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Black and brown farmers say Inflation Reduction Act breaks promise of relief for 'past wrongs'

 Barbara Norman, a blueberry farmer in Michigan, has waited more than a year for debt relief originally promised under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
Sam Mirpoorian
Barbara Norman, a blueberry farmer in Michigan, has waited more than a year for debt relief originally promised under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

The massive Inflation Reduction Act has equally massive consequences for farmers of color who were promised debt relief more than a year ago.

The legislation repeals and replaces a section of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), which provided funding to relieve the debt of farmers of color who have been discriminated against by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since it passed in March 2021, the funding has fallen into legal limbo due to multiple lawsuits from banks and from white farmers alleging discrimination.

The Inflation Reduction Act passed the House last week and now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk for his signature. In its final form, the legislation repeals section 1005 of ARPA, which provided funding for “socially disadvantaged farmers,” defined in the act as farmers who have been subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice. Instead, the IRA provides $3.1 billion for economically “distressed” farmers – of any race – “whose agricultural operations are at a financial risk.” It also includes $2.2 billion for farmers who have experienced discrimination and can prove it.

“By repealing all that, you're really going back on your word, and breaking the contract between Black and other farmers of color and USDA,” said John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association.

Many farmers have been waiting more than a year for the promised debt relief, unsure of the status of their loans. While farms are protected from foreclosure under a moratorium issued by the Biden administration during the pandemic, some farmers fear losing their farms once the moratorium is lifted.

“(Congress) basically conceded defeat,” said Ebony Woodruff, an agriculture and food attorney based in Louisiana.

Woodruff said vague language in the legislation will increase competition for the funding, and farmers of color might be deemed ineligible if they stopped making loan payments after receiving notice of relief under ARPA.

“They're really in limbo, she said. “We're not really sure what's going to happen.”

Boyd Jr. said debt relief, as it was originally promised, could have saved many Black-owned farms.

“Debt relief can provide a whole new start for a farmer who’s behind on his debts or owes USDA money or operation loans or equipment loans,” he said.

Instead, as it’s written, the act will lead to further loss of Black-owned farmland, Boyd Jr. said.

Black-owned farmland has already declined significantly over the past century. According to a recent study, discriminatory lending practices at the USDA has cost Black farmers about $326 billion worth of farmland, though researchers admit that’s likely a severe undercount. The American Rescue Plan Act aimed to reverse that trend.

“It was this administration’s attempt to rectify some of the past wrongs that Black farmers like myself faced through discrimination,” said Boyd, who farms in Virginia.

For now, Boyd said he hopes Biden will issue a farm foreclosure moratorium.

“That's the least he can do,” he said. “A farmer shouldn't be losing his farm.”

Follow Dana on Twitter @DanaHCronin

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.

Copyright 2022 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Dana Cronin is a reporter based in Urbana, Illinois. She covers food and agriculture issues in Illinois for Harvest. Dana started reporting in southern Colorado at member station 91.5 KRCC, where she spent three years writing about everything from agriculture to Colorado’s highest mountain peaks. From there she went to work at her hometown station, KQED, in San Francisco. While there she covered the 2017 North Bay Fires. She spent the last two years at NPR’s headquarters in Washington D.C., producing for shows including Weekend Edition and All Things Considered.