Legislation signed into law by President Joe Biden in the spring of 2021 was supposed to provide debt relief for socially disadvantaged farmers. Just over a year later, lawsuits blocking the program threaten to accelerate a long-running decline in the number of black-owned farms.

“It leaves people in bad shape,” John Boyd Jr., founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, said in a phone interview. “It’s going to end up leading to more farm foreclosures, especially for black people and other farmers of color, because you can’t access credit.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was due to begin making debt relief payments last June to socially disadvantaged farmers, that is, those belonging to groups that have experienced racial or ethnic discrimination. – as part of a $4 billion provision in the $1.9 trillion US bailout. . The program was intended to redress decades of discrimination by the federal government, particularly the US Department of Agriculture, and the banks.

The debt relief package, which is stalled in court, met with immediate resistance from white farmer groups as well as banks. White farmers argued that the relief amounted to reversing racial discrimination and sued the USDA to block the program. Separately, the early repayment of loans under the program has upset banks, who said they were unfairly deprived of interest payments.

The courts have issued preliminary injunctions blocking the remedy.

That leaves eligible farmers who have completed the paperwork paving the way for debt forgiveness more indebted and struggling with soaring costs for fuel, fertilizer and other inputs, Boyd said.

“There are people so worried that the program will not be implemented that they have already started liquidating assets,” said Dania Davy, director of land conservation and advocacy at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. /Land Assistance Fund, a non-profit cooperative association. black farmers, landowners and co-operatives whose members are mainly in the South.

Many are facing significant difficulty accessing credit as their cash flow plans relied on obtaining debt relief, and they were subsequently unable to meet financial metrics for the year. last as the relief was blocked, Davy said in a phone interview.

Earlier this year, an appeals court granted the Southern Co-operative Federation/Land Assistance Fund a motion to intervene on behalf of black farmers as they fight a Texas lawsuit seeking an end to aid.

decades of discrimination

The threat posed to black farm property is part of a long-standing historical trend. While black farm ownership increased in the decades following the Civil War’s end of slavery, the number of black farmers in the United States declined sharply and disproportionately over the past century, according to research.

Black farmers owned about 16 million acres in 1910 and made up more than 14% of producers. The last agricultural census of 2017 estimated black farm ownership at around 4.7 million acres and black farmers at less than 2% of all farmers.

United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service

Research has shown that decades of discrimination have driven large numbers of black farmers off their land. The Department of Agriculture acknowledged the discriminatory treatment of black farmers in the 1999 and 2011 settlements of lawsuits known as the Pigford cases.

The lawsuits were filed on behalf of black farmers claiming they had been discriminated against by local USDA county committees when applying for agricultural loans or trying to participate in other programs. Discrimination took the form of barriers to applying for loans and delays in loan approval; Black farmers were also seized more quickly and with less recourse than other producers.

A 2001 investigation by the Associated Press documented a pattern that saw black Americans defrauded or driven from land through intimidation, violence and, in some cases, murder. Government officials approved the land grabs in some cases and participated in them in others, according to the report.

Critics argued that Pigford’s settlements were inadequate. Some farmers argued that they had been excluded from the colony and that seizures against black-owned farms continued at a disproportionate rate.

“It leaves people in bad shape,” Boyd says of the stalled debt relief.

Courtesy of John Boyd Jr.

The USDA and Biden administration have faced criticism from black farm advocates who argue aid could have been rolled out more quickly last spring and more could be done to help defeat producers .

USDA spokespersons did not respond to emails or phone messages seeking comment on this article. In June 2021, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack criticized lawsuits seeking to block debt relief.

“It’s a wonder where these farmers have been for the past 100 years when their black counterparts were being discriminated against, and haven’t heard a word from white farmers about how unfortunate that circumstance was,” Vilsack said. , according to a report.

“Lost opportunity” to grow intergenerational wealth

The land losses have taken a heavy economic toll, economists and lawyers say. A paper published last month pegged the current and compound value of black land loss from 1920 to 1997 at around $326 billion.

That’s a conservative estimate, said Dania Francis, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston and co-author of the paper, who argues that if black families hadn’t been bullied by their farms, they might have invested in more land, which had a high return in the 20th century. Additionally, data limitations meant the researchers began their estimate in 1920 rather than 1910, which marked the peak of black land ownership – meaning a decade of losses was not included in the estimate.

The findings are a stepping stone to examine overlooked causes of the racial wealth gap, Francis said in an interview.

“When I see this amount of wealth extracted from black families and communities, it’s more than just a dollar,” Francis said. “It represents opportunities to enter the middle class…especially at a time when the middle class was forming in the United States and growing.”

“It represents the lost opportunity to increase intergenerational wealth” and helps put the historical origins of America’s racial wealth gap into perspective in a way that isn’t always part of the narrative, which often instead focuses on calls for black families to save and invest more wisely, says Francis.

Davy said the federation’s legal and other advocacy efforts reflect fears of a “next wave of black land loss” as a program intended to bring relief to the community remains stalled.

This is a threat not only to farmers eligible for debt relief, but it also deters potential young farmers from pursuing production farming, Davy said.

“Unfortunately, because of the way the program was not implemented, it actually creates a very bad reputation for USDA and agricultural production in the rural black community,” she said.