NRDC Stands with Farmers of Color in Debt Relief Litigation
NRDC has joined Rural Coalition, Intertribal Agriculture Council, North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers Land Loss Prevention, and 22 other organizations, represented by Southern Poverty Law Center, in an amicus brief defending the rights of farmers of color who are in urgent need of debt relief.
Recognizing the long history of discrimination in federal agriculture policy and the disproportionate harms communities of color have suffered from the COVID-19 crisis, Congress included debt relief for farmers of color in the latest COVID spending package. While significantly more investment is needed, this debt relief represents a key step toward a fairer agricultural landscape.
But—in an outrageous attack on Congress’s efforts to give farmers of color justice and support they are rightfully owed—that relief is now being challenged by white farmers in at least five courts across the country. As House Agriculture Chairman David Scott put it, these lawsuits are “racial discrimination at its worst.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a well-documented and ongoing track record of discrimination against farmers of color, especially in its farm loan programs. Problematic practices range from poor advising to racial disparities in loan sizes, interest rates, and terms, as well as derogatory treatment. For example, the amicus brief that Rural Coalition and its partners, including NRDC, filed in the Wisconsin case cites numerous stories of farmers who have suffered as a result of this discrimination, including:
- Mr. Alfonso Abeyta, a Latino rancher in Colorado, recalls that a USDA representative told him Mexicans were more suited to being farm workers than farm owners.
- Mr. Nathanial Bradford, a Black farmer in Oklahoma, has experienced unfair appraisal, delays, and more scrutiny than white farmers who apply for similar aid, and he knows other Black farmers with similar experiences. His farm is on the brink of bankruptcy.
- Ms. Maykia Xiong, a Hmong refugee who raises poultry in North Carolina, has been denied participation in programs and forced to complete extra steps to receive support.
The stories go on and on.
In 1910, 14% of U.S. farmers were Black, and that number dropped to less than 2% by 2012; Black farmers also lost 80% of their land from 1910 to 2007. USDA’s discriminatory practices, as well as the compounded financial and health threats from COVID-19, have contributed to farmers of color losing land and generational wealth and being forced out of agriculture.
To avoid another surge of losses, the American Rescue Plan set aside funding to completely repay certain federal farm loans for farmers of color. This provision represented a signal from new leaders that they recognize the U.S.’s long history of discrimination against farmers of color and will take steps to reverse course.
But a small group of white farmers have other plans. While movements for racial and environmental justice have gained momentum in the last year, these lawsuits make clear that much work remains.
A court in Wisconsin temporarily halted relief to farmers of color across the country, and yesterday a Florida court block the relief until the case is resolved. These decisions fail to recognize the compounding effects of racial discrimination and the steps that will be necessary to address the injustices farmers of color have suffered. In addition to receiving nearly 97% of prior COVID relief funds for agriculture, white farmers have benefited from decades of preferential treatment that has not been afforded to farmers of color—undermining the ability of farmers of color to compete in a fair marketplace and access agricultural support programs.
For over 30 years, federal law has recognized that “socially disadvantaged” producers—those who have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice—have not received the full benefit of federal supports for agriculture. By providing debt relief to “socially disadvantaged” producers, Congress provided a narrow and immediate source of relief to farmers of color who have suffered discrimination and are struggling under the weight of federal farm loans in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
In order to thrive, farmers of color first need to have reliable land tenure and financial flexibility. The relief package is an attempt to provide a modicum of the support farmers of color are due and start bringing balance to a system that has long worked against them. NRDC and our partners will continue to fight for an equitable and healthy food system—in public policy and, when necessary, in court.