Brief # 1
2 New Congressional Bills Seek to Address Racial Inequalities in US Agriculture
By Katherine Cart
February 22, 2021
Racial inequity and farm policy, in this country, have long been indivisible; discrimination in agrarian land ownership and by the USDA has made a farce of an already flimsy bid for equality, for financial freedom and freedom to farm and ranch American land with the nonpartisan support of government. The COVID-19 pandemic has both exacerbated and highlighted the racism within the USDA’s treatment of farmers. Two recently introduced bills promise definitive, sweeping change: the Justice for Black Farmers Act was reintroduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ); the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act was introduced by Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA). The sentiments of these bills are reflected in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the full text of which was released by the budget committee for review on February 19. The passing of these bills would mark an inflection point in the intersection of civil rights and agrarian economy.
The bills recognize that discrimination is not explicit, that equity within US agriculture is not exclusive – a sentiment whose drum has been beaten until it should break, for there are those that will not hear. The passage of the bills would increase funding within the USDA for technical assistance and programs such as Conservation Stewardship and Rural Energy for America, benefitting all marginalized farmers and ranchers, and, one should note, boosting more ecologically conscious farming practices. The Justice for Black Farmers Act would also strengthen the antitrust measure of the Packer and Stockyards Act of 1921 – a boon to the wellbeing of the employees, ranchers and consumers of mega meat-packing conglomerates.
However stale the recitation of the impacts of the pandemic on small business may now be, the financial reality is no less grave. The Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, as described in the American Rescue Plan of 2021, would subsidize marginalized farmers and ranchers, mitigating the most acute financial effects of the pandemic. In the first round of pandemic aid, the smallest 10% of farms and ranches – those who spend more to make less, proportionally, and are more likely to be owned by a person of color – received each, on average, $300. “COVID-19 has exacerbated the challenges facing New Mexico’s farmers and ranchers. Yet, Hispanic, Native American, and Black farmers in New Mexico did not receive their fair share of COVID-19 relief under the last administration,” said Senator Ben Ray Luján, “this legislation is an important step toward addressing this historic injustice, and it provides farmers and ranchers of color with the targeted relief needed to survive the pandemic and thrive in the years to come.”
In an effort to slow the proportional decline of Black-owned farms, the Justice for Black Farmers Act would create a Farm Conservation Corps sponsored by the USDA. Young adult participants from socially disadvantaged communities would gain experience on local farms and ranches, and be paid through the USDA, at no cost to farmers grossing less than $250,000 per annum. Successful participants would be given priority for new land grants of up to 160 acres. Both bills also provide increased funding for 1890s land grant universities and other HBCUs, fortifying the theoretical and technical skill of young farmers. The bills also seek to provide greater access to legal aid and education for farmers of color, with the intent to lessen the impact of heirs’ property on Black-ownership of farming acreage. The modalities of the bills are attractive in their targeted upshots; they address systematic problems with systematic solutions. Leah Penniman, Co-Executive Director and Farm Manager of Soul Fire Farm, describes Justice for Black Farmers as, “the opportunity to correct decades of discrimination, preserve agricultural lands, and equip the next generation of farmers who will feed the nation.”
These bills are not fundamentally radical. They acknowledge the constitutionality of fair and equal treatment. Support of their rhetoric has bipartisan support. USDA Chief of Staff Katherine Ferguson stated that the USDA was “pleased to see the introduction of the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color,” and that the bill would “bring much needed economic assistance during the pandemic and begin to advance equity for farmers of color.” The likelihood of the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act being passed as part of the American Rescue Plan is high; the 2021 budget resolution, according to a recent House Committee report, “laid the groundwork for bold action by providing the option of using the budget reconciliation.” The bill will be voted on by the House Budget Committee on February 22. The agricultural component of the plan is largely uncontroversial and not in threat of elimination. Senate Majority Leader Schumer predicts President Biden will sign the plan before March 14. Justice for Black Farmers was introduced to the Senate on February 8 and will be addressed following the resolution of the American Rescue Plan.
Building Local Food Economies:
Maintaining and strengthening local economies through diversification of food and food suppliers. https://cefs.ncsu.edu/food-system-initiatives/local-food-economies/a-government-guide-on-building-local-food-economies/
Works with local, regional and national organizations to promote fair farm policies and grassroots organizing campaigns designed to defend and bolster family farm-centered agriculture. https://www.farmaid.org/
National Black Farmers Association:
Encourages the participation of small and disadvantaged farmers in gaining access to resources of state and federal programs administered by the United States Department of Agriculture. https://www.blackfarmers.org/
“Booker, Warren, Gillibrand, Smith, Warnock, and Leahy Announce Comprehensive Bill to Address the History of Discrimination in Federal Agricultural Policy.” Cory Booker United States Senator for New Jersey (9 February, 2021), retrieved February 18 from: https://www.booker.senate.gov/news/press/booker-warren-gillibrand-smith-warnock-and-leahy-announce-comprehensive-bill-to-address-the-history-of-discrimination-in-federal-agricultural-policy
“Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act 2021.” 117th Congress (2021), retrieved February 18 from: https://www.warnock.senate.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Emergency-Relief-for-Farmers-of-Color-Act-of-2021.pdf
Presser, Lizzie. “Their Family Bought Land One Generation After Slavery. The Reels Brothers Spent Eight Years in Jail for Refusing to Leave it.” ProPublica (15 July, 2019), retrieved February 18 from: https://features.propublica.org/black-land-loss/heirs-property-rights-why-black-families-lose-land-south/
Statement by Katherine Ferguson, USDA Chief of Staff, on the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act (2021, February 9) retrieved February 18 from: https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2021/02/09/statement-katharine-ferguson-usda-chief-staff-emergency-relief
Ramgopal, Kit, and Lehren, Andrew W. “Small farmers left behind in Trump administration’s COVID-19 relief package.” NBC News (9 August, 2020), retrieved February 20 from: https://www.nbcnews.com/business/economy/small-farmers-left-behind-trump-administration-s-covid-19-relief-n1236158