As Congress Prepares for a Farm Bill, Will There Be Justice for Black Farmers?
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After a slow start to the 118th Congress, committee assignments are wrapping up and members are introducing new legislation for consideration. Today, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Congresswoman Alma Adams (D-NC) put forward the Justice for Black Farmers Act (JBFA), a bill previously introduced in 2020 and 2021. This bill is likely to become a key marker bill (one intended to become a part of a larger omnibus package) for the 2023 Farm Bill and will be a key piece in addressing racial equity within our food and farm system. The key purpose of the bill is to ensure that Black farmers receive the benefits and services that white farmers have historically taken for granted.
To that end, the JBFA addresses longstanding discrimination against Black farmers, protects remaining Black farmers from losing their land, provides land grants to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to create a new generation of Black farmers, and funds new and existing programs to help family farmers across the United States.
Reckoning with a history of racism at USDA
Racism is deeply ingrained in the US food and farm system—members of the House Agriculture Committee heard testimony about this painful reality in a historic hearing on the topic in 2021. Legislation addressing the systemic exclusion of socially disadvantaged groups largely consisting of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) from the benefits of the US food and farming system is a first step towards creating an equitable farming future.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a long-documented history of racial discrimination, denying Black farmers loans and access to technical assistance, effectively costing many their land and livelihoods. In the early 1900s, more than 900,000 Black farmers owned an estimated 20 million acres of land. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, Black-owned land had dwindled to about 4.7 million acres, just 0.5% of all US farmland. Agricultural land loss has cost Black communities more than $320 billion in wealth. Black farmers made up 14 percent of US farmers in 1920 but—having been denied equal access to land, financing, and other resources—dwindled to only 1.4 percent in 2017.
More recently, farmers of color have been most at risk of foreclosure—which often results in land loss as assets are seized for failure to repay loans. Data from 2020-2022 show farmers of color comprised nearly a third of those behind on USDA loan payments, even though they account for just 16 percent of loans in those three years. The Biden administration stemmed the debt and foreclosure crisis somewhat by forgiving USDA loans for “economically distressed farmers,” but without congressional action to address the underlying discrimination in the system, Black farmers could once again fall behind.
If passed as part of the next food and farm bill, the Justice for Black Farmers Act would authorize the USDA’s Equity Commission to document discrimination against Black farmers and ranchers and recommend concrete actions to end the cycle of systematic disparities in how Black farmers and ranchers are treated. Created by an Executive Order in 2021 and consisting of diverse stakeholders, the Equity Commission has been tasked to thoroughly review USDA policies and programs, investigate discriminatory practices, and provide a set of recommendations on how the USDA can ensure that it advances equity.
Last year, the Inflation Reduction Act took a step in the right direction by allocating $2.2 billion in financial assistance for producers who have experienced discrimination in USDA’s farm lending programs. My colleagues and I at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) submitted comments to USDA asking them to listen to communities on the ground and center equity and racial justice in all of their funding practices.
Supporting existing and aspiring Black farmers
The negative effects of decades of farmland consolidation in the US are felt across all rural communities, but they have affected Black farmers to a significant extent. The fierce competitive pressures exerted by decades of consolidation have been compounded by systemic racism, resulting in a 98 percent reduction in the number of Black farmers since 1920.
The JBFA would also provide funding to Black farmers for legal assistance, succession planning and support for development of farmer cooperatives to protect farmers from land loss. In addition to that, the bill would create a new bank to fund to Black farmer and rancher cooperative financial institutions and will forgive the USDA debt of Black farmers with previously filed claims under the Pigford litigation (discrimination lawsuits brought forth by Black farmers).
Beginning farmers face challenges to take up farming, and this is particularly true for farmers from Black, Indigenous, refugee, and immigrant communities. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the US had about 48,697 Black producers, accounting for just 1.4 percent of the country’s 3.4 million farmers, with only 6 percent of those under the age of 35. A Farm Conservation Corps program included in the JFBA would train young adults from socially disadvantaged groups to pursue careers in farming and ranching.
The bill would also provide funding for HBCUs to expand academic offerings focused on careers in agriculture and/or related disciplines to develop a new generation of Black and BIPOC farmers. Further, HBCUs would be encouraged to create opportunities for research on regenerative agricultural practices and market opportunities for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
Increasing funding for conservation practices among Black farmers
The bill would also make substantial investments in existing USDA programs to ensure they prioritize and better support socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers (including new Black farmers and ranchers) to adopt practices that have tangible climate benefits, promote soil health, and prevent pollution. To achieve that, the JBFA would increase funding for the Conservation Technical Assistance program and the Conservation Stewardship Program by $2 billion, and boost the Rural Energy for America Program by $500 million per year.
The full text of the bill can be reviewed here, and the section-by-section summary is available here. The JBFA aligns and uplifts the a vision for a new food and farm bill that the Union of the Concerned Scientists along with our partners are advocating for. The JBFA has been widely supported and lauded during previous introductions in Congress, and we’ll be working to ensure that it is included as a part of the larger Farm Bill package in the coming months.