The USDA has just approved a $4 billion debt relief fund to minority and disadvantaged farmers. While many are up in arms about the program, calling it “reverse racism”, this debt relief has been a long time coming for many minority farmers. The history of discriminatory practices within the farming industry has led black farmers to lose an astonishing 12 million acres over the past century, many of whom lost family farms due to an inability to access USDA funding.
But will this debt relief be enough to provide minority farmers what they need to succeed, or will they continue to make up only 2% of the farming population?
Over the course of the past century, we have seen the breakdown of the minority farming system. With Natives only accounting for 2.9% of the farming industry, Hispanics 4.2%, and black farmers accounting for 1.7%. Without changes to the current farming industry structure these numbers are likely to either remain the same or continue to decline. While debt relief may serve as a breathing point for the 13,000 farmers on the receiving line, it doesn’t provide a means to fix the issues that put minority farmers in this position to begin with.
Minority farmers and organizations that provide assistance to small farmers agree that there needs to be a more extensive policy change to address these issues. Community Farm Alliance (CFA) Organizing Director Kelsey Voit says that, while CFA doesn’t have a direct plan yet for addressing this issue, they recently issued a Black Farmer Needs Assessment in order to pinpoint particular areas where minority farmers need assistance. They also worked with Black Soil to issue direct support to farmers of color during COVID, and would like to see these programs continue even after the pandemic subsides.
Voit also addressed the need for federal and state agricultural policy to promote institutional connection and funding to grassroots organizations who are helping on the ground level. While current policy proposals place pressure on the USDA and FSA to institute these programs themselves, we should instead be encouraging them to fund programs for smaller organizations to run, which has the potential to be far more effective in the long run.
Corey Booker has also been promoting the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which would address the current land loss of Black farmers and provide means for black farmers to obtain land through land grants. It also proposes systemic reforms within the farming industry, starting with the USDA, in order to prevent the loss of Black farmers in the future.
The greatest proposal is Booker’s insistence on systemic reforms, especially if they involve extensive cultural competency training on racial issues. This type of training allows policy makers to understand how each community is affected by policies and works to fix those issues that are detrimental to the development of particular communities. In the case of the USDA this is the minority farmer. We must openly acknowledge that racial discrimination is prevalent within the farming industry, and then understand how our own privilege as white farmers can make a difference.
The loss of minority farmers in America is a tragic symptom of the systemic racism ingrained in our society. Pushing for and promoting these programs that help alleviate their struggle and keep them in their land, as well as creating opportunities to discuss race in agriculture, will no doubt help our struggling farming industry overall.
Aysha Ross is a small Kentucky farmer and graduate student in sustainability with the University of Louisville.