John Boyd Jr. believes Black farmers are going extinct. As the president of the National Black Farmers Association and a farmer in Virginia, he’s been advocating for nearly 30 years for government action to relieve Black farmers of debt.
“When animals are facing extinction, Congress puts laws in place until their numbers come back, such as the brown bear and the black bear and rockfish and the bald eagle, all of these things Congress can act swiftly on,” Boyd says. “But here we are saying the same thing for the past 30 some odd years, and Congress has been slow to act.”
Black farmers faced decades of discrimination at the hands of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has denied them loans and other aid. A discrimination lawsuit promised vital debt relief, but many didn’t get it. Now, despite some partisan resistance, Black farmers and other disadvantaged groups are getting billions in debt relief and help.
The newest stimulus bill includes $4 billion in debt relief and an additional $1 billion for assistance that Black farmers have been waiting on for decades.
Under the bill, the USDA will pay Black and other disadvantaged groups 120% of debts administered by the Farm Service Agency or from a Commodity Credit Corporation Farm Storage Facility Loan.
The aid didn’t come easy -- 49 senators voted to strip or reduce the money from the bill. Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina was at the forefront of that effort, questioning the relevance of the aid.
“That’s reparations,” Graham says. “What does that have to do with COVID?”
For Boyd, it makes perfect sense -- the pandemic made the financial situation of many Black farmers worse.
The USDA’s Legacy of Discrimination
In the 1990s, many Black farmers were promised debt relief as part of a more than $1 billion discrimination lawsuit settlement against the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many didn’t receive it -- including Boyd. While payments of $50,000 were made to some farmers in 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 the settlement. Drusilla James, a rancher in Wewoka, Oklahoma, wanted to start a ranch after raising animals with her mother as a kid.
She says she tried to get assistance from the Farm Service Agency to clear her land. But when she went into the office, the answer would always be the same: no assistance available, check back later.
“You go over there so often, and you already know the answer,” James says.
James had to save up $20,000 while working at UPS to do the needed work on her land. She wants to expand her operation 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 only be told no so many times until you're really discouraged from doing anything except for what you can do by yourself,” James says.
James isn’t the only one having a hard time getting loans. Dray Williams, a rancher in Bristow, Oklahoma, also tried countless times to get assistance before wrangling a loan for cattle. Even with cattle, he says it was a fight to get money to buy land.
Williams says he hopes the additional $1 billion in the stimulus package makes it easier to access loans. Ultimately, though, he says change needs to happen at the local level.
“You can make all the changes you want,” Williams says. “But the employees, the person that's running that office, you can't change them. You can't change their mentality.”
Hopeful for change
Advocates remain optimistic that change in the USDA will come. Boyd believes the stimulus package is a good start but says agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack should get the assistance out swiftly. Even though Vilsack is forming an equity committee already, Boyd says it’s the secretary’s responsibility to make changes to root out racism at the USDA.
“The first thing Secretary Vilsack needs to say is the United States Department of Agriculture is open for business for Black farmers and farmers of color too,” Boyd says. “Those words have to come out of his mouth if he’s very sincere about doing this.”
Willard Tillman, the executive director of the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project, also says the debt relief is a good start.
“Tom (Vilsack) now understands that a lot of things that he didn't do that he could have done had a major effect on families, people, livelihoods, loss of lands and other things,” Tillman says. “So I'll give him the benefit of the doubt as Joe (Biden) picked him.”
Tillman says Vilsack will hear from groups like his if he doesn’t keep his promise to create a more equitable USDA.