For generations, farmers of color, including Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and Asian farmers, have struggled against systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt. This struggle has been exacerbated recently by a disproportionate amount of COVID-19 infection rates, hospitalizations, death, and job loss experienced by these groups. At the same time, more than 370 million acres of our nation’s farmland is poised to change hands over the next decade, creating an opportunity to provide expanded access to farmland for historically marginalized farmers. The Biden administration is taking steps to address these inequities in our farming communities.
The American Rescue Plan
Tucked inside the $1.9 trillion America Rescue Plan (the “Plan”) bill signed by President Biden on March 11, 2021, is $5 billion worth of aid to help farmers of color. The money would support programs for farm debt relief as well as United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grants, training, education and other forms of assistance.
The Plan provides $4 billion toward debt relief for farmers of color to pay off burdensome debts that have prevented them from making a living or investing in the profitability and efficiency of their farms. Loan payments are available for up to 120% of USDA direct farm loans or USDA-guaranteed loans. The additional 20% above the loan amount is intended to pay off early-payment penalties, taxes or other fees associated with debt relief. According to the New York Times, the USDA estimates that it could provide debt relief for as many as 15,000 loans, and it is asking lenders to halt any pending farm forfeitures tied to loans guaranteed by its Farm Service Agency.
The USDA will receive an additional $1 billion to invest in land access, outreach, education, assistance overcoming barriers to access to USDA programs, and business development. The Plan also funds a racial equity commission to address longstanding discrimination across the USDA and provides financial support for research and education at historically Black colleges and land grant universities. In a nod to the importance of preserving working farmland as it transitions to the next generation, the Plan also provides resources to address heirs’ property issues, for example by clearing up title to the farmland and preventing partitioning of the land.
Pandemic Assistance for Producers
In addition, the USDA had created a $6 billion Pandemic Assistance for Producers program, that will target farmers who did not benefit from previous rounds of pandemic-related assistance, including farmers of color. The program expands the popular Coronavirus Food Assistance Program that provides relief payments to farmers and will establish partnerships with grassroots organizations to assist farmers with the application process.
Impact on New England Farmers
While the 2017 Agricultural Census changed its reporting method to include more producers overall, New England’s Black farming population has more than tripled since 2007 to 405 farm producers according to the 2017 Agriculture Census. Asian and Hispanic farmers numbers have also increased, although white farmers still make up over 97% of New England farmers. While farming has grown increasingly diverse in New England, many farmers of color do not own the land they farm. Black farmers are much more likely to rent land; in fact, in fact 78% are tenants who rely solely on rented land to farm. About 20% of Asian farmers and 10% of Hispanic farmers also farm solely on rented lands. In contrast, a majority of U.S. farmland is owner-operated—just over 60 percent, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.
The American Rescue Plan debt forgiveness would help New England farmers by reducing the debt burden on existing farms. In addition to the threat of losing the farm if the loan is not repaid, debt makes it difficult to obtain the credit necessary to purchase farm equipment and supplies. Reducing debt makes it easier for farmers to invest in their current properties to run them more efficiently and profitably.
However, the Plan’s impact is hampered by the low number of farmers of color who hold USDA loans. Black farmers have loans at significantly lower rates than the national average, which is not surprising since Black farmers were historically denied USDA loans that were easily obtained by white farmers. When socially disadvantaged farmers are unable to access credit in the first place, whether to buy land or purchase farm equipment, they have fewer loan debts to forgive. Indeed the 15,000 loans that may be eligible for debt forgiveness will affect only a fraction of the 240,00 farmers nationally that identified as Hispanic, Black, Indigenous or Asian in the 2017 Agricultural Census. This underscores the importance of increasing farmland ownership and access to credit for farmers of color in our region.
Increasing technical support and access to USDA programs — initiatives found in both the American Rescue Plan and the Pandemic Assistance for Producers initiative — may have broader and more significant impact on New England farmers. These programs will improve access to tools farmers need to run their farm businesses better and are aimed at helping farmers of color acquire and maintain their land and level their footing with white farmers. According to Jim Habana Hafner, executive director of Land For Good, these programs help lower barriers for accessing resources and correct historical and structural inequities, which will create farming opportunities for farmers of color.
The devil, as they say, is in the details. It will be weeks before we know how the USDA will prioritize programs and allocate resources, both among the many USDA programs and across the country. Oversight of the programs, especially by people of color, is key to assure that the programs are managed to meet the legislative objective of “assisting and supporting socially disadvantaged farmers.” Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack has voiced support for addressing systemic discrimination at the USDA, stating during a March 25, 2021 congressional hearing on Black farming, “Let me be clear: There is no place in the USDA for discrimination — none.” Vilsack can begin the process by placing more people of color in positions of leadership of these and other programs at the USDA. Support at this highest level is necessary to begin to address the generational losses of Black farmers and support our diverse farming community.
In conclusion, the USDA programs aim to provide both immediate debt relief and longer-term support that will help farmers of color with land security, land acquisition and land succession. Farmers are urged to contact their local Farm Services Agency to learn more about these program.