The American Rescue Plan includes $5 billion in debt relief and other support for Black farmers and other farmers of color. Last week, the Council of State Governments Eastern Regional Conference, Council on Communities of Color in partnership with theBEnote.com, hosted an important webinar, “Black Farmers: A Struggle for Relief and a Future,” discussing the state of Black farmers in the US and why this funding is so critical. Panelists included Pennsylvania State Representative Chris Rabb; Eloris Speight, Director of the Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Research Center at Alcorn State University; former USDA Director of Civil Rights; Lloyd Wright; and Cornelius Blanding, Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.
The webinar is available in full here. We’ve collected our six takeaways below, including ways state legislators can make a difference.
1 ) After years of discrimination, land theft, migration, and many other factors, Black farmers are not in good shape.
“They’re struggling, holding on by their fingernails,” says Lloyd Wright.
Black farmers primarily in states where Jim Crow laws were on the books until 1964, which left them facing discrimination and violence, and unable to access most farm assistance. Representative Rabb points out that during the Great Migration, when six million African-Americans migrated north to escape lynchings and other white supremacist terrorism, “we left a whole lot of land” in the South, which was taken over by white farmers and landowners. Even today, the billions in aid that the federal government distributed to farmers from 2018 to 2020 for impacts of the trade war and the pandemic went almost exclusively to white farmers, leaving Black farmers in even worse shape than they were just a few years ago.
2) The US economy and agricultural system is based on government-sanctioned stolen land and stolen labor.
Federal and state governments condoned the theft of land from Indigenous peoples, slavery, sharecropping, racism, and many other forms of discrimination that left people of color with far less land and other resources than white people.
“The government was complicit then, which now means the government is responsible,” for addressing the lasting impacts of this harm, says Representative Rabb.
3) It is important to follow the lead of communities on the ground when developing policy to support farmers of color.
Black-led institutions and organizations including the Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Research Center and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives must be at the forefront of policy making.
The Policy Research Center, based at Alcorn University, was created in the 2014 Farm Bill. Center experts’ work with partners at historically Black colleges and universities and other institutions to make policy recommendations that will improve success rates for Black farmers and other socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers around the country. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives is the oldest and largest Black-farmer-owned organization in the nation, working with farmers throughout the South on market access, capacity building, cooperative development and much more.
4) Heirs property laws are a major cause of Black farmers and families continuing to lose land.
Heirs property ownership is common in many Black communities, where a landholder may die without a will or not want to divide their land among their descendents. In these cases, the title passes to each descendent equally. Over multiple generations, more and more descendents claim ownership, complicating any decisions about what to do with the land. In many states, one co-owner can force sale of the entire property, which has led many Black families to become victims of real estate speculators.
The Justice for Black Farmers Act, introduced in January by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), would standardize and clarify the patchwork of state laws on heirs property. In the meantime, state legislators can ensure that the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act has passed in their state, and advance it if it has not. The Act guarantees due process for all owners of heirs property.
5) Legislation to support Black farmers can take many forms and be bipartisan.
In Pennsylvania last year, Representative Rabb, a Democrat, worked with Republican colleagues on a farm bill package that included HB1519, a specialty crop block grant bill. Rabb wrote a provision into HB1519 that ten percent of the funding must go to communities where 20 percent of the population has been below the poverty line for at least 30 years. The measure includes set asides for both rural and urban communities.
6) USDA and state agriculture agencies have such a long history of discrimination that they must be subject to extensive reform.
“We need to fix the infrastructure or nothing is going to change,” says Lloyd Wright, who was stymied at USDA as Director of Civil Rights in the Obama Administration. He recommends moving the Office of Civil Rights from USDA to the Department of Justice, and significantly reforming the farm credit system to effectively serve farmers of color, while also discussing the importance of state and regional investment in farm cooperative development, Black farmer education, and passage of the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act.