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NSAC’s 2023 Farm Bill Platform: Advancing Racial Equity Across the Food System

December 21, 2022

Photo credit: USDA

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth post in our series covering key pillars of NSAC’s 2023 Farm Bill Platform. The series begins here.  You can read the platform and take action to endorse it here.

Longstanding structural and institutional racism has excluded black, Indigenous and people of color, (BIPOC) from fair access to land, financial resources, information, political standing, and educational and professional opportunities. During the last several years, Congress has passed, and the USDA has implemented numerous policies and initiatives designed to repair harms and prevent future discrimination. For example, the USDA has launched an Equity Commission, part of the USDA’s Equity Action Plan, in part to determine how the Department and its programs may “exacerbate or perpetuate racial, economic, health and social disparities.” Congress has also recently passed initiatives in the Inflation Reduction Act (PL 117–169) to provide debt relief to distressed borrowers of USDA loans and to provide financial assistance to farmers and ranchers who have experienced discrimination. While these initiatives, among others, must continue and should remain unhindered by the Farm Bill reauthorization, there is more work to do to ensure a just food and farm system.

As Congress begins the 2023 Farm Bill reauthorization, it must build on these recent accomplishments by crafting a farm bill that advances racial equity by improving access to USDA funding and programs for underserved individuals and communities, and particularly farmers of color; increasing funding for programs and policies that support underserved communities and particularly farmers of color; and strengthening data collection, analysis, reporting, and transparency to inform racial equity-driven decision-making.

Improve farmers of color’s access to USDA funding and programs

For the 2023 Farm Bill to adequately address racial equity in agriculture and food policy, the bill must include provisions to improve access to USDA funding and programs for farmers of color. Historically, farmers of color have often received and benefitted far less from government agriculture programs compared to white farmers for a variety of reasons. In some cases, USDA outreach did not adequately reach farmers of colors or their communities, resulting in limited knowledge of and engagement in USDA program opportunities. Other farmers of color may have had fewer resources, limiting their capacity to apply for and obtain support from USDA programs. Further still, many farmers of color faced explicit discrimination by USDA, often being excluded from the programs that would have supported their operations. The Pigford cases famously brought to light the discrimination that farmers of color experienced at the hands of USDA. 

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has since recognized such discrimination, saying in a statement to the House Agriculture Committee in 2021 that, “the systemic racism and discrimination perpetuated against Black Farmers, and the history of discrimination against Black Farmers by USDA [has] prevented numerous African-Americans, among other people of color, from fully realizing the same level of prosperity and success as their white counterparts.” Yet while Secretary Vilsack and the agency have vowed to address these harms, many farmers who were included in the Pigford lawsuits in the late 1990s have yet to see any benefits returned to them. 

Each of these barriers has impacted the level of engagement and inclusion of farmers of color in USDA programs. The 2023 Farm Bill is an opportunity to address these barriers and improve equitable access to USDA funding opportunities and programs. NSAC’s 2023 Farm Bill Platform includes a number of suggestions to do so, including:

  • Increasing access to key working lands conservation programs like CSP and EQIP by expanding existing funding set-asides for socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers to at least 30%;
  • Increasing technical assistance and resource availability for farmers of color, including expanded hours of availability at USDA service centers and increased language accessibility resources;
  • Recognizing Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)-based conservation;
  • Ensuring that BIPOC communities can access culturally relevant foods through nutrition programs like SNAP;
  • Eliminating barriers and increasing access to financing and credit programs by removing limitations to credit access due to previous debts and by offering pre-approval opportunities for farm loans that support ownership and operations of farms by farmers of color; and
  • Improving access to small-producer and small-processor grant programs, which are often operated by people of color.

Increase funding for programs and policies that support farmers of color

Separate from improving access to USDA programs, NSAC also supports increasing funding to programs that specifically offer resources to farmers of color and other historically underserved communities. These programs offer more tailored resources that take into consideration the unique needs of beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers. For example, the 2018 Farm Bill established the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Program (FOTO), which combines the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, or Section 2501 program. The umbrella FOTO program was a major development in the 2018 Farm Bill because it established mandatory funding for programs that explicitly support socially disadvantaged farmers, including farmers of color, and veteran farmers. The FOTO program supports non-profits and community-based organizations that provide critical technical service and other support services directly to socially disadvantaged farmers. NSAC’s 2023 Farm Bill Platform builds on this invaluable program by further supporting increased funding for farmers of color by advancing policies and programs that include:

  • Increasing mandatory funding for the FOTO Program;
  • Providing microgrants directly to farmers of color and minimizing onerous financial assistance application processes to enable these farmers to expand their operations;
  • Establishing the practice of releasing USDA information in multiple languages at once to avoid delays in information sharing for non-English speakers;
  • Creating a Navigator Program to assist underserved producers in accessing USDA programs, administered by non-profit and community partners through cooperative agreements with USDA;
  • Committing resources to research that address the unique impacts of climate change on BIPOC farmers, farmworkers, and members of low-income communities; and
  • Prioritizing investments in underserved and minority-serving institutions that provide research, education, and extension services.

Strengthen data collection and analysis to inform racial equity-driven decision-making

Consistently collecting data on program applications, participation, and outcomes is critical to ensuring that underserved farmers and ranchers do in fact receive the benefits prioritized for them. Without transparent and timely data analysis, actual impacts for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers cannot be quantified, impeding the potential to make future improvements based on program outcomes. To ensure that USDA funding is equitably distributed and the programs targeting support for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers are accomplishing their intended goals, NSAC’s 2023 Farm Bill Platform recommends that USDA:

  • Gather data to ensure that set-asides for socially disadvantaged farmers are commensurate with the SDFR population in the state or county;
  • Establish agency-wide requirements for data collection and reporting on funding distributions to farmers based on key demographics;
  • Ensure that data is publicly available and interactive, such that stakeholders can identify gaps and address areas of duplication or other issues;
  • Collect baseline data on grant applicants with a focus on data for diversity, equity, and inclusion metrics to inform increases in the representation of BIPOC farmers and other food system stakeholders in USDA’s grant-making decisions, including those who serve on review panels; and
  • Consider and take action to prevent the overburdening of grantees for data collection purposes, especially for underserved or socially disadvantaged farmers and food systems professionals.

For too long, socially disadvantaged farmers have faced disproportionate barriers to accessing USDA programs. Congress has a critical opportunity to include key provisions to rectify historical discrimination and to alleviate the barriers to access and funding opportunities for BIPOC and other socially disadvantaged farmers in the 2023 Farm Bill. 

For more details on each of these proposals, we invite you to read our 2023 Farm Bill Platform.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Carousel, Farm Bill

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