In their heyday, nearly 1 million Black farmers in America tended crops and raised livestock with ownership of total farmland peaking at 14% a century ago. The story is vastly different today, and farming as a strong livelihood for African Americans is now a distant memory. The same land enslaved people from Africa were forced to work to the benefit of a generation of wealthy white landowners is now out of reach for most Black families, thanks to decades of systemic racism and discriminatory practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others. Black farmers lost an astonishing 90% of their land over the years, and today fewer than 50,000 African American farmers, out of a total 3.4 million farmers, remain in business. In Maryland, just 1.4% of all farmers are Black, according to 2017 census data, and white farmers now account for 98% of the country’s acreage of farmland nationwide, according to the USDA. Those Black families that have stuck it out oftentimes face mounds of debt and other hardships, and some barely eek out a living.
But now, help is on the way — along with a recognition by the government of its role in creating an inequitable system — in the amount of $5 billion included in President Joe Biden’s stimulus relief package. The funding is meant to address the obstacles faced by African American, Indigenous, Hispanic and other farmers of color during the pandemic, as well as make up for years of discriminatory practices that decimated the Black farming community. The brunt of the money, $4 billion, will go toward helping farmers of color pay off USDA farm loan debts and taxes, and pandemic-related expenses. Two previous settlements with the USDA, stemming from a 1997 class action lawsuit on behalf of Black farmers, failed at easing those hefty financial burdens. The remaining $1 billion will be used to fund initiatives to root out systemic racism and provide assistance to farmers of color through the formation of a racial equity commission focused on practices at the USDA, the disbursement of grants and loans to improve land access, and connection with legal advisors among other initiatives.
Despite what critics might think, the government owes it to these farmers to try to make them financially whole. Black farmers have long complained, and government reports have also shown, that the USDA shut them out of loans or significantly delayed approval. In 2001, the Civil Rights Commission found Black farmers waited four times as long for farm loans as white farmers. A 2002 report found Black farmers received $21.2 million in farm subsidies and white farmers receive $8.9 billion. Private banks would also refuse to lend money to Black farmers, and retailers would not readily sell them necessary equipment.
This lack of access to capital became particularly devastating with advancements in technology that made big farms an industry priority over family operations. Even today Black-owned farms are on average more than four times smaller than white-owned farms. Without the money to grow, it became financially impossible for Black farmers to compete and survive, according to a 2019 report by the Center for American Progress. The policy institute found that systematic racism at the USDA had virtually eliminated Black farmers. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told NPR last week that the relief package is an “acknowledgment that acts of discrimination took place. And that you not only have the specific result of the act, but that there is a cumulative effect of being discriminated against that grows over time. And in order for us to have an equitable and a fair USDA, it’s necessary for us to address that gap.”
The sad part is that the financial help is too little too late for scores of farm owners who lost their properties over the decades because of deliberate tactics that inhibited success. It’s akin to systemic racism efforts, including redlining practices that denied African Americans home loans and deliberately devalued their neighborhoods. Their families will never be able to regain the lost generations of wealth without some form of reparations. But we applaud Black farmers who have fought for justice on Capital Hill for decades. It was a hard-won victory. We can also only hope that Mr. Vilsack is correct in his belief that the financial relief package can help create new farmers, perhaps of wave of younger agriculture workers, by creating a more equitable playing field. That won’t undo the past, but can mean something for the future.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.