Black farmers awaiting billions in promised debt relief

Farmer John Boyd Jr. poses for a portrait recently during a break from bailing hay at his farm in Boydton, Va. Documents from a USDA internal review that Boyd provided to the Associated Press show investigators found his operating loan requests were not processed for years.

BOYDTON, Va. — There was a time when Black farms prospered.

Just two generations out of slavery, by 1910 Black farmers had amassed more than 16 million acres of land and made up about 14% of farmers. The fruit of their labors fed much of America.

Now, they have fewer than 4.7 million acres. Black farms in the U.S. plummeted from 925,000 to fewer than 36,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest farm census. And only about one in 100 farmers is Black.

What happened?

They were able to overcome the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule” to the newly freed slaves — a military order, later rescinded. But over the last century, they faced one obstacle after another because of their race.

Endless barriers

Farmers needed loans to expand, to buy seed, to bridge the time between harvests. But lenders — chief among them, the USDA — often refused to give them money, and often rushed to foreclose. Suppliers and customers undercut them. Laws of inheritance led to the breakup of homesteads.

Now the government wants to make amends by providing billions of dollars in debt forgiveness for farmers of color as part of the pandemic relief package. But a judge has put the money on hold in the face of lawsuits filed by white farmers claiming that the program is unfair — reverse discrimination.

Today’s Black farmers and the descendants of Black farmers who struggled and lost their stakes argue that they are the ones who have been the victims of injustice:

It was racism, says farmer John Wesley Boyd Jr. And it still is.

“I think discrimination is still pervasive. I think that it’s done in a much subtler way,” Boyd says. “I don’t think you’re going to see many USDA officials spitting on people now or maybe calling them colored, but they aren’t lending them any money — the way they lend white farmers.”

Like the other Black farmers, Boyd has encountered prejudice in many ways. An example: Boyd’s wife, Kara, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, recalls the time her husband took a load of soybeans to the grain elevator and got a low price for it. Too much trash or moisture in it, he was told.

When Kara Boyd brought in another load from the same field, she got a better price. But when her stepfather, who is white, took a load out of the same field, she recalled that he was told: “Man, these are the best beans they’d seen and how many more could he bring them?”

‘Epic battle’

But Boyd’s battle with the USDA was epic. It almost wiped him out.

Boyd was just 18 years old when he assumed an existing USDA loan when he bought his first farm in the early 1980s. He says walking into his local USDA office was like a return to the Jim Crow era. Black farmers had supervised accounts and could only get appointments with the local lending officer on a single day of the week, a practice that came to be known as Black Wednesday.

Boyd endured racial slurs. A loan officer once spat tobacco juice on him — he accidentally missed the spit can, the official would claim. Another time, Boyd saw an official tear up his application and throw it in the trash.

In 1996, USDA took just 30 days to foreclose on some of his farmland. Then the department moved to auction off the remaining 110 acres.

Boyd joined other Black farmers at a protest in Washington, tying a mule named 40 Acres to the White House gate. Their demonstration was successful; less than a week later, then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman soon declared a farm foreclosure moratorium. Boyd had just enough time to save his farm.

Paperwork ignored

Documents from a USDA internal review that Boyd provided to The Associated Press show investigators found his operating loan requests were not processed for years, despite explicit instructions from the agency’s state director. It also found that his account was improperly referred to a credit bureau as delinquent when it should have been restructured, deepening his financial difficulties.

Boyd recounts how, unlike their white counterparts, Black farmers who fell behind on a payment would see their loans immediately accelerated, no negotiations. They would be given just 30 days to pay the full amount, or they were pressured to sign their deed over to USDA under a program which purportedly allowed them to lease and later buy back their land when their financial situation improved.

But that typically didn’t happen because USDA’s local county committees — comprised mostly of white local farmers — would be given first option on such leases. That’s how Boyd says he lost his 46-acre tobacco farm in 1996. It ended up in the hands of a white farmer who was a member of the committee.

These kinds of practices prompted U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman to approve the landmark settlement of the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit filed by Black farmers in 1999.

The settlement provided about $1 billion to 15,000 farmers who said USDA unfairly turned them down for loans because of their race between 1981 and 1996. A second round of $1.25 billion stemming from that lawsuit was approved by the court in 2011 for people who were denied earlier payments because they missed filing deadlines.

“It is up to the Secretary of Agriculture and other responsible officials at the USDA to fulfill its promises, to ensure that this shameful period is never repeated and to bring the USDA into the twentyfirst century,” the judge wrote.

Though USDA paid more than $2.4 billion under the Pigford settlements, state taxes eroded recoveries, debt relief was incomplete and reports before Congress show the settlements did not cure the problems faced by minority farmers.

Government lawyers noted in a court filing that between 2006 and 2016, Black farmers were subject to 13% of USDA foreclosures — despite receiving fewer than 3% of direct loans.

White resistance

White farmers have filed lawsuits in Florida, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming, Illinois, and Minnesota. In June, U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard issued a nationwide, preliminary injunction halting the program.

The Texas case is led by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and brought by America First Legal, a nonprofit started this year by Stephen Miller and other senior members of former President Donald Trump’s administration.

Sid Miller, who is suing in his personal capacity as a farmer and not on behalf of the state, contends the debt relief is unconstitutional because it excludes white farmers based on their race or ethnicity. He argues USDA no longer discriminates against farmers of color and called the loan forgiveness a “backhanded way” of offering reparations.

“It is just flat wrong,” Miller said. “Us Republicans and old white guys, we get accused of being racist all the time, but this is racist by the administration. It couldn’t be a plainer case of racist.”

But it is clear that minority farmers still suffer disproportionately. As of May 31, 11% of white farmers were delinquent on a government farm loan, compared with 37.9% of Black borrowers, 14.6% of Asian borrowers, 17.4% of American Indian borrowers and 68% of Hispanic borrowers, according to court documents.

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