‘Justice’ bill would transfer up to 32 million acres to Black farmers

Black-owned farmland could expand sevenfold under a bill filed by three Democratic senators on Thursday to reverse decades of discriminatory practices by the Agriculture Department, sometimes called “the last plantation.” The Justice for Black Farmers Act would enable Black farmers to acquire up to 160 acres apiece at no charge through a USDA system of land grants.

Under the bill, an Equity Commission would study the legacy of discrimination at the USDA and suggest reforms that could reach the farmer-elected county committees that help guide operations at local USDA offices. An independent board would hear appeals of civil rights complaints decided by USDA officials.

At their peak, in 1920, there were 925,708 Black farmers, accounting for 17 percent, or about one-sixth, of U.S. farmers. A century later, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, there were 35,470 farms with Black producers — just 1.7 percent of the U.S. total. The government agreed in the so-called Pigford settlements of 1999 and 2010 to compensate Black farmers who were harmed by discriminatory practices, such as the denial of USDA loans and the slow handling of civil rights complaints.

“When it comes to farming and agriculture, we know that there is a direct connection between discriminatory practices within the USDA and the enormous land loss we have seen among Black farmers in the past century,” said Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, the lead sponsor of the bill. He said the bill “would enact reforms within the USDA to finally end discrimination within that agency, would protect the remaining Black farmers from losing their land, and would provide land grants to create a new generation of Black farmers and begin to restore the land base that has been lost by Black farmers due to outrageous discrimination over past decades.”

Also sponsoring the bill were Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. The current session of Congress is scheduled to end in mid- to late December, so the bill’s immediate prospects are limited.

Under the bill, up to 32 million acres would move to Black ownership over a decade — nearly seven times the 4.7 million acres now in Black farms. A new USDA agency, the Equitable Land Access Service, would administer the program. The USDA would buy land from willing sellers at fair market value for use in the program. Up to 20,000 grants of 160 acres would be made annually through 2030. Recipients would be new or experienced Black farmers. Beginning farmers would be required to complete a training program.

The legislation would increase funding to $50 million a year for a USDA re-lending program to resolve the “heirs property” issue of land passed from one generation of a family to another without a clear title.

“The Justice for Black Farmers Act is the most ambitious legislative proposal ever developed to address historic and ongoing discrimination against Black farmers,” said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, and Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, two of the six dozen local and national groups that endorsed the bill. “Black farmers have been systemically denied access to land, subsidies, loans, and other critical tools through government and private discrimination, and the institutional racism that has driven Black land loss is being reinforced through the USDA’s broken policies.”

Black-owned farms are, on average, less than one-third the size of the average U.S. farm, and their net cash farm income is one-twelfth the national average, according to the latest Census of Agriculture. Whites make up 97 percent of all producers.

In a report about the Pigford settlements, the Congressional Research Service said Black farmers had complained for many years “that they were not receiving fair treatment when they applied to local county committees (which make the decisions) for farm loans or assistance.”

These farmers, the CRS report said, “alleged they were being denied USDA farm loans or forced to wait longer for loan approval than were non-minority farmers. Many Black farmers contended that they were facing foreclosure and financial ruin because the USDA denied them timely loans and debt restructuring.” Nor was the USDA responsive to complaints of discrimination. “A huge agency backlog of unresolved complaints began to build after the USDA’s Civil Rights Office was closed in 1983,” said the report.

A number of other USDA reforms are included in the proposed legislation. Among them are a provision to ban packer ownership of cattle and pigs; a requirement that meatpackers buy half of their cattle and hogs on the cash market; the prohibition of so-called tournament systems to decide payments by processors to poultry producers; a requirement for transparency in compensation of contract poultry growers; and language saying farmers do not have to prove industry-wide harm when they file a complaint of unfair treatment by a processor.

A summary of the Justice for Black Farmers Act is available here.

The text of the bill is available here.