ALBUQUERQUE, NM – Eugene Pickett recalls driving to his small 2-acre farm outside of Belen in 2017 and seeing 5-foot-high waters flooding the area. It seemed like water was everywhere, including inside his house and his cars.
“I opened the door to my truck and water just gushed out,” Pickett said. “I was like ‘Ah, that’s not good.'”
Pickett, who represents black farmers and ranchers in New Mexico and is one of the state’s 60 black farmers, said he recalled feeling discouraged from seeking emergency help. It’s a sentiment he said that many farmers of color share when trying to access aid programs and federal programs.
Farmers of color in the United States have long voiced concerns about discrimination in federal programs and US Department of Agriculture relief funds. In New Mexico, farmers of color have much smaller plots of land than white farmers, making it more difficult to make a living in an industry that operates on small margins.
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Now the federal government is trying to straighten that out.
President Joe Biden’s US relief plan provided about $ 5 billion for farmers of color, which includes debt relief if farmers took out loans from the federal government.
The addition to the ARP was based on the Farmers of Color Emergency Relief Act, which called for debt relief for eligible farmers. US Senator Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico joined Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia in sponsoring the bill.
Luján told the Journal in a telephone interview that discrimination against farmers of color has long been a problem in the United States, including New Mexico, where more than half of all agricultural producers are people of color. according to the last agricultural census.
“There has to be assurance that every farmer and rancher across America has equal access to these programs,” he said.
He said a recent case of discrimination occurred when the Farm Service Agency said farmers and ranchers relying on acequias to irrigate their fields were not eligible for federal aid funds for drought. Acequias have been used for irrigation for hundreds of years, especially in northern New Mexico.
“It would disqualify the predominantly Hispanic and Native American farmers in New Mexico from… this program,” Luján said.
One of those farmers was Tony Casados, who raises cattle in Tierra Amarilla, a small village in northern Rio Arriba County. Like many farmers and ranchers in New Mexico, the Casados operation has been hit hard by a record drought that has persisted for over a year.
Casados said he did not understand why acequias were excluded from drought relief.
“I would tend to believe that we here in the north have been discriminated against,” he said.
The FSA has since overturned the decision, although Casados said he still had not received drought relief funds so far.
While New Mexico has one of the highest percentages of minority farmers of any state, it’s unclear exactly how many in the state will qualify for debt relief.
Pickett said many farmers of color, who did not trust the government due to decades of discrimination, had never taken these loans and therefore were not eligible for assistance. He estimated that about 800 New Mexicans will qualify.
Rudy Arredondo, president of the National Latino Farmers & Ranchers Trade Association, said the legislation, while helpful, must be the first of many steps to help small producers compete with larger farms with more resources.
He said his group would like to see a moratorium on farm payments for small producers, white and colored, to help them survive, especially in drought-stricken areas.
“They should be given a reprieve so that they can determine how they are going to maintain their farming operations,” Arredondo said.