The U.S. is built on a long history of disenfranchisement and land theft, which continues to have significant repercussions today. The legalized enslavement of Black people built the U.S. economy, and yet, with few exceptions, formerly enslaved people and their descendants have seen little of the country’s wealth. In fact, gains in land ownership by Black Southerners following the Civil War were erased over the following century, mostly through threats, violence, and systemic discrimination, including by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) itself. In 1910, Black farmers accounted for 20 percent of farmers; by 2017, that number had dropped to 1.3 percent. Black land ownership has plummeted by 98 percent in the last century, with most of the loss occurring not in the late 1800s, but just since the 1950s.
The loss of Black farmers and Black-owned farmland in America can be directly linked to historic discrimination at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Racist and discriminatory policy in federal farm assistance and lending has resulted in millions of Black farmers and their families to lose their farms, farmland, and hundreds of billions of dollars in inter-generational wealth.
State Level Efforts and the Justice for Black Farmers Act:
In the last few years, policy efforts have been introduced at the federal and state levels to address this long legacy of harm. In an attempt to end discrimination at USDA, protect remaining Black farmers, and bring new Black farmers to the land, US Senator Cory Booker introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act in 2020 and again in 2023.
The federal Justice for Black Farmers Act is a landmark proposal that would address access to land, training, credit, and much more for Black and other socially disadvantaged farmers, along with significant systemic changes to level the playing field for all farmers. At the state level, policymakers across the country have drawn on parts of this legislation over the last three years to craft a variety of state-level reforms that center farmer equity and Black farmer justice across a range of progressive policies.
Unfortunately, there have also been ongoing barriers to direct relief for today’s Black farmers. The $5 billion in debt relief promised to Black farmers in the 2020 American Rescue Plan to rectify a century of USDA discrimination was halted by lawsuits and ultimately repealed by Congress. Learn the details of this broken promise here.
While efforts at the federal level have been stymied, advocates, farmers, and state legislators have worked together on alternatives, resulting in the bills and policies in this non-comprehensive list being introduced at the state level in the last three years:
- Twenty-two states have enacted the Partition of Heirs Property Act, which helps to protect heirs’ property owners from a forced sale. At the federal level, USDA provided $67 million in 2022 for owners of heirs’ property, which can be used to clear their titles by buying out other heirs’ shares of the land, or for legal, appraisal, and other fees associated with title reconciliation. Kentucky (2021 KY SB 43) is one of several other states considering passage and in Illinois (2023 IL HJR) policymakers are working towards creating an heirs’ property study task force.
- North Carolina (2021 NC SB 694) and South Carolina (2021 SC HB 3543) lawmakers have proposed legislation to restore agricultural land to Black farmers.
- Washington (2021 WA HB 1395) passed a law directing state agencies to ensure inclusion of historically underrepresented and socially disadvantaged farmers in programming.
- California (2019 CA AB 986) created a program to provide grants to socially disadvantaged farmers, including Native tribes, to acquire agricultural land.
- Maine passed a law (2021 ME HP 5) to ensure the inclusion of racial impact statements in the legislative process.
- Illinois (2021 IL HB 3089) lawmakers considered a proposal to require that 20 percent of food purchased by state agencies be produced by socially disadvantaged farmers.
For more on Black farmer equity and policies to end historic discrimination in rural communities, see the Blueprint for Rural Policy Action in the States.
CROP members can now sign up for the private, legislator-only Black Farmer Equity Working Group. Sign-up now.