Remi Harrington received a letter last year saying, “Good news!” The federal government would pay the debt on his Kalamazoo farm.
At first it was a huge weight on his shoulders.
But debt relief from Zoo City Farm and Food Network never came.
“First and foremost, it’s a pittance,” Harrington said. “It’s not a direct reflection of why we were underfunded in the first place.”
The American Rescue Plan Act-funded program promised to provide $4 billion to farmers of color who have faced decades of discrimination and unfair lending practices. But a lawsuit claiming the program is unfair to white farmers has halted the payments.
Lawmakers then tried to save the fund through the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act.
Related: What does the Inflation Reduction Act do for Michigan?
But the rewritten program eliminates racial disparities from the equation, dealing a blow to black farmers in Michigan.
“It feels like a loss to black farmers as we are no longer able to sustain any further losses. We are already at such a disadvantage. We face many challenges,” said Devon Wilson, who runs Sunlight Gardens in Battle Creek.
Wilson, who was ineligible for the first round of debt relief, thinks there needs to be more federal help for black farmers. Growing collard greens, peppers, onions, kale and other green vegetables on a two-acre urban farm that spans a city block, Wilson started Sunlight Gardens two years ago to increase access to local food and bridging the racial divide in agriculture.
“Long story short: I wanted to eat food that I could be proud of,” he said.
Black farmers make up just 1.4% of the nation’s 3.1 million agricultural producers after facing “historic discrimination” from the US Department of Agriculture.
For decades, black farmers have been denied loans and excluded from federal aid due to well-documented racist policies. A 1999 class action lawsuit detailing this discrimination resulted in a $1.2 billion settlement for black farmers.
More recently, farmers of color received just less than 1% of funds from a grant program created to help food producers through the coronavirus pandemic, according to an analysis by Politico. In 2020, black farmers’ loan applications were rejected 25% of the time, Politico found. For white farmers, the rate was 8%.
“Why are we working against a group of people who already have so much against them? Wilson asked.
Related: The group aims to support and fund black farmers in Washtenaw County
The U.S. bailout was meant to right those wrongs until Section 1005 — emergency relief for farmers of color — was repealed earlier this month.
John Welsey Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, said he was “very, very disappointed” with the changes to farm aid.
“Discrimination at the USDA against black farmers was rampant and severe. The Section 1005 Loan Repayment Program was a necessary step to repairing this damage. Recognizing and correcting racism is not unconstitutional or racist,” he said in a statement.
The Inflation Reduction Act now offers $3.1 billion to distressed agricultural borrowers and $2.2 billion to any farmer — regardless of race — who faced discrimination before 2021.
Harrington says the repealed program erases the plight of black farmers and makes it harder for them to access federal dollars. They were already dealing with “layers of bureaucracy”, such as the need to own property, properly zone land and qualify for a loan from the Agricultural Services Agency to see debt relief.
“And then when we get it, it’s just a de minimis amount because we were probably underfunded in the first place. And not only that, when you finally get it, there’s a federal lawsuit to fight against your ability to even be able to access the funds in the first place,” she said. “That’s my statement.
Harrington does not yet know if she will be eligible for aid from the Inflation Reduction Act. For now, she will continue to lead Zoo City to be more than a farm.
It is a food policy council that aims to tackle inequalities in the food industry at the local level. The two-year-old initiative connects consumers to a network of small food businesses, urban farmers and artisans.
“I just want to cultivate. I want to grow my own food. And I want to create opportunities for other people to grow their own food,” she said.
Harrington recently joined the National Young Farmers Coalition in a “One Million Acres” campaign urging federal lawmakers to invest $2.5 billion to ensure equitable access to farmland. Black farmers currently own about 1% of US farmland after losing 80% of their land from 1910 to 2007.
Related: Black Farmers Create Community of Urban Producers to Diversify Kalamazoo Farmer’s Market
It is one of many efforts to increase the number of black farmers in the United States.
In Michigan, where about 2% of agricultural producers are black, groups like the Washtenaw County Black Farmers Fund and the West Michigan Farmers of Color Fund are tackling funding disparities by raising money to help farmers secure land. and build infrastructure.
“I think there should be funds allocated not just to clear the debt, but also to create new farmers, help young farmers access land, help them continue their education to create incredible agricultural businesses and food,” Wilson said. “More money needs to be invested directly in changing that statistic of 1.4% out of 3 million farms.”
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