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Mistrust of USDA Could Cause Black Farmers to Lose Out on Funding

Decades of discrimination and racism have discouraged many from participating in federal programs, and the cost could be high.

Black farmers' distrust of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, born out of a history of discrimination, has spawned a cycle of disadvantage that has resulted in fewer funding opportunities. (John Fedele/Getty Images)

For decades, the U.S. government has racially discriminated against Black farmers through federal agriculture programs, denied them loans and contributed to billions of dollars in lost land.

One recent example: A $4 billion federal loan forgiveness program for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers — including those who are Black — has been halted, the result of a lawsuit filed by white farmers who say that the relief is discriminatory. 

For Gary Grant, a farmer from North Carolina, it’s the latest sign that the government isn’t doing enough to defend Black farmers.

“They’ve done nothing to build trust,” said Grant, founding president of the National Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, adding that “this government has been crooked where Black people are concerned.”

Decisions made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its agencies continue to perpetuate harm against Black farmers, forcing them to fear possible foreclosures, accumulate more debt, and face more mental and physical health concerns. The distrust creates a cycle of disadvantage: Discouraged by the history of discrimination, many refuse to participate in USDA programs, including submitting information about their farms to the Census of Agriculture, the accounting of U.S. farm land that informs federal funding and policy decisions.

“All of us will tell you Black farmers don’t fill it out, and they [USDA] probably would love for us to participate, but we don’t trust them,” Grant said.

Conducted every five years by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, the Agriculture Census captures farmer and producer demographics, land ownership, income, and expenditures to create a complete count of all farms in the United States. The national nonresponse rate for the 2017 Census of Agriculture was nearly 14%, according to data from the USDA. By comparison, 31% of Black farms did not respond, the highest nonresponse rate among all races.

The June 30 deadline to sign up to receive this year’s Agriculture Census form has passed, though the USDA maintains lists to make sure as many farmers receive it as possible, whether they signed up or not. The forms will be mailed in November, with a response deadline of February 2023. The data is slated to be released by the summer of 2024.

Some Black farmers worry that, in addition to the effects of historical inequities, the lack of information about Black businesses could result in less funding opportunities for them.

Some “don’t want to fill out the census form. They don’t want to put their names down on it because it brings attention to them and their farms,” said JohnElla Holmes, a farmer and executive director of the Kansas Black Farmers Association. They don’t want people “looking at their farms, what they’re producing, or know their expenses.”

But Holmes said she plans to participate because she wants to help. 

“The only way [our voices are] going to be heard is if we’re in there voting and every one of your crops are counted,” she said. “That’s the only way that they can see that there is a disparity.”

The number of Black farms in the U.S. has been in decline. The most recent Agriculture Census, in 2017, showed that Black farmers operate less than 2% of the nation’s more than 2 million farms. And 48% of Black farmers had less than $2,500 in sales. But some believe that data is likely a slight undercount because of the low participation rate by farmers of color.

Aware of the tension, building trust with Black farmers is a priority for the Agriculture Department, said statistician Virginia Harris, noting that it’s important to ensure Black farmers are counted for the upcoming census.

“We know that some farmers, including Black farmers, have had a very uneasy relationship with the USDA over time,” Harris said. “The department is committed to serving all farmers. And one of the things that the Census data allows it to do is to measure how well it is serving all farmers.”

‘Irreparable harm’

The USDA’s $4 billion federal loan forgiveness program, adopted under the American Rescue Plan in 2021, has been mired in legal maneuvering since last spring, freezing distribution of the debt relief payments to farmers of color.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in April 2021 by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and four other white farmers. They sued Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, arguing that, because the federal aid focuses on socially disadvantaged farmers or ranchers — excluding white farmers — the USDA was violating equal protection rights under the Constitution.

“American citizens today represent a beautiful, complex, and increasingly interwoven fabric of racial backgrounds,” the plaintiffs said in the complaint. “Government action that tears at that fabric and divides its pieces — rather than reinforcing that fabric’s unifying and binding ties — disrupts our common progress toward becoming a more perfect union.”

In June 2021, the farmers upped the ante by filing a motion to proceed as a class action lawsuit. The plaintiffs also filed a preliminary injunction that prevented the USDA from proceeding with the program, saying white farmers will “suffer irreparable harm” because the funds will be unavailable to them after Congress disperses the money. 

Although the program is in limbo, the USDA Farm Service Agency still sends notifications to borrowers about their pending loan payments.

Similar lawsuits have since been filed against the USDA in Florida, Illinois, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

Holmes, the farmer in Kansas, said she wasn’t surprised when the lawsuit was filed. Already, it had been challenging for Black farmers to secure funds from the loan forgiveness program. Holmes recalled at least 58 farmers who applied for it and only 8 were guaranteed to receive forgiveness before the lawsuits ensued, she said.

“That showed us right there that there’s still a lot of disparity,” Holmes said. “These farmers are surviving off of private loans and putting their homes up as collateral.”

Igalious “Ike” Mills, a farmer and executive director of the Texas AgriForestry Small Farmers and Ranchers, said the history of challenges with the USDA make it clear why some Black farmers don’t participate in the agency’s programs. But he’s on a mission to help change that through education and advocacy about government aid, programs, and governmental agencies. 

In rural areas, it’s more difficult for some farmers to access information about programming because of distance, Mills said. And most times, white USDA representatives aren’t going “to the backwoods to find people that look like me.”

In addition to home visits and phone calls, Mills’ organization created an annual summit — both virtual and in-person — that brings together Black farmers and federal and state government officials to share information about the agencies and support available to them.

When convincing Black farmers to provide information for government programs, “first you got to get them to understand why, and what it will benefit, and how it would benefit before they would even consider filling out [something like] the census information,” Mills said. “It’s easier if you got the information, and you know why they’re doing this, and how that would eventually benefit you.”