After 20 years of advocacy, black farmers finally get debt relief
On Wednesday, Congress passed one of the most sweeping relief programs for minority farmers in the country’s history, thanks to a provision in President Biden’s stimulus bill. While the landmark legislation, which would write off $ 4 billion in debt, seemed like it came out of nowhere, it is actually the result of more than 20 years of organizing black farmers.
The Farmer of Color Emergency Relief Act will write off 120% of the value of loans from the United States Department of Agriculture or private and USDA-guaranteed lenders to “black, native and Hispanic farmers and other agricultural producers of color, “according to A liberation of the sponsors of the bill, Senators Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
Advocacy groups say debt relief will begin to rectify decades of broken promises and discrimination from the USDA that caused black farmers lose about 90 percent of their land between 1910 and today.
While the program is administered as a pandemic relief – and applies to all farmers of color – the intellectual forces behind the bill say its primary purpose is to address the failures of two historic regulations on the civil rights between USDA and black farmers.
In 2016, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack mentionned the controversial settlements, known as Pigford I and II, “helped close a painful chapter in our collective history”. But instead, the Pigford colonies, designed to fight a century of discrimination at the USDA, have aroused the ire of conservatives and racial justice advocates. The new debt cancellation legislation is also controversial, with Republicans accusing Democrats of trying to squeeze a reparations policy into an emergency bill instead of going through the proper legislative process.
Bill is “not something that just happened,” says Tracy Lloyd McCurty, an activist who has spent the past three years fighting for debt relief for black farmers as executive director from the Black Belt Justice Center, a nonprofit that advocates for African American farmers. .
“No, the origin is the suffering of the black farmer due to the unfairness of Pigford’s lawsuits,” she said.
Bernice Atchison, an 81-year-old farmer from Alabama, is the living embodiment of this injustice. She continues to fight for compensation from the Pigford colonies to this day.
“We’ve been through everything from the USDA, refused loans, overdue loans, overbills… we’ve faced it all,” she said in an interview with Ag Insider.
Atchison still manages 60 acres of farmland, but lost more than 250 acres in his decades-long battle with the USDA.
“We have no way to become stable because of the way the laws are written to prevent us from moving forward,” she said. ” You can not. We were supposed to get the loans.
The Pigford settlements stem from a 1997 class action lawsuit that accused the USDA of discriminating against black farmers through loans and other policies, and of failing to investigate or respond to allegations of discrimination. USDA settled with the farmers, agreeing to compensate them in cash and debt relief in what has come to be known as Pigford I. But the short deadline to file a claim left many eligible farmers behind. This led to Pigford II, a 2010 settlement in which the federal government agreed to pay out $ 1.25 billion to applicants excluded from Pigford I.
The majority of farmers who filed claims at Pigford opted for an expedited adjudication process offering payments of $ 50,000, along with debt relief and tax relief. But only a small number of claimants under the so-called “Track A” process have received debt relief.
“Most farmers signed up for Track A because most of them wanted debt relief,” said Lloyd Wright, former director of civil rights at the USDA. “There was 22,721 farmers who signed up at Pigford I. Only 371 of them got debt relief and that was the main thing they signed up for.
After a federal judge granted debt relief to farmers through a consent decree, their attorneys and the US Department of Justice negotiated a stipulation order that placed additional restrictions on which loans would be eligible, including the requirement that farmers prove that the specific loan was affected by discrimination. Ultimately, less than 5% of Pigford I funds went to debt cancellation, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
The order of stipulation came as a surprise to many farmers and their allies. Some claimants thought they would be entitled to substantial debt relief and, on the advice of their lawyers, stopped making payments on loans they expected to be canceled, according to Wright.
“I expected them to get debt relief,” said Wright, who led the USDA’s civil rights division from 1997 to 1998. “I was as surprised as the farmers that I was. ‘they didn’t. Maybe I shouldn’t have been. The USDA story has been that they figured out how not to give black people what they give to everyone, so I should have been wary, but I wasn’t.
A USDA spokesperson acknowledged in a statement to Ag Insider that “there is much more to USDA to do and accomplish to make programming fair and eliminate generations of systemic discrimination.”
“The recent bills introduced by Senators Warnock and Booker offer solutions to reduce debt, create access to land and provide awareness and education on credit and finance,” the spokesperson added.
Pigford colonies is the object of indignation at both ends of the political spectrum. Conservative media have described Pigford as a government giveaway riddled with fraud. Critics pointed to census data which showed there were fewer black-owned farms than the number of farmers filing discrimination complaints as evidence the program was being abused. However, census data during the colonization period counted farms, not individual farmers. Many farms had more than one farmer, and settlement funds were also available for people who wanted to farm but couldn’t because they had been denied loans, which may explain the large number of applicants.
Although the new debt relief program grew out of a plea for black farmers seeking to get the loan promised in the Pigford settlements canceled, activists pushed for a more inclusive bill in because of the federal government’s history of discrimination against all farmers of color. The largest donation of land in U.S. history, for example, occurred through the Homestead Act of 1862, under which the federal government transferred over 270 million acres from Native American lands to mostly white settlers. More recently, the USDA settled complaints of widespread discrimination in lending against Native Americans, Hispanic farmers and women.
“This moment here was based on the advocacy of the Black Farmers Organization,” McCurty said. “It’s a fact. But the beauty of it is the commitment of black farmers to collective liberation.”
Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee have expressed a number of concerns about the debt relief program and have tried unsuccessfully to change the legislation. In particular, they challenged the amount of the 120 percent payment and the fact that there is no obligation for farmers to prove discrimination.
Representative Austin Scott, a Republican from Georgia who sits on the committee, warned the bill was “ripe for reverse discrimination trial.”
“This tongue is much, much wider than the Pigford Colony,” he said. “There is no evidence of discrimination. You, due to your skin color or ethnicity, receive 120% of your outstanding loan balance. “
Supporters of the bill argued that this was the only way to ensure that farmers were compensated not only for the debt, but also for the taxes associated with debt forgiveness. If the bill was drafted to explicitly cover farmers’ tax obligations, it risked getting bogged down in congressional tax drafting committees, McCurty said.
The bill allocates $ 4 billion to the program because the Congressional Budget Office estimates that’s what it will cost to repay USDA loans to minority farmers, plus 20 percent. According to The Acres of Ancestry Initiative / Black Agrarian Fund, there are currently “more than 17,000 black farmers [who] are behind on their USDA loans ranging from 5 to 30 years.
While it’s easy to draw a line between the Pigford settlements and the Debt Relief Bill, the policy seeks to heal even older wounds. The nation faces systemic racism that dates back to its founding and is deeply rooted in the history of American agriculture.
The Agrarian South was built on the backs of black slaves. After emancipation, the federal government promised freed slaves 40 acres of plots in a policy known as “40 acres and a mule.” The deal was scrapped less than three months after it was proposed, and the debate over how the government can fix slavery has simmered since.
Despite this early setback, the number of black farmers slowly increased to peak in 1910, when 14% of all American farmers were African-American. By 2012, the share of black farmers had declined from 98 percent to just 1.6 percent. Many black farmers and activists attribute the decline to discriminatory loans and other USDA policies.
Critics of the debt relief bill, like Scott, say it is not part of an emergency stimulus package and should go through the traditional legislative process.
“It’s just Congress saying that based on your skin color or your ethnicity, we’re going to write you a check,” Scott said. “I see it absolutely as repairs. By definition, these are reparations.
But Wright, the former USDA civil rights director, dismissed the suggestion that the debt relief bill is getting close to repair.
“If you were to try to compensate for the losses suffered by farmers and families, then that would be a step towards repairs,” he said. “It’s really a step towards what should have been done at Pigford to start. “