By State Representatives Eddie Rodriguez and Nicole Collier
Black farmers long overdue for debt relief were hit last month. Florida judge issued preliminary injunction stopping a debt relief program for minority farmers in the US bailout. Florida is one of many states where white farmers have sued the US Department of Agriculture for the package. Texas is another: Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller filed a complaint in April, calling the exclusion of white farmers and ranchers from the program unfair and discriminatory.
Miller and the others are right: America’s agricultural system is unfair and discriminatory, but not the way they claim it is. Instead, it is rigged in favor of corporate interests at the expense of the majority of family farmers and ranchers, with black farmers and other farmers of color being the worst of all. Most American farmers and ranchers struggle to make ends meet on the farm. At national scale, 61% of farmers have a job off the farm. They must contend with fluctuating prices, unpredictable weather conditions and little power in a market controlled by multinational corporations.
Federal farm programs could help a wide range of farmers overcome these challenges. But for most of the past 50 years, agricultural policy decisions have reinforced the corporatization of agriculture. Large farms have grown while the mid-sized farmers and ranchers who were the backbone of food production and our rural communities have been bankrupted.
The recent financing of agricultural aid is a good example. In Texas, two-thirds of the 2020 federal coronavirus food aid program funds went to the top 10% of producers. Each of the richest 1% of beneficiary farmers received approximately $ 302,000. The average check for the poorest 80% of Texas farmers of all races? Only $ 3,621. This is not new: from 1990 to 1995, two-thirds of USDA’s largest agricultural loans went to corporations.
In addition to this unfair playing field, black farmers and other farmers of color face past and current discrimination on the basis of race, much of it from the USDA itself. The coronavirus food assistance program also provides a striking illustration: Nationwide, white farmers received $ 6.7 billion helping while black farmers only received $ 15 million.
For over a century, the USDA denied timely loans to black farmers and sent them into foreclosure, forced them off their farms and even conspired with banks and developers to steal their land. In the first half of the 1990s, 97% of USDA disaster payments went to white farmers. When the agency lent to black farmers, these loans on average a quarter less than those of white farmers.
In the face of such widespread hostility from the USDA, as well as racism and violence from white neighbors, the number of black farmers in the United States fell 98% during the 20th century, with loss of land by almost 90%. The Land Loss and Reparations Project estimates that USDA discrimination triggered a $ 300 billion loss in black wealth, contributing to a massive and continuing racial wealth gap.
The USDA admitted its decades of bias in 1999, in a multi-year class action lawsuit. The rule paid a total of $ 2.2 billion to thousands of farmers, even though it is far too late for most to save their farms. The payments were not for the debt associated with the loss of their land or farm – debt directly due to discrimination by the USDA. The US bailout relief program is intended to settle these debts and similar debts.
This is what Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and the plaintiffs in the other lawsuits object to.
In reality, debt relief is a small step towards reversing decades of discrimination. In an agricultural sector oriented towards the most important and corporate actors, family farmers and pastoralists of all races have been faced with an unfair playing field. To level the playing field, we must prioritize measures that tackle the harms of past discrimination and that build equitable structures so that all family farmers and pastoralists can thrive.
Rodriguez, a Democrat representing District 51 in the Austin area at Texas House, is the political chair of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. Collier, a Democrat representing District 95 of the Fort Worth area at Texas House, chairs the Legislative Black Caucus.