John Boyd Jr. believes black farmers are on the verge of extinction. As president of the National Black Farmers Association and a farmer in Virginia, he has advocated for nearly 30 years for the government to take action to ease the debt of black farmers.

“When animals are threatened with extinction, Congress puts laws in place until their numbers come back, like brown bears and black bears, rockfish and bald eagles, all of those things on. which Congress can act quickly, ”Boyd said. “But here we have been saying the same thing for 30 years, and Congress has been slow to act.”

Black farmers have suffered decades of discrimination from the US Department of Agriculture, which has denied them loans and other aid. A discrimination lawsuit promised life-saving debt relief, but many did not get it. Today, despite some partisan resistance, black farmers and other disadvantaged groups receive billions in debt relief and aid.

The new stimulus bill includes $ 4 billion in debt relief and an additional $ 1 billion for the help black farmers have been waiting for decades.

Under the bill, the USDA will pay blacks and other disadvantaged groups 120% of debts administered by the Farm Service Agency or from an agricultural storage facility loan from the Commodity Credit Corporation.

Help was not easy – 49 senators voted to withdraw or reduce the money from the bill. Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina was at the forefront of that effort, questioning the relevance of the aid.

“These are repairs,” Graham says. “What does this have to do with COVID?”

For Boyd, this makes perfect sense – the pandemic has made the financial situation worse for many black farmers.

USDA’s Legacy of Discrimination

In the 1990s, many black farmers were promised debt relief in a settlement of more than $ 1 billion discrimination lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture. Many did not receive it, including Boyd. Although payments of $ 50,000 were made to some farmers as part of the settlement, no disciplinary action was taken against USDA employees responsible for the discrimination.

Many black farmers and ranchers couldn’t even get a loan in the first place, a necessary condition for colonization. Drusilla James, a breeder in Wewoka, Oklahoma, wanted to start a ranch after raising animals with her mother as a child.

She says she tried to get help from the Farm Service Agency to clear her land. But when she went to the office, the answer was always the same: no assistance available, come back later.

“You go there so often and you already know the answer,” said James.

James had to save $ 20,000 while working at UPS to do the necessary work on his property. She wants to expand her farm and buy the 130 acres across the street, but she can’t afford it. She feels like she can’t turn to the Farm Service Agency.

“You can’t be said no so many times until you are really discouraged from doing anything other than what you can do on your own,” says James.

James isn’t the only one struggling to get loans. Dray Williams, a rancher from Bristow, Oklahoma, also tried countless times for help before arguing for a cattle loan. Even with cattle, he says it was a struggle to get money to buy land.

Credit Seth Bodine / Harvest Public Media


Dray Williams leans against his trailer in Bristow, Oklahoma. Williams raises and cultivates wheat for his cattle. He says it was a battle to get a loan in order to get started. He hopes that help from the latest stimulus package will make it easier to access USDA loans and other programs.

Williams says he hopes the additional $ 1 billion in the stimulus package will make it easier to access loans. Ultimately, however, he says change must happen at the local level.

“You can make any changes you want,” says Williams. “But the employees, the person who runs this office, you can’t change them. You cannot change their mindset.

Hope for change

Advocates remain optimistic about the change coming to the USDA. Boyd thinks the stimulus package is a good start, but says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack should get help quickly. Even though Vilsack is already forming an equity committee, Boyd says it is the secretary’s responsibility to make changes to eliminate racism at the USDA.

“The first thing Secretary Vilsack has to say is that the US Department of Agriculture is also open for business for black farmers and farmers of color,” Boyd said. “Those words must come out of his mouth if he’s very sincere about it.”

Willard Tillman, executive director of the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project, also says debt relief is a good start.

“Tom (Vilsack) now understands that many of the things he didn’t do that he could have done had a major effect on families, people, livelihoods, loss of land and other things, ”Tillman says. “So I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt because Joe (Biden) chose him.”

Tillman says Vilsack will hear from groups like his if he doesn’t keep his promise to create a fairer USDA.

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