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What’s at Stake: Support for Socially Disadvantaged Producers

November 13, 2012

Due to Congressional inaction, the 2008 Farm Bill has expired without a new bill or extension to take its place.  In the absence of a farm bill, numerous innovative programs that invest in sustainable agriculture systems are shut down and left without funding.  This is the seventh post in our 10-week “What’s at Stake?” series that highlights expired farm bill programs and what that means for farmers and communities throughout the country. 

Southeast Asian Farmers participating in on-farm trainings and workshop in Minnesota. Photo Credit: Hmong National Development, Inc.

Farming is a risky business and has become increasingly difficult to enter over the past few decades.  However, for the growing number of culturally diverse farmers in this country, starting and managing a successful farming operation is fraught with even greater challenges.

Many ethnically diverse populations have migrated to the United States over the past few decades and have gravitated to farming in large part due to their agricultural roots and prior farming experience in their native countries.  Often uprooted from an agrarian culture, many wish to preserve and pass on the culture of farming.

The Hmong community is one example in particular that has established roots in various regions of the country, including areas of the south over the past 10 years, where they have used their life savings to buy poultry farms in hopes of creating a better future for their families.

While many livestock farmers are struggling today due to unfair contract agreements, rising costs of inputs, and unsustainable agricultural practices, Hmong farmers who have started poultry operations have faced unique circumstances and additional challenges, given their experiences of predatory lending, language barriers, and lack of knowledge about the U.S. farming industry and relevant resources.

Although several federal programs exist to support new farmers – including loan, conservation, and disaster assistance programs to name a few – ethnic minorities have not historically participated in these programs to the same extent as other farmers, often due to insufficient or inadequate outreach and assistance to these farming communities.

Hmong National Development, Inc. (HND) is one organization working to increase opportunities for minority farmers in the United States, and focuses specifically on building the capacity of Southeast Asian farmers who have recently established themselves in various agricultural regions across the United States.  HND was recently awarded a grant from the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program (sometimes referred to as the Section 2501 program)  to design and implement outreach and technical assistance strategies in Arkansas which would support Hmong farmers throughout the region in managing and diversifying their current farming operations.

“These Hmong families moved down to the South to live out their dreams as farmers,” says Bruce Thao, Project Manager at HND.  “But after several years of farming, they still can’t even pay their rent or feed their kids because all the money is going to the bank.”

And, although the University of Arkansas Extension Service and local USDA field offices have a host of resources and support staff to offer technical assistance, Hmong farmers aren’t coming to them to take advantage of the resources they can provide.

But, why?

Typical USDA and Extension outreach materials include printed publications, flyers, or brochures on specific programs or workshop announcements.  However, there is a very strong history of oral tradition within the Hmong community, and lower literacy rates than other farming populations in the United States.  That’s why Hmong National Development plans to work with Hmong interpreters to utilize radio and conference calls, and online recordings to conduct outreach specifically targeted to the Hmong community, as opposed to relying on traditional USDA and Extension outreach efforts which have been largely ineffective to date.

With the support of the 2501 Program, HND will begin to build a relationship between a struggling Hmong farming community and local resources like the University Extension Service and USDA, and ultimately build the capacity of and potential for this farming population to lead successful careers in agriculture in this country.

How the 2501 Program Serves Socially Disadvantaged Producers

For decades, the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program (2501) has served as the only farm bill program dedicated to addressing the needs of African-American, American-Indian, Asian-American, and Latino family farmers and ranchers.  The program provides critical resources, outreach, and technical assistance to reduce the trend among these historically under-served producers.

According to the latest Census of Agriculture, agriculture in the United States, like the nation as a whole, is becoming more diverse, as a greater number of ethnic minorities begin farming careers.  Although together ethnic minorities only comprise less than 10 percent of all farmers (excluding farm workers), the growth in new farmers among these demographics has outpaced the growth among white farmers.

Socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers have been historically underrepresented in many USDA programs for several reasons.  Many are not aware of USDA programs or where to go to access assistance with their farming venture.  Even if they do know about federal programs, under-served producers often find it difficult to complete program applications – especially those related to financial assistance that involve complicated loan or grant applications.  Some potential applicants also experience language, institutional, and other cultural barriers that have historically prevented their participation in USDA programs.

Because of these barriers, producers who often could benefit the most from federal programs often are not able to fully utilize them.

Additionally, USDA has struggled historically with institutional discrimination in the delivery of many federal programs and services to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, particularly within farm loan programs, resulting in several class-action lawsuits involving minority and women farmers over the past 15 years.

The 2501 Program is a remarkably successful initiative that originally came out of the 1990 Farm Bill negotiations and then was given a big boost in the 2008 Farm Bill,  in large part to address the historical discrimination faced by minority farmers, and has provided a necessary approach to improving equity and inclusion for socially disadvantaged producers in federal agriculture programs.

Examples of Successful 2501 Projects

Over the past 20 years, 2501 has invested millions of dollars of federal funding to develop and strengthen innovative outreach and technical assistance programs and other resources targeted at historically under-served producers.

In the most recent three years for which data is available, 158 grants worth $45 million were made to groups and university programs in 34 states around the country in both rural and urban communities.  In the past few years alone, the program has served more than 100,000 rural constituents, making it an invaluable resource for communities of colors across the nation.

A few program highlights include the following projects:

  • In California, 2501 funding helped a non-profit organization lead training programs to enhance business management skills needed to assist former migrant farm workers in becoming prosperous farm owners in the agriculturally-based Central Valley.
  • In New Mexico, 2501 funding allowed a community-based organization to improve the sustainability and economic viability of small-scale agriculture among Hispanic ranchers who are part of historic acequias (or community irrigation systems) that support the livelihoods of thousands of farmers in the southwest region.
  • In Minnesota, the 2501 program helped a trade organization provide outreach, technical assistance, and training to Somali, Hmong, and Burmese farmers in rural Minnesota and Western Wisconsin on topics such as food safety, direct marketing, and organic practices.
  • In Alabama and Georgia, a 2501 grant strengthened farm management and marketing skills of African-American farmers in the southern region of the United States in order to increase farm income and enhance quality of life in farm families and distressed rural communities across the South.

Program Funding

2501 was first authorized in the 1990 Farm Bill with an authorization for $10 million in discretionary funding per year, and  the 2002 Farm Bill increased the authorization to $25 million per year, but the program never received a congressional appropriation of more than $6 million in any year.  Despite the program’s early success, program funding had historically not been sufficient to reach counties throughout the U.S. where outreach was needed the most, until the 2008 Farm Bill greatly increased total funding by providing $75 million in direct farm bill funding for 2009 through 2012.

Since 2010, roughly $20 million has been available each year to fund new and continuing projects under this program.  As of October 1, that funding and program authorization officially expired, leaving the future of the program and training and technical assistance for minority and under-served producers in a very untenable position.

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives took action to fund 2501 in their versions of the 2012 Farm Bill, albeit at dramatically reduced levels.  The House Committee-passed farm bill provides $10 million per year to fund 2501 through 2017 (almost a 50 percent reduction in annual funding), and the Senate-passed bill provides a mere $5 million per year, compared to its current level of $20 million per year, which amounts to a 75 percent reduction in annual funding levels.  In addition to these substantially decreased funding levels, both the House and Senate bills expanded eligibility requirements to include veteran farmers and ranchers.  Efforts to restore and expand the funding base for the 2501 program have thus far been unsuccessful.

What’s Next for Socially Disadvantaged Producers?

As of October 1, the 2501 Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program, along with several other innovative research and rural development programs, has now officially expired with the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill.  Congress clearly understands the value of this program, as both the House and Senate include funding for 2501 in their draft farm bills, albeit at decreased levels.  Unfortunately, despite the success and widespread support for this program across the country, lawmakers’ decision to not take up the unfinished farm bill has left our country’s historically under-served farmers with fewer resources at their disposal.

Due to Congressional inaction, the historic gains made in the 2008 Farm Bill to address long-standing inequalities and uneven participation in federal programs by our country’s minority farmers are at risk of being wiped out as this program is put on hold indefinitely and funding sources dry up.

Not only should Congress take up and pass a Farm Bill upon their return to Capitol Hill this week, but they should take additional action to ensure adequate funding is invested in this already successful program to allow it to be effectively extended to veteran farmers and ranchers.  It is severely disappointing that this Congress has not only cut funding for this critical program that has made great strides in increasing the economic viability of minority farmers in the U.S., but has done so while also expanded the scope of the program — expecting it to serve more farmers with fewer resources.

Without increased funding, it would be difficult if not impossible to maintain the integrity of this historic program that has supported farmers and ranchers of color that have been historically under-served and add veteran farmers and ranchers as well.

There are real consequences to Congress’s decision to allow the farm bill to expire.  We need to make sure that lawmakers hear this loud and clear as they return to work this week, and that they get back on track and get a farm bill or short-term extension that explicitly provides continued funding for 2501 passed this year.  To find out when to take action in support of socially disadvantaged farmers, sign up for NSAC’s action alerts!

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Farm Bill

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