WILMINGTON, DELAWARE – DECEMBER 11: U.S. President-elect Joe Biden (R) and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (L) look on as Tom Vilsack, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to head the Department of Agriculture, delivers remarks at the Queen Theater December 11, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. President-elect Joe Biden is continuing to round out his domestic team with the announcement of his choices for cabinet secretaries of Veterans Affairs and Agriculture, and the heads of his domestic policy council and the U.S. Trade Representative. Vilsack served for eight years as President Barack Obama’s secretary of Agriculture. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The House Agriculture Committee on Thursday heard about how Black farmers have faced decades of racial discrimination in their dealings with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. David Scott, (D-Ga.), said the testimony at the virtual hearing would help the panel craft legislation that aims to increase the number of Black farmers, as well as expand land owned by those farmers and help provide economic relief.
“This systemic discrimination continues to be felt by Black farmers today, who are still disadvantaged in USDA programs,” Scott said in his opening statement. “This festering wound on the soul of American agriculture must be healed.”
Lawmakers asked USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, who appeared as a witness, questions about how the agency is helping Black farmers obtain loans, as well as how it’s addressing discrimination and providing economic relief.
“The history of systemic discrimination against Black farmers has been well documented,” Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, said in his opening statement. “Despite all that has been done, clearly more needs to be done to drive our efforts deeper.”
Vilsack pointed out that just 0.1% of Black farmers received any of the $26 billion in economic relief that went to farmers in a Trump administration USDA program that used funds from a COVID-19 bill and other sources. Of that portion, only $20.8 million went to Black farmers.
In Wisconsin, the agricultural industry is overwhelmingly white — making the issue not just getting Black farmers more government assistance but encouraging more Black farmers in general.
In an agricultural system that encourages large corporate farms, perhaps the state needs to promote more community-based growing in order to attract more Black farmers, says Wisconsin Farmers’ Union President Darin Von Ruden.
“Certainly, looking at the dynamics that are out there, we don’t have a lot of Black farmers in Wisconsin and there are certainly more that would like to get into it,” he says. “Looking at the cultural part of farming, farmers provide for their community, allowing for that process to happen is something we should encourage. Looking at the way farming is going with more multinational corporations, wouldn’t we be better off putting that land into smaller stakeholders and allowing them to grow food for their own communities?”
Vilsack, who previously served as secretary of Agriculture under the Obama administration, fielded anger and skepticism from Black farmers after his nomination. Those Black farmers argued that during his tenure he failed to adequately address racial discrimination and didn’t provide economic relief for Black producers.
His decision to wrongfully fire a civil rights icon and longtime advocate for Black farmers, Shirley Sherrod of Georgia, was also a sticking point. Vilsack forced her to resign from the USDA after a right-wing publication edited a speech Sherrod gave to make it seem that she was being prejudiced against a white farmer. When the full video surfaced, it showed Sherrod actually helped the farmer.
Sherrod was also a witness during the hearing, and she stressed that in order for Congress to rectify the decades of racism that Black farmers faced, lawmakers were going to have to be transparent about their methods and work to include those farmers in USDA policies. She currently works as an executive director for the Southwest Georgia Project, which is led by civil rights leaders to help provide education and assistance to grassroot organizations.
“There are so many barriers now because people have been kept out of the agency, so you gotta make them feel like they can come back there for help,” she said.
During the hearing Vilsack admitted that there was racial discrimination at the agency and vowed to do better. He was not asked to address Sherrod’s firing.
He added that USDA is currently working to ensure that Black farmers have access to the nearly $10 billion in economic relief that was set aside for them in the American Rescue Plan that President Joe Biden signed into law earlier this month. The money set aside for Black farmers is intended to help with loan forgiveness.
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John Boyd, of Baskerville, Va., and the president of the National Black Farmers Association, said that it’s nearly impossible for Black farmers to stay in business when they are routinely denied loans or receive subsidies from the government, compared to white farmers.
“I can’t compete,” he said. “Right now we’re facing extinction and our farmers are hurting and they’re looking for answers and they’re looking for a next step.”
In 1920, there were nearly a million Black farmers who worked on 41.4 million acres of land, making up about 7% of the farming landscape. Today, there are about 50,000 Black farmers who work on 4.7 million acres of land, making them 1.4% of the nation’s farmers. White farmers make up 98% of rural farmers.
GOP members object to funds for Black farmers
Republican committee members Reps. Austin Scott of Georgia and Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee raised objections to the money set aside for Black farmers in the American Rescue Plan, arguing that allocating money to a certain group of people was discriminatory.
“My concern is, when we start to group certain people out because of the color of their skin, then it becomes harder to get anything done,” Scott said. “I think there are a lot of people that need the help.”
DesJarlais agreed and said that farmers from different races, genders and religions also face discrimination and it wouldn’t be fair to leave those groups out.
“It’s the jobs of the courts to rule on discrimination and award damages, not Congress,” DesJarlais said.
Rep. Alma Adams, (D-N.C.), said that the Supreme Court’s 1995 Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña decision “held that government may use race based remedies that are narrowly tailored to respond to the practice and effects of racial discrimination.”
The Department of Justice issued a memo that noted that Congress “may be entitled to deference, when it acts on the basis of race to remedy the effects of discrimination,” Adams said.
“That’s what we have in the American Rescue Plan,” she said. “Congress narrowly tailoring legislation to address well documented, racial discrimination against farmers of color.”
The ranking member of the committee, Rep. Glenn Thompson, (R-Penn.), said that as the committee works on creating legislation to help Black farmers, it’s important to also look at how to fix discrimination that those farmers experienced at USDA.
“Paying off the loans of socially disadvantaged farmers may help in the short term, but it does very little to address the root cause of this issue,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t prevent racial exclusion for Black farmers or any other socially disadvantaged group in the future.”
Henry Redman contributed reporting from Wisconsin.
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