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Racial Equity in the Farm Bill: Recommendations and Opportunities

January 31, 2018


Aeric Cole waters cabbage growing in a high tunnel house at the East Arkansas Enterprise Community, Inc. in Forest City, Arkansas. USDA photo by Bob Nichols

Editor’s Note: This blog post is the third and final post in a three-part blog series by NSAC Policy Intern Noah McDonald, which examines how the Farm Bill can take steps to advance racial equity within the food system. The first post discussed the historical context and foundations for racial inequities with the food system. The second post spoke to some of the present-day issues that farmers of color and farm/food advocates face, as well as the policies that USDA has put into place to amend its wrongdoing. This post will propose some solutions and examine what institutional changes are needed to achieve greater racial equity in the 2018 Farm Bill and beyond.

With the 2018 Farm Bill on the horizon, there is no better or more urgent time than now to be discussing the role of racial equity in agriculture, and working together to find solutions. The farm bill is a rare beast – it only comes around every four years (notwithstanding delays), and includes multiple titles of legislation that will allocate billions of dollars of funding and services across the food and farm system. The gravity of this bill makes it the perfect vehicle through which to address systemic racial inequities in our agricultural system through thoughtful and impactful public policy.

As discussed in the first post in this series, Contexts and Foundations, it is vitally important that advocates and policymakers alike understand, speak to, and reflect upon the massive extent to which our current food and agricultural system is built upon the exploitation of communities of color throughout history and into the present day.

The second post in this series, Barriers for Farmers of Color, examined some of the ways in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other government agencies have worked to remedy past discrimination. Still we have a long way to go in addressing the historical exploitation and oppression of farmers of color, farmworkers, and immigrant farmers who still face major barriers and challenges within agriculture.

This final post will build upon this important historical context and discuss specific ways that the next farm bill can rectify and correct past discrimination and present-day marginalization, both from fine-grained policy changes to big picture cultural and institutional changes.

Farm Bill Recommendations

As Congress moves forward with reauthorizing the farm bill (which expires on September 30th), it is critical that the voices of farmers and food/farm advocates clamoring for racial equity and justice are heard. The 2018 Farm Bill is an opportunity to swiftly and strongly address racial inequities in our food/farm system, as well as an opportunity to set an example of what an equity-forward bill looks like for future reauthorizations.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has outlined a series of policy solutions designed to address the challenges facing farmers of color today in their recently published 2018 Farm Bill platform: An Agenda for the 2018 Farm Bill.

While a large and extensive document covering an array of farm bill issues, NSAC’s farm bill platform includes a focus on policy priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill that can takes steps to increase racial equity within the food and farm system. Some of NSAC’s key positions on racial equity in food and farming issues include:

  1. Restore funding to help minority farmers and ranchers to capitalize on opportunities to start and manage farming businesses

In the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress provided $75 million in mandatory funding for the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (also known as the Section 2501 Program) This funding represented nearly $20 million a year through fiscal years (FY) 2009-2012. Unfortunately, the 2014 Farm Bill drastically cut mandatory funding for the program, from $20 million to $10 million per year. To make matters worse, this cut in funding was applied at the same time Congress expanded the program to also address the needs of military veterans.

This decision ultimately shrank resources for both veterans and socially disadvantaged farmers, and has hampered the program from meeting the needs of either population. With demand for federal resources and technical assistance from returning military veterans only continuing to grow, it is essential that Congress not only reauthorize and restore funding for this long-standing program, but also scale-up investments to ensure that the 2501 Program is actually serving the needs of those it’s intended to serve.

  1. Increase participation by farmers of color in working lands conservation programs

Previous farm bills have included special incentives to improve access to conservation programs for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, including funding set-asides and increased cost-share rates within both the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

The current statutory set-asides have not been adjusted since they were first established in 2008, and while these incentives have been successful in promoting increased participation by farmers of color, they are long-overdue for adjustments. Farmers of color (considered “socially disadvantaged” by USDA) are often less likely to have the resources needed to invest in conservation on their farms, and should continue to be a priority for funding through both CSP and EQIP. 

  1. Ensure Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans remain available to socially disadvantaged farmers by opposing increases on loan limits

Over the past two decades, Congress has set aside federal loan dollars and established goals to reach beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers within FSA farm loan programs. FSA loan programs have filled an important gap in financing for those unable to secure credit in the private market, and has been vital in providing access to credit for small and mid-size family farms, including new and beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers.

Direct operating loans in particular, are the lifeblood of many new farm operations. Without these loans, many new and underserved farmers do not have enough start-up capital or accrued assets or revenue to afford the up-front costs of starting or maintaining a farming operation (in addition to paying the up-front production costs associated with nearly every farm’s annual growing season).

There is much debate in Congress about whether or not to raise these loan limits in the next farm bill, which would ultimately mean fewer but larger loans (unless Congress also provides additional funding through appropriations). This change would dramatically impact the ability of farmers of color to access credit, and would send a devastating ripple effect throughout the farm community, save the larger farms who would benefit from larger loans.

As this debate continues, NSAC will be opposing attempts to raise individual loan limits on FSA operating loans in order to ensure that farmers least served by private lenders are able to access the operating capital they need to maintain a viable farming operation. 

  1. Secure permanent funding to continue training the next generation of farmers

The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) is the only federal program that is explicitly dedicated to training the next generation of farmers and ranchers, and includes a dedicated funding priority for projects that train socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. In a recent evaluation of the program, over half of all funded projects served socially disadvantaged farmers – including immigrants, refugees, tribal, and other farmers of color – as their primary audience. This program is one of a handful of innovative and essential farm programs that expire this year with the expiration of the current farm bill. In order to continue to break down barriers to entry and create a viable pathway into agriculture for the next generation of farmers, NSAC will be fighting to make sure that BFRDP is fully funded in the next farm bill.

  1. Create a dedicated position, information clearinghouse, and technical assistance within USDA to support producers engaged in urban agriculture

Urban agriculture has a number of potential benefits for urban communities and farmers of color, such as economic and landscape revitalization, cultural restoration, and increasing access to fresh and healthy food for food insecure communities. With the exception of the Community Food Project grant program, USDA lacks explicit policies and program that sufficiently meet the needs of aspiring and existing urban agricultural producers. And while an urban agriculture liaison position at USDA is a good first step in recognizing the importance of urban agriculture and the role it plays in addressing food insecurity, USDA must also make a firm and concerted effort to promote urban agricultural enterprises that create economic opportunities for the people living and working in those same urban communities, and not further the marginalization of those living in urban communities.

* For more information on how urban agriculture can promote racial equity and justice within our food system, see this article.

Beyond the Farm Bill

The farm bill is an excellent vehicle for change because of the substantial and long-lasting policy changes it inherently includes. There are, however, many critical racial equity issues within our food and farm system that are currently not addressed (or cannot be properly addressed) through the farm bill. Below, we include examples of three major racial equity issues currently absent or ill addressed in farm bill debates. 

Justice for Farmworkers

One of the most crucial pieces missing from the farm bill debate is the living and working conditions of migrant and seasonal farmworkers, as many of the policy provisions (and changes that are needed) do not fall within the jurisdiction of the farm bill.

* For more information on labor laws that impact farmworkers in this country, please visit this article.

Although much of the federal policy around migrant and seasonal farmworkers is not determined through the farm bill, it is nonetheless important to speak to the issues and struggles that farmworkers face. Some farmworkers are engaged in agriculture in the U.S. via the current agricultural guest worker program known as H2-A but a majority are not and many of those workers are undocumented. The current H2-A programs is very prescriptive; thus it discourages workers from defending their rights, separates families, and does not allow currently undocumented workers into the program.

The first agricultural guest worker program in the United States was called the Bracero Program. Over 4 million Mexican citizens were employed in the agricultural industry in the United States between 1942 and 1964 under this program. Many of them were denied sanitary housing, access to medical care, round-trip transportation, and the prevailing wage for their work and crops harvested. This program was ended because of its problems, and any new program must ensure its mistakes are not repeated.

Comprehensive immigration reform is absolutely necessary to end the problems associated with undocumented workers who reside in the United States – many of whom are engaged in farm labor. NSAC has several recommendations on how to address the current issues facing undocumented farmworkers, which are outlined in NSAC Principles on Immigration Reform.

* For more information on guest worker programs, read Farmworker Justice’s report on H2-A, No Way to Treat a Guest, which details the history of agricultural guest worker programs in the United States and how the system can abuse workers.

Reparations and Support for Black Farmers

After Emancipation, African American farmers and farmworkers faced violence and formalized discrimination from all sides, including the county, state, and the USDA. In response, many African Americans, especially in the Southeast, formed cooperatives during the early Civil Rights Era, one of the most prominent being the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.

While some existing programs, such as 2501, are helping to support and create opportunities for Black farmers, much more must be done. Black land loss and lack of intergenerational transfer of land remains a significant problem to this day. In addition, the average age of African American farmers is much higher than other farmers – 62 compared to 58.3. Reversing a more rapidly aging farming population, addressing historic inequities related to land access, and training for new generations of Black farmers are all imperative structural changes that are needed. Given both its history of discrimination, and the immense amount of knowledge and financial resources, USDA must confront these issues and do its part to continue to support the growth and prosperity of Black farmers.

Indigenous Food Sovereignty

Native peoples have been engaged in agriculture in North America for millennia. Before European settlement, Indigenous peoples were engaging in agriculture and farming in vastly distinct dynamic, and ingenious ways. Native people also had control over food production and distribution in their communities. Unfortunately, many factors have contributed to the destruction of Native food sovereignty, including widespread land theft, depletion and destruction of the land caused by European settlement, and federal farming policies such as the Dawes Act.

Presently, we are facing an unprecedented crossroads and opportunity to support Indigenous agriculture, and many food justice organizers are calling for a revitalization of traditional foodways. Federal legislators and USDA can begin initial steps in this year’s farm bill to support this process.

* For more information on how you can support the development of Indigenous agriculture, check out the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative’s platform for the 2018 Farm Bill: Regaining Our Future: An Assessment of Risks and Opportunities for Native Communities in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Tying it All Together

In order to address the structural and historical racial inequities within our food and farming systems, we must have commitment from federal policy makers and from USDA.

Present-day patterns of exclusion, marginalization, and disinvestment must be reversed. Processes must be changed to make programs relevant, accessible, and effective to communities of color, barriers lowered, and outreach extended. And most importantly, material restitution and reparations must be given to correct past disinvestment.

In this post we’ve looked at some of the immediate steps that can be taken in the 2018 Farm Bill, as well as speaking more broadly to how we can chart a course for a more sustainable and equitable food system. However, we have still not scratched the surface when it comes to giving a accounting for and addressing the full scope of racial inequities that exist within our food and farm system today.

As part of our development of a more equitable food and farming system, we must seek to uplift the fundamental value of all beings – including the persons, plants, animals, and land of our agricultural and food systems, which support us all.

* For more information and/or ideas towards a big picture framework for dismantling racism in the food system, we recommend this article, 4 Not-So-Easy Ways to Dismantle Racism in the Food System.


Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Commodity, Crop Insurance & Credit Programs, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, Local & Regional Food Systems, Marketing and Labeling


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