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Racial Equity in the Farm Bill: Context and Foundations

December 1, 2017


Black farmers protest across from the White House on September 22, 1997. Protesters alleged that USDA denied black farmers equal access to farm loans and assistance based on their race. North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford and 400 other black farmers filed the Pigford v. Glickman (Pigford I) class-action lawsuit against USDA in 1997; USDA settled Pigford I in 1999. Photo credit: USDA, Anson Eaglin.

Black farmers protest across from the White House on September 22, 1997. Protesters alleged that USDA denied black farmers equal access to farm loans and assistance. North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford and 400 other black farmers filed the Pigford v. Glickman (Pigford I) class-action lawsuit against USDA in 1997; USDA settled Pigford I in 1999. Photo credit: USDA, Anson Eaglin.

Editor’s Note: This blog post is the first in a multi-part series written and curated by NSAC Policy Intern Noah McDonald, which explores how the next Farm Bill can advance racial equity in food and agriculture. This first post explores some of the historical context for the racial inequities within our food system, federal efforts at addressing past discriminatory practices, and provides an overview of grant and technical assistance programs for limited resource farmers and farmers of color.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) diverse body of member groups is dedicated to actively challenging policies that perpetuate systems of oppression and inequities in the food and farm system. NSAC affirms that racial equity – an understanding and acknowledgement of historical and ongoing racial inequities and a commitment to actions challenging those inequities – is a core tenet of the coalition’s outlook and continually works to incorporate racial equity in its structure, analysis, and policy development and advocacy processes.

This commitment to racial equity permeates all of NSAC’s work, including our analysis and recommendations for the 2018 Farm Bill. In this first post of our Racial Equity in the Farm Bill series, we wade into the complex and historical issues of racial equity, setting the stage for subsequent posts that will focus on the specific challenges faced by people of color in the food and farm system and recommendations for creating lasting institutional change.

Why Focus on the Farm Bill?

One of the most important legislative events shaping our food and agricultural system is currently being debated in Congress – the reauthorization of the farm bill. Put in the simplest terms, the farm bill is a comprehensive piece of legislation that covers everything from crop insurance, to healthy food access for low-income families, to training support for beginning farmers, and funding for sustainable agriculture research. The farm bill is an immensely powerful package of laws that sets the course of our country’s food and farm systems.

Based upon the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 – a landmark piece of legislation that attempted to stave off the collapse of the agricultural industry during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression – the farm bill is now reauthorized every five years. The 2014 Farm Bill will expire on September 30th, 2018, and must be reauthorized in order for many of the programs supporting our nation’s farmers, ranchers, and consumers to continue.

With less than a year before the 2014 Farm Bill expires, now is a pivotal time to engage Congress around promoting racial equity in our food and farming systems.

Viewing the Food and Farming System with a Racial Equity Lens

The farming system of the United States is built upon structural racial inequity. When thinking of past exploitation in the U.S. agricultural system, the first image that may come to mind is the enslavement of millions of Africans in the plantation economy. African slaves were integral to the production of commodity crops like cotton, tobacco, sugar, and indigo in the 1800s (in 1860, cotton comprised 60 percent of the value of all U.S. exports) – however, many people today don’t realize that enslaved peoples also grew the majority of the nation’s corn, small grains, and livestock during the colonial period. Many Africans were such agricultural experts that plantation owners actually sought to purchase specific ethnic groups to grow particular crops. For example, slave owners who grew rice routinely sought out peoples taken from the numerous rice-growing regions of West and Central Africa. The Africans imported for their agricultural expertise not only grew the crops, they also indelibly changed the landscape of the “Low Country” by redesigning the landscape through complex environmental engineering. For more information on Black Agrarian traditions we recommend the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program’s (SARE) book, Land and Power.

Even less commonly discussed in our nation’s agricultural heritage is the foundation of farming in the Midwest. With the passage of The Homestead Act in 1862, Congress made lands held in the public domain eligible to all U.S. citizens for agricultural settlement. Under this Act, an eligible homesteader was usually granted (for a small filing fee) around 160 acres if the land was farmed for a minimum of five years. The vast majority of land transferred under The Homestead Act was either former Mexican territory taken through the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, or tribal lands in the Great Lakes, Dakotas, and Great Plains taken through military conquest, deceptive diplomacy, and broken treaties (for more information, see: Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence). In total, under the Homestead Act of 1862 and succeeding Homestead Acts, over 270 million acres of land were given away to around 1.6 million U.S. citizens – the majority being American-born whites and newly arrived European immigrants.

Not only did this policy result in the undermining and destruction of the traditional food systems of tribal nations, it also expressly left out newly emancipated African Americans. Emancipated African Americans had great difficulty in gaining access to land– and if they did it was oftentimes marginal or arid land. Thus, the great agricultural wealth and prosperity generated by the expansion into the American West was effectively closed off to African Americans.

While millions of acres of land in the Midwest and Great Plains were being given away through the 1862 Homestead Act, the rolling back of Reconstruction-era reforms barred Black farmers in the South from accessing the land and capital needed to become farm owner-operators. While these farmers had indisputable expertise in the cultivation of both commodity crops, small grains, vegetables, and livestock, they faced formal legal discrimination on state, county, and local levels; farmers also dealt with routine threats violence and even death. One of the toughest barriers for Black farmers was county government control over the Farmers Home Administration (now the Farm Service Agency) boards. Lack of representation on these boards effectively locked out Black farmers from accessing USDA funds for almost an entire century.

Unfortunately, we cannot possibly cover the nearly limitless examples of historical racism in the food system in this post, or even in this series. In addition to the struggles of African American farmers, there are also the stories of Latino farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers; immigrant farmers and farmworkers from China, Japan, the Philippines; and many producers from other parts of Asia that we have not even been able to scratch the surface of. All of these narratives are vitally important to understanding how the food system has created inequities for peoples of color. For more information, we recommend this brief timeline on the history of agricultural labor in the United States. 

USDA’s Approach to Righting the Wrongs

In the last few decades, dedicated farmers of color and farmer advocates have helped to bring to light the many injustices faced by Black farmers and other farmers of color; particularly injustices perpetuated by the federal government and USDA. For example, in one of the largest civil rights settlements in history – Pigford vs. Glickman 1999 – the USDA formally recognized that it had discriminated against black farmers for decades (specifically regarding loan and land access). In total, more than $2 billion in claim settlements were awarded to Black farmers as a result of this lawsuit. Organizations like the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and Rural Coalition were pivotal advocates in the Pigford and other discrimination cases. In Pigford, these organizations provided an essential service by cataloging cases of USDA discrimination and malpractice, providing Black farmers with technical assistance and legal counsel, and advising the submission of claims.

In 2011, a similar lawsuit – Keepseagle vs. Vilsack – found that USDA had discriminated against American Indian farmers by denying them access to credit in the USDA Farm Loan Program.

Farmers and advocates have not just found justice through the courts, however. Many, like Rural Coalition, in partnership with 1890 Land Grant Colleges, have also been instrumental in the creation of USDA programs and policies focused on enhancing equity and extending resources to underserved groups. In 1990, thanks to pressure by these farmers and farmer groups, Congress created a formal designation for “Socially Disadvantaged Farmers”. A socially disadvantaged producer is defined by USDA as “a farmer or rancher who has been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudices because of their identity as a member of a group without regard to their individual qualities”. Included under this definition are African Americans, American Indians or Alaskan natives, Hispanics and Latinos, and Asians or Pacific Islanders; for loan and rural development programs, this definition also includes women.

In the 1990 Farm Bill, advocates also pushed Congress to create the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers program (also known as the “2501 program”). To this day, the 2501 program is the only farm bill program that explicitly addresses the unique needs of farmers and ranchers of color (veterans were added to the program in the 2014 Farm Bill). 2501 provides grants to colleges and universities, nonprofits, and community organizations working with farmers of color. The program’s focus on outreach makes it an effective mechanism through which farmers of color can access federal resources through existing loan, conservation, rural development and other farm programs.

In additional to 2501, there are special incentives and funding set-asides for socially disadvantaged farmers within USDA administered grant programs that have been created thanks to advocacy by NSAC and other farmer-focused organizations. Programs with these incentives and set-asides include, but are not limited to:

Despite the legislative and administrative progress by USDA in better serving socially disadvantaged farmers, there are still many programs that do not adequately meet the needs of these groups. Further complicating the issue is inconsistent administration, outreach and accessibility across USDA programs. Some USDA programs, for example, have conflicting definitions of “socially disadvantaged,” which creates confusion and challenges for farmers interested in those programs. BFRDP is a prime example of this conflict; in this program gender is included in the statutory definition of socially disadvantaged farmer, however, gender is not included as part of the “socially disadvantaged” category in many other programs. Programs also have different types of provisions for socially disadvantaged farmers and ways of setting participation targets. For example, in the case of Direct Farm Ownership Loans, county or reservation demographic data sets “target participation rates”. In contrast, EQIP includes a set-aside of five percent of all funding for socially disadvantaged farmers. 

The Path Forward

Throughout history and to this day, farmers of color and immigrant farmers have and continue to face unique challenges in starting (and maintaining) a successful farming operation. Inadequate access to capital for starting operations, discrimination within the private loan sector, and historical discrimination from USDA are just a few of the impediments to accessing the essential resources to support their operations.

There has been progress, however, and the 2018 Farm Bill provides us with an opportunity to move the needle even further. Support for key USDA programs that support socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers will be debated during this farm bill, many of which (like the 2501 Program and the Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program) have been underfunded for years. This farm bill offers a rare opportunity to reverse the trend of disinvestment in resources for underserved producers and food producing communities, and to lay out a plan for a brighter, more prosperous future for all. Recommendations for how we can achieve this goal can be found in detail in our farm bill platform, Agenda for the 2018 Farm Bill.

In the next installment of this series, we will review how effective USDA has been in increasing opportunities for farmers and ranchers of color, and explore some of the specific challenges and barriers experienced by these groups. We will also be highlighting many stories and experiences from NSAC member groups and the farmers and communities they serve.


Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Carousel


One response to “Racial Equity in the Farm Bill: Context and Foundations”

  1. […] December 1, 2017 – Reprinted from National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s Blog […]

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