USDA helps socially disadvantaged producers
In May, the USDA began implementing farm debt relief and other assistance to socially disadvantaged producers, in accordance with the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which was approved by Congress and President Joe Biden in March.
Debt relief and other aids are substantial and could be described as unprecedented, although they can also be described as the product of over 100 years of evolving challenges and attention to issues of prejudice and discrimination in federal farm programs.
Aid stands at around $ 5 billion out of a reported total of $ 16 billion in aid to the agriculture and food system in the latest COVID-19 relief plan, but it is only a fraction of the total. $ 1.8 trillion in planned spending under the legislation.
The main component of the aid is 100% debt cancellation, plus 20% to meet tax implications, for socially disadvantaged producers with outstanding loan balances as of January 1, 2021, on agricultural loans directly from or guaranteed by the USDA.
The term “socially disadvantaged” is specifically referenced in existing law legislation to include producers who are members of a group who have been subjected to racial and ethnic bias in USDA programming, whether through discrimination direct or through discriminatory policies and program rules.
According to USDA information on farms.gov, this definition includes Black or African American, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Hispanic or Latino, Asian or Pacific Islander growers. Note that other laws may also include women in the term ‘socially disadvantaged’ due to historical issues of gender discrimination, but this help is specifically targeted on the basis of racial and ethnic discrimination concerns – women from eligible racial and ethnic groups would be eligible, but women in general would not.
Debt relief is estimated at nearly $ 4 billion, with an additional $ 1 billion intended for sensitization and training of producers; grants and loans for access to land and property of heirs; stock commissions to focus on USDA efforts; and support for research, education, extension, scholarships, internships and federal career development for higher education institutions serving target audiences.
Debt relief has received the most attention and may be unprecedented in terms of the amount of agricultural aid specifically targeted to a limited and eligible group of producers. It may also be unprecedented when it comes to the delay of less than five weeks between introduction in early February and inclusion in comprehensive legislation adopted in early March.
While the scale and speed of aid may be unprecedented, there is a long history of issues and actions that provide a basis for current efforts. In the 1990s and early 2000s, several lawsuits challenged USDA programs and policies as discriminatory.
Black farmers were represented in the Pigford v. Glickman. Two settlements in 1999 and 2010 ultimately provided $ 2.31 billion in cash and debt relief to eligible producers. Likewise, the Keepseagle lawsuit against Vilsack during the previous tenure of the current Agriculture Secretary in the department was settled in 2010 with a settlement of $ 760 million for Native American farmers and ranchers.
Two other lawsuits, Garcia v. Vilsack and Love v. Vilsack, challenged the USDA over the treatment of Hispanic women farmers, respectively. They were both dealt with outside litigation with USDA actions in 2011 to provide $ 1.5 billion in compensation and debt relief to eligible claimants. In total, the USDA has committed more than $ 4.5 billion over the past 22 years to resolve cases of discrimination.
Many USDA programs have also provided targeted assistance to specific groups of producers for a much longer period, including the exact definition of socially disadvantaged producers used for the current assistance that was spelled out in the 1990 law. on the Farm Bill.
Various loan, grant, cost-sharing and other assistance programs have over time targeted farmers and ranchers who qualify as socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, immigrants, beginners, or veterans (military).
The North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center (ncerme.org) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln also emphasizes educational support for these audiences, as well as producers in transition from farm or ranching, as well as than those traditionally underserved by federal crop insurance. programs.
The USDA’s existing targeted programs and lawsuits set a recent precedent for current efforts, but it’s also clear that the problems have escalated over a much longer period of time and are likely to continue to shape others. political discussions.
Debt relief in the current aid program has been called a start by some proponents, acknowledging that it only helps current producers and loan program participants and not those who have left farming. or have been forced to leave farming due to discriminatory practices in previous decades.
It has also been contested by others as being itself discriminatory by specifically targeting assistance on the basis of racial and ethnic qualifications. The program is being rolled out even as the problems and challenges are likely to continue.
Access to the field
Another persistent problem is that of access to land and the ownership of heirs. Current aid sets aside some funding to help socially disadvantaged producers resolve land tenure issues. This may include new subsidy or loan programs for the acquisition of land by socially disadvantaged producers, but nothing in the legislation or discussion suggests the confiscation or condemnation of existing private property for a redistribution program.
It can also address the issue of heir ownership, the situation where heirs inherit undivided ownership of land often due to the transfer of an owner without a will. After a generation or two, the land can quickly get bogged down with many heirs, each holding an undivided minority stake in the land, making it difficult to manage or even to value on the balance sheet as collateral for funding.
Heir ownership is a particularly acute problem for black producers, but Native American producers face similar challenges of managing land inherited over generations or held in trust with the tribe, none of which can provide clear title to the tribe. producer.
Even white producers increasingly face the challenges of managing land over several generations if a will or inheritance does not provide for a clear division of property. The problem is therefore very real and will require considerable effort to resolve.
The problems facing socially disadvantaged producers and the political efforts to address them are complex and long-lasting. Over a century of support for federal programs and concerns about discrimination in programs have led to lawsuits for the past 20+ years, as well as targeted programs and continued efforts to provide new help, culminating in the current package. for the time being.
While the $ 4 billion to $ 5 billion package seems unprecedented, there is substantial evidence and history behind it, and it could ultimately be described as relatively small compared to the more than $ 40 billion in COVID-based agricultural aid. 19 for agricultural producers in 2020 and 2021, or the global COVID-19 relief bills that have repeatedly come up with prices in the billions of dollars.
The problems faced by socially disadvantaged producers are also likely to persist even after the current aid has been distributed. Building on the attention that agricultural commissions in Congress have recently paid to the subject, the groundwork is there for further efforts that could help shape the development and debate on the next farm bill, which is to be presented in 2023.
Lubben is the Extension Policy Specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.