Despite billions allocated for farmers of color, USDA funding overwhelmingly supports white farmers
In early March, Congress approved a $5 billion debt relief package aimed at assisting American farmers of color. The Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act included $4bn in debt forgiveness for USDA loans and $1bn for programming, outreach, and support for research and education at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as well as U.S. land grant institutions.
For the last several months, however, the debt relief package has been held up by
a series of lawsuits across 10 states as well as three court injunctions. The thirteen lawsuits and accompanying injunctions all make some version of the same claim: that the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act discriminates against white farmers.
Discrimination at the USDA has been well documented for decades and Black, Native American, Pacific Islander, and other farmers of color have suffered greatly as a result. In fact, Black farmers may have fared the worst among farmers of color since they have all but disappeared from America's agricultural landscape.
During the 1920's, there were 949,889 Black farmers across the United States. Today, only 45,508 Black farmers exist, (a number disputed by some in the Black farming community who suggest that there may be less than 40,000 Black farmers nationwide) making up only 1.3% of the country's 3.4 million total farmers and owning a mere fraction of American farmland, at 0.52%.
White farmers make up 95% of America's total farming population, and as such, receive the lion's share of federal dollars allocated to support farmers. Those responsible for blocking the EFRCA program have successfully made it difficult for the 5% of farmers who need relief to benefit from the USDA's program. Although the EFRCA began disbursing funds in March, only 4 eligible farmers have received relief payouts.
Even if the lawsuits and injunctions against the ERFCA fail, Black farmers may still see little or no benefit since a mere 20,200 farmers are eligible for the program and only 3,337 of them are Black. Years of being unfairly denied USDA loans means that the majority of Black farmers do not qualify for government loan assistance, while white farmers—who earn an average of nearly fives times more annually than Black farmers—block the effort to close the economic gaps in the agricultural industry.
Unfortunately, the narrative of inequality at the USDA appears to be a repeating one. According to data from the Land Loss and Reparations Project, when the USDA rolled out its $9.2 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) in October 2020, white farmers received nearly 97% of allocated funding.
The USDA's own numbers tell the same, discriminatory story, showing that white farmers received, on average, four times more funding than the average Black farmer. Data from the Farm Census notes that the average white farmer received $3,398, whereas the average Black farmer received $422.
In total, $6.7 billion in CFAP payments went to white farmers while Black farmers received only $15 million. Latino farmers received $100 million, Native American farmers received $76 million and Asian American farmers received $17.6 million.
The disparity between white and Black farmers was even greater for the Market Facilitation Program, or MFP, created by the Trump administration to offset the impact of Chinese trade restrictions, which closed lucrative Chinese markets for many American farmers.
The Farm Bill Law Enterprise, a national partnership of law schools working toward an inclusive farm bill, previously reported that 99 percent of MFP went to white farmers. This finding was consistent with that of The Environmental Working Group, which found that, "white farmers received, on average, an MFP payment 10 times larger than the average Black farmer: $10,674 for white farmers, compared to $1,074 for Black farmers. White farmers received a total of about $21 billion, while Black farmers received a total of about $38 million. Latino farmers received a total of about $99 million, Native American farmers received about $52 million and Asian American farmers got about $17 million."
For longtime observers of the agricultural industry, the disparities in funding should come as no surprise. Both the CFAP and MFP programs link payment to production, giving the largest, most successful farm operations an immediate advantage. The design of CFAP and MFP eligibility requirements is reminiscent of systemic structures that have traditionally been used to deny and delay access to capital for people of color.
As the nation continues to grapple with issues of race and equality, the question of whether Black Americans will ever receive the "40 acres and a mule" promised them by the U.S. government, is as pressing as ever. And reforming the inequitable systems in place at government institutions like the USDA, represent a long overdue start.