Ag Leaders Unite Around Racial Equity and Climate Progress

New bills are aimed at farm debt relief, building resilience, and giving farmers of color more access to land, training, and credit

Aeric Cole waters cabbage growing in a high tunnel house at the East Arkansas Enterprise Community, Forest City, Arkansas.

Arkansas farmer, Aeric Cole, tends to cabbage growing in a high tunnel house.

Credit: USDA photo by Bob Nichols

Leaders in the Senate and House Agriculture Committees sent a clear message last week: they are committed to righting racist policies that have denied farmers of color their lands and a farming livelihood, and to ensuring as well that small, diversified farms have the tools they need to survive, now and into the future.

Three pieces of recently introduced legislation propose investments for producers of color and sustainable farming. Both the Justice for Black Farmers Act, S.300 (Booker, Warren, Gillibrand, Smith, Warnock, Leahy), and the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, S.278 (Warnock, Booker, Luján, Stabenow, Leahy, Klobuchar, Brown, Gillibrand), are comprehensive packages supporting farmers and ranchers of color. The Agriculture Committee has proposed similar priorities in the $1.9 trillion House Budget Reconciliation package under consideration. 

Correcting racial injustices, as our colleague Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins reminds us, is part of the fight to build environments and places, rural and urban, where people can thrive. That’s why NRDC is raising its voice in strong support of these important bills.

Many farmers and workers have suffered neglect from U.S. farm and food policies throughout our history, and including during this pandemic. Producers of color have had to navigate the COVID-19 crisis with already-limited resources, a predictable result of systemic discrimination that denies them access to secure land tenure, to credit, and to support services that the USDA extends to others. Meanwhile, last year’s pandemic relief in form of the CARES Act and other legislation mostly benefitted well-heeled agribusinesses such as the giant Brazilian meatpacker JBS, and large farms that are already well-capitalized and overwhelmingly white-owned. Of the $9.2 billion disbursed through USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) through October 2020, for example, nearly 97% went to white farmers, according to an analysis of USDA data obtained under FOIA by MacArthur Genius Thomas Mitchell and colleagues in the Land Loss and Reparations Research Project.  

Direct government payments to farmers in 2020 totaled a massive $46 billion, $35 billion in emergency aid atop another $10 billion via the conventional subsidy programs already in place. By design, the larger a farm’s production, the bigger the check it received, up to a maximum of $750,000 per operation—whether that farm's owners were struggling financially, or not. The recently introduced bills are a step in the right direction to overcoming injustice in the food system, while also addressing climate change and other shocks that have made farming less predictable and riskier. They would fund long overdue programs that hold enormous promise for leading the nation towards a future food system that’s healthier and more resilient, as well as more equitable. Here are some highlights:

  • Extending Fair Opportunity and Credit Access to Producers of Color. In the House package, legislators recognize that “longstanding and widespread discrimination” prevents producers of color from “fully participating in the American farm economy.” Decades of discriminatory USDA policies have left producers of color with fewer financial resources to call upon, including less secure land title, access to credit, and operating capital; COVID-19 and its economic fallout have only exacerbated these longstanding financial disparities. The House package would set aside funding to help relieve producers of color of their unjust debt burden, as would the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act. The latter also includes funding to support cooperatives majority-governed by and for producers of color, and to develop new financial institutions extending credit specifically to producers of color.
  • Government Accountability to Producers of Color. Additional actions will be needed to root out the USDA’s institutional racism, perhaps eventually earning back some of the trust it has lost among non-white farmers and ranchers. To that end, the Justice for Black Farmers Act would create a slew of civil rights reforms within the agency including establishing an Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, a USDA-wide Equity Commission, and an independent oversight board. Funding for the USDA’s Equity Commission is also specified as a part of the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act.
  • Targeted Tools, Training for Producers of Color. As Congress and the new administration take steps to become more accountable, they also must ensure that institutions and organizations that enjoy strong track records in serving the needs of producers of color and their communities will receive funding to expand those efforts. For example, both the House reconciliation package and the Justice for Black Farmers Act include funding for universities and organizations serving people of color that may be used for research, technical assistance, navigating legal issues, scholarships, education, and outreach. The Justice for Black Farmers Act would specifically fund Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to research regenerative agricultural practices and market opportunities for producers of color—two priorities essential to building a more equitable and resilient food system.
  • New Job Opportunities in Agriculture. The Justice for Black Farmers Act also would create a Farm Conservation Corps offering jobs and job training to at least 20,000 young people of color each year to work on farms run by producers of color, new producers, and small organic producers. The proposal maps well with President Biden’s Executive Order on climate, which calls for a Civilian Climate Corps that will create jobs restoring ecosystems and leveraging agriculture’s carbon sequestration potential. Having a cohort of motivated, newly trained farmers of color with expertise in climate-friendly, organic agriculture will help the U.S. grow food that is healthier, more sustainable, and builds wealth in farming communities.
  • Support for Resilient, Regional Food Chains. The House reconciliation package includes $4 billion that USDA may use for several purposes, including support for small- and mid-sized producers and to “maintain and improve food and agricultural supply chain resiliency.” The colliding crises of COVID-19, a struggling economy and climate change, as pointed out by NRDC and allied organizations, underscore why public investment in resiliency through more diversified and decentralized farming is more critical than ever.

More than a few years, perhaps decades, are needed to remedy longstanding injustices and re-build a USDA and broader food system that fully compensates producers of color for their hard work and innovation. Recent developments in Congress signal momentum toward those long overdue changes in the nation’s food and farm policies. At NRDC, we're ready to do our part to help make them happen.

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