NRDC stands with Farmers of Color in debt relief disputes
The NRDC joined Rural Coalition, Intertribal Agriculture Council, North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers Land Loss Prevention and 22 other organizations in an amicus brief defending the rights of farmers of color in urgent need of debt relief.
Recognizing the long history of discrimination in federal farm policy and the disproportionate harm communities of color have suffered as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, Congress included debt relief for farmers of color in the latest program of COVID spending. Although much larger investments are needed, this debt relief represents a key step towards a fairer agricultural landscape.
But – in a scandalous attack on Congress’ efforts to give farmers of color the justice and support they are rightly due – that relief is now being challenged by white farmers in at least five courts across the country. As House Agriculture President David Scott said, these lawsuits are “racial discrimination at its height.”
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a well-documented and ongoing history of discriminating against farmers of color, particularly in its farm loan programs. Problematic practices range from bad advice to racial disparities in loan sizes, interest rates and terms, as well as derogatory treatment. For example, the amicus brief that Rural Coalition and its partners, including NRDC, filed in the Wisconsin case cites many stories of farmers who suffered because of this discrimination, including:
- Mr. Alfonso Abeyta, a Latino rancher from Colorado, remembers a USDA representative telling him that Mexicans are more apt to be farm laborers than farm owners.
- Mr. Nathanial Bradford, a black farmer from Oklahoma, has endured unfair appraisal, delays and more scrutiny than white farmers asking for similar help, and he knows other black farmers with similar experiences. His farm is on the verge of bankruptcy.
- Ms. Maykia Xiong, a Hmong refugee who raises poultry in North Carolina, was refused participation in the programs and was forced to take extra steps to receive help.
The stories go on and on.
In 1910, 14% of American farmers were black, and that number fell to less than 2% in 2012; Black farmers also lost 80% of their land from 1910 to 2007. The discriminatory practices of the USDA, along with the aggravated financial and health threats from COVID-19, contributed to farmers of color losing their land and their generational wealth and be forced to quit farming.
To avoid another wave of losses, the US bailout has set aside funds to fully repay some federal farm loans for farmers of color. This provision was a signal from the new leaders that they recognize the United States’ long history of discrimination against farmers of color and will take action to reverse the trend.
But a small group of white farmers have other plans. While movements for racial and environmental justice have gathered momentum over the past year, these lawsuits clearly show that there is still a long way to go.
A Wisconsin court has temporarily suspended aid to farmers of color across the country, and a Florida court yesterday blocked aid until the case is resolved. These decisions fail to recognize the cumulative effects of racial discrimination and the measures that will be necessary to address the injustices suffered by farmers of color. In addition to receiving nearly 97% of previous COVID relief funds for agriculture, white farmers have enjoyed decades of preferential treatment that has not been given to farmers of color – compromising the ability of farmers of color to compete. in a fair market and to access agriculture support programs.
For more than 30 years, federal law has recognized that “socially disadvantaged” producers – those who have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice – do not fully benefit from federal aid to agriculture. By providing debt relief to “socially disadvantaged” producers, Congress has provided a close and immediate source of aid to farmers of color who have suffered discrimination and are struggling under the weight of federal farm loans as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
To thrive, farmers of color must first have reliable land tenure and financial flexibility. The relief program is an attempt to provide minimal support to farmers of color and begin to balance a system that has long worked against them. The NRDC and its partners will continue to fight for a fair and healthy food system – in public policy and, if necessary, in the courts.