President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law last week, drawing praise for shoveling billions of dollars into clean energy efforts. But while the sweeping measure takes historic steps to address climate issues, some environmental experts have called out its failure to address generations of discrimination against Black farmers.
After Congress promised last year to help right some historical wrongs with a $4 billion loan forgiveness program that targeted Black farmers, among others, the Inflation Reduction Act replaces it with a new iteration that offers assistance to a broader group of “distressed borrowers.” That change follows a lawsuit filed by white farmers that argues that the original program is discriminatory, which halted the relief to Black farmers.
Black farmers have experienced a “well-documented history of race-based discrimination from the USDA,” said Dãnia Davy, director of land retention and advocacy for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, an East Point, Georgia-based nonprofit of Black farmers, landowners, and cooperatives. By using “race neutral” language, Congress “kind of walked back from the commitment to racial equity.”
“Anytime an opportunity is made available for Black farmers in the ways that programs were made available to white farmers throughout our nation’s history, there’s generally push back,” Davy said. “I think that Congress kind of yielded to that.”
Lawmakers’ unwillingness to target race in the Inflation Reduction Act continues to negate the promise made to Black farmers. While speaking to the House Committee on Agriculture in March 2021, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack acknowledged the mistreatment and discrimination against Black farmers. He noted the federal government has made efforts to address the problem, but said more should be done, including creating more equitable opportunities for Black farmers and producers.
That same month, the Biden administration passed the American Rescue Plan, which included the $4 billion debt forgiveness program for socially disadvantaged farmers. After a federal judge issued a restraining order to pause the payments, the Department of Agriculture promised to “forcefully defend” the relief owed to Black farmers.
But, the assurances made by the Biden Administration never came to fruition.
USDA officials did not respond to a request for comment before publication.
The Inflation Reduction Act alludes to the additional needs of Black farmers without specifying race. It provides $125 million for technical assistance regarding food, agriculture, and agricultural credit to underserved farmers, ranchers, or forest landowners, including those living in high poverty areas. Another program provides $2.2 billion for farmers who have experienced discrimination prior to January 2021 by the Department of Agriculture’s farm lending programs. Recipients can receive up to $500,000.
Davy is concerned Black farmers will still miss out, however. Because some were told that their debt had been temporarily suspended while awaiting forgiveness from the original debt relief program, Davy worries they will now be labeled as in default, potentially making them ineligible for the new relief.
Unanswered calls for help
The Inflation Reduction Act grants nearly $38 billion for agricultural conservation, renewable energy, and forestry to help farmers and ranchers tackle the climate crisis. More than $18 billion will be allocated toward four existing voluntary conservation and environmental quality-related programs that provide financial and technical assistance to farmers and landowners.
Generally, the programs, administered by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, help improve air quality, soil health, and land for better agricultural production and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
With this huge investment, it’s important to “level the playing field” for Black folks, said Gregory Jenkins, professor of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, Geography, and African Studies at Penn State University. If not addressed, climate change will continue to perpetuate the poverty, unemployment, and food insecurity that are affecting farming and rural communities, he said.
It is unclear how the funds will be dispersed or to whom, Jenkins said. Meanwhile, while the full effects of climate change on Black farmers aren’t easily predicted, Jenkins suspects heavy rains and extreme heat will continue to disproportionately impact their health and well-being.
More than 385,000 agriculture-related jobs will come from this legislation, according to an August study by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. For Jenkins, this means encouraging young Black Americans to learn the innovative side of farming, including technology and conservation strategies, to help farmers who are already stretched thin.
“Black farmers will be extremely vulnerable. They cannot adapt to what is coming,” said Jenkins. “We need to protect the farmers, but we certainly need to deal with the fact that Black farmers do not have the same level of resources or assets to deal with a climate crisis.”
As Black farmers have struggled to protect their crops from extreme drought or flooding with limited government assistance, they have lost money, food and livestock, and labor. For some, it has contributed to health challenges.
Cynthia Capers, a registered nurse turned farmer, never thought she would have to consider selling her 16-acre farm in Tennessee. But, unforeseen challenges over the past few years — including inconsistent weather conditions, the loss of several birds to bird flu, rising prices of products, and declining sales — have caused incessant stress and weight loss.
Capers, the owner and farmer of Heniscity Farms, said she has registered for many workshops and classes, applied for USDA grants and programs, and called and emailed local USDA agencies for help, but hasn’t received any.
“It’s been almost every day, at least once a week, I think about selling the farm, selling the property,” Capers said. “It’s like telling me to hang on, and I’ve already fallen off the cliff. I’m sitting on the ledge underneath, and you’re telling me that we’re going to get somebody there in a week.”
The time it takes to understand documents, fill out paperwork, and try to run a farm as a one-female operation is difficult, Capers said.
“[They say], ‘Why didn’t you go back to the [local] office?’ With 18 emails later, 14 phone calls later, when do I have the ability to stay on something when you know that I’m a farmer in your system and you haven’t come out to me and helped?” Capers said. “This is part of your job at the USDA.”
The local Natural Resource Conservation Service office told Capers she would be eligible for help in purchasing a high tunnel, a piece of equipment that protects plants from severe weather and extends the growing season. She applied for it under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, one of the existing programs receiving additional money from the Inflation Reduction Act.
Five years later, she said she still hasn’t received it.
“I just can’t continue to reach out and stay afloat,” Capers said. “I’m just tired.”
The Inflation Reduction Act offers opportunities to ease the burden on Black farmers and producers, some said, but it is incumbent upon state and local USDA agencies, tasked with dispersing funds, to help them tap into those benefits. It is also important for communities to step in.
“Black farmers will need the help. That’s a fact,” Jenkins said. A lot of the technologies will provide meaningful employment to many of our young Black folks who might not be employed. … But those innovations can help communities adapt to climate change.”