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Black farmers call for justice from the USDA

Jordan Lewis, Eddie Lewis Sr. and Eddie Lewis III standing on the ground of their Louisiana farm.
Eddie Lewis
Jordan Lewis, Eddie Lewis Sr. and Eddie Lewis III standing on the ground of their Louisiana farm.

This story is part of a multipart series examining the disparate impacts on Black farmers.

Nearly two decades ago a class action lawsuit led by Black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture was settled.

Then there was a class action from Native Americans.

And one from Hispanic farmers.

And then women farmers filed their own.

They all alleged, through various years of examples, that the USDA discriminated against them by denying them access to low-interest rate loans and loan servicing, grant programs and assistance, causing them hundreds of millions of dollars in economic loss and record-breaking land loss through foreclosures.

But two decades later despite being at the forefront of a landmark case against the USDA, Black farmers argue they are still left far behind.

"We're still struggling," said Eddie Lewis, a sugarcane farmer in Louisiana. "We're struggling to the point where we're going to be extinct."

Then, President Joe Biden came into office with a little-known goal: bring equity to farming.

"For more than 100 years the USDA did little to alleviate the burdens of systemic inequality for Black, Brown and Native farmers and was often the site of injustice," the then-candidate stated in his plan for rural America. Referencing class action and large lawsuits brought by farmers, Biden vowed to bring equity to the Agriculture Department's methods of supporting farmers.

As a part of the plan, the Agriculture Department created an Equity Commission. And Congress, led by Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, approved a large debt relief program.

But advocates representing farmers of color say more has to be done.

"It is a behemoth of an operation," said NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who sits on the Equity Commission, about the USDA. "Many communities, particularly African-American communities, have been left out of understanding how to navigate the many offerings of the Department of [Agriculture] and really leverage opportunities to come out of that to improve their quality of life."

Mending a damaged history

Black farmers who should have gotten relief from lawsuits say not all the settlements made it into their hands, resulting in rapid land loss, steep debt and a history of distrust in the department that left farmers behind on accessing capital and programs needed to make their businesses thrive.

Over the course of 100 years, the amount of Black-owned farmland dropped by 90%, according to Data for Progress, due to higher rates of loan and credit denials, lack of legal and industry support and "outright acts of violence and intimidation."

There are only 48,697 producers who identified as Black, making up about 1.4% of the nation's 3.4 million producers, according to the2017 Census of Agriculture, the latest federal dataset on American farmland demographics. A majority live in the southeastern and mid-Atlantic states.

Following the Civil War, Black Americans were promised "40 acres and a mule" by the federal government, but many say even that promise never came to pass.

Advocates say the inability for Black farmers to get a start, and later the sharp drop in population totals, is in part due to what they call USDA's discriminatory lending practices, and often specific loan officers' biases.

"They never gave us any type of assistance," Lewis said.

This systemic discrimination was at the center of the 1999 class-action lawsuit Pigford v. Glickman, which resulted in a $1.25 billion settlement to Black farmers in 2010 — though some farmers say they never received their settlements.

"Several years ago, we formed the farmer of color network to work against some of those issues, not only the policy, but to assist them with grants to support their operations and make them more viable," said B. Ray Jeffers, director of the Farmers of Color Network at Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA. "The years and decades-long history of discrimination against BIPOC, and especially Black farmers, is well documented."

Congress has held multiple hearings on the topic. The most recent was in 2020 hosted by the House Agriculture Committee.

Jeffers said he has heard from farmers who to this day face difficulties reaching their local loan officers, and USDA loans and programs.

"The Farm Service Agency was there for the farmers that could not get a traditional loan at a traditional bank. They would be the next option or the last option," Jeffers said. "They actually have leeway built into the rules to work with these farmers and, we're hearing, those rules are only being applied to more white farmers."

Barriers to access to programs range from incorrect denials, to cumbersome paperwork, to a failure to know what applicants could qualify for to begin with.

Lawsuits block Biden's plan

As a part of the American Rescue Plan, the early 2020 pandemic relief bill, lawmakers approved$5 billion toward debt relief and cancellation for farmers of color. The legislation was specifically targeting what was labeled "socially disadvantaged" farmers, or African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and Native Americans, but it excluded white women.

But the program was swiftly blocked by about 12 lawsuits, including one out of Texas led by former President Donald Trump's adviser Stephen Miller and current state Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. They argued the program was discriminating against them for being white.

In an unusual move, the Justice Department let the deadline to appeal the injunctions that froze the program slide, opting to continue the court battle at the local level.

"The government vigorously defended this program in the courts but because of these injunctions, the $5 billion provided in ARPA remained frozen," said Marissa Perry, press secretary at USDA. "This litigation would likely have not been resolved for years."

That left any timely remedy in the hands of Congress, which has the authority to repeal or amend any program it authorizes.

As a part of the Inflation Reduction Act, members slipped in a provision that repealed and replaced the original program with $3.1 billion in debt relief for "economically distressed borrowers," which includes white borrowers. They also added $2.2 billion for farmers who have faced discrimination.

Payments under this program began rolling out in the fall.

For some farmers, that means complete cancellation. For others, it means partial assistance, even after they were promised full cancellation one year ago.

"They just basically came up with new programs that benefit white people, but they used Black farmers basically to get the white farmers assistance as well, and we help them get it," Lewis said. "And we are still stuck without the help."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 12, 2023 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story misspelled Sen. Raphael Warnock's first name as Rafael. Previously corrected Feb. 12, 2023: A previous version of this story referred mistakenly to the Infrastructure Reduction Act. In fact, its name is the Inflation Reduction Act.
Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.