2017, Black-operated farms made up 0.5% of the total farmland in the U.S.

Previous to the American Rescue Plan, the last big payout to Black farmers only came after a class action lawsuit that began in 1990s.

Vilsack, who was previously agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, talked with Michel Martin on All Things Considered about the debt relief plan, how to increase diversity in farming, and how farmers could help fight climate change. Here are excerpts of the interview:

Why this approach? What informed it?

I think there are two basic reasons for the importance of this and the necessity of it in the American Rescue Plan. First, 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. And the result, of course, is that over a period of time, they get further and further behind.

And the reason being is many of the programs at USDA are designed to benefit those who produce. And if your loan wasn't granted on time, if your interest rate was higher, if you didn't get a loan, then you couldn't necessarily keep up with your neighbor in terms of production. You weren't able to buy the newest equipment. You weren't able to get the best seed. You weren't able to buy the farm next to you to be able to expand your operation. So over a period of time, a system that basically rewards production created a gap between those who were advantaged and those who were socially disadvantaged.

Would you wish that this program would affect the number of Black farmers in some way, or do you think that it's just too big of a matter to be addressed by any program?

I would certainly hope that we would see an increase in Black farmers. I think we want to see an increase in farmers overall. We've seen an increase, frankly, in women farmers, white women farmers. ... We want younger farmers. We want beginning farmers. We want returning veterans seeing the opportunity. We want people of color. We want a great diversity in American agriculture.

We don't necessarily want only large-scale agriculture. We want the opportunity for local and regional systems, smaller and mid-sized farming operations to be successful.

Here's a statistic that is also troublesome, which suggests that we do need to look holistically at this, and that is that 89.6% of American farms today, the income from those farms is not the majority of the money made by the farmers. In other words, farmers have to have ... other income, which represents a majority of what they make for a living. It doesn't come from farming. So I think that statistic suggests that we have to look at ways to create better markets and newer markets and deeper markets. We want diversity and we want diversity across the board.

And by diversity, you mean what?

It's diversity of producers. It's diversity of size. It's diversity of methods of production. It's diversity of crops being produced. It's across the board. And a diversity of income opportunities.

In the current state, take the Midwest, for example ... it's pretty much corn, beans, hogs and some cattle. So you've got basically three or four opportunities to benefit. We got the renewable fuel industry, which created a new potential opportunity for farmers to benefit from processing of their crops.

But could we possibly create a new revenue stream to pay farmers to sequester carbon? Could we pay them and encourage climate-smart agricultural practices that would result in cover crops and crop diversity and crop rotations that would be different? So instead of only getting what they get for their corn and soybeans, they get a carbon payment.

So it's a new, exciting opportunity that creates a chance for there to be more income, a better rural economy. And if we can do this in an equitable way so that we have greater diversity, maybe we can reverse the aging nature of American farmers today and maybe we can enjoy farms of all size and see a repopulated, reenergized rural area.

Jeffrey Pierre and Natalie Winston produced and edited the audio interview.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.