In February 2021, Senators Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act in Congress. The sponsors’ intention was both to pay off the outstanding loan debt mentioned above that was due to USDA bias, and to respond to the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The measure was included as Sections 1005 and 1006 in the March 2021 American Rescue Plan (ARP). In the ARP, $4 billion was allocated for debt relief for Black farmers along with another $1 billion for outreach and education for socially disadvantaged farmers. USDA told 17,000 farmers of color, including 3,100 Black farmers, that relief was on the way. With assurances that checks were literally in the mail, many struggling farmers used the promised money as credit for the 2021 season.
But instead, white farmers in at least five states (WI, TX, WY, FL, TN), backed by rightwing legal firms, filed lawsuits against the Biden Administration and USDA, claiming that the program was discriminatory. In June 2021, a US district court judge in Florida issued a preliminary injunction against the payments being dispersed, putting the debt relief on hold indefinitely.
Looking towards the next major federal spending bill, then called Build Back Better, Black farmer advocates worked closely with Congressional offices on language to include that would resolve the debt relief situation. But as Build Back Better became the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the compromise language was not included. Instead, the IRA repealed Section 1005 of the ARP, eliminating the debt relief program altogether.
The IRA created two funds in place of the promised Black farmer debt relief. One is for farmers and ranchers who have experienced discrimination before 2021, the other allows USDA to make payments for loans or loan modifications to farmers who face financial distress, giving USDA broad discretion in who will benefit from these payments.
Advocates for Black farmers are angry and frustrated about how the situation has turned out, though they are not surprised, given a long history of both discrimination and broken promises to Black farmers from USDA. In many cases, advocates are now focusing on strategies to ensure Black farmers are well connected with the resources available to them through federal and state programs.
State legislators can support these and other efforts through legislation, appropriations, outreach, and other strategies. If you would like help thinking through options for your state, be in touch!