Farm Groups See Racism in Agriculture and Promise to Seek Change

High-profile farm groups standing against police brutality are aiming to stamp out systemic racism in agriculture—starting with black land loss.

“It’s long overdue,” said John Boyd Jr., the National Black Farmers Association’s president and a fourth-generation Virginia farmer. “Groups that historically haven’t said anything are starting to come out” in support of the black community.

The National Farmers Union, the National Young Farmers Coalition, and other organizations voiced public condemnations after George Floyd, a black Minnesota resident, died in police custody on Memorial Day, May 25. Protests against racial inequities erupted worldwide, and continue two weeks after Floyd’s death.

The demonstrations sparked discourse about racism in agriculture, which Boyd described as “a white male-dominated industry.” More than 96% of the nation’s roughly 2 million farms are run by white producers, while black farmers claim about 35,000 farms, according to the latest agriculture census. Black farmers have long been hampered by an archaic system that’s deprived them of access to Agriculture Department assistance and bank loans.

Heirs’ Property

“Agriculture, like many industries, is rife with racism,” the National Farmers Union said in a June 2 tweet. Rob Larew, the group’s president, said federal policy changes targeting land ownership, specifically heirs’ property, could help lift up black farmers.

Heirs’ property is a type of collective ownership when land passes down without a will through generations, often to multiple relatives, the Agriculture Department says. The lack of clear ownership means heirs’ property operators can’t qualify for certain federal programs, receive disaster assistance or use their land used as loan collateral.

The 2018 Farm Law (Public Law 115-334) empowered the Farm Service Agency to give money to intermediaries, such as banks, for loans to heirs’ property operators looking to clear their titles. The law also extended their eligibility for obtaining farm numbers, which is how the Agriculture Department identifies farms for access to its programs.

A proposed rule to carry out the heirs’ property provision was sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget in early March for review, and is expected for release later this year, DTN Progressive Farmer, an agriculture news source, reported. The Agriculture Department didn’t respond to a request for comment on the rule’s status.

“For the 3 million acres of black farmer-owned land in the South right now, about half of it is wrapped up in titles that are difficult to manage, a lot of different heirs,” Larew said. “It makes it much easier for situations like partition sales, etc., to divide this land up, have it sold for much less than it’s worth, and ultimately the continuing loss of black farmer land.”

The department reports that land ownership for African-Americans peaked in 1910 at about 16 million acres—and its decline can be credited in part to heirs’ property complications.

“These policies excluded people of color from land ownership again and again, and that ability to transfer land between generations, which gives farmers such a leg up in agriculture,” said Sophie Ackoff, co-executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition.

Her organization published a statement June 3 advocating “for black farmers and all black lives,” along with “anti-racist agricultural policy.”

‘Discriminatory Lending’

Ackoff added that “discriminatory lending by the USDA” is another policy hurdle. Settlements totaling $2.3 billion after two class actions have been awarded to black farmers who suffered racism trying to get Agriculture Department assistance in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Black producers operating in 42 states—with the majority concentrated in the Southeast—still struggle to obtain farm operating loans, Boyd at the National Black Farmers Association said in a telephone interview June 4.

Minorities and women who already “comprise a disproportionately small share of agricultural producers” face more difficulties securing loans and credit from the Agriculture Department and other lenders, a report by the Government Accountability Office from July 2019 found.

Farm groups in the short term are joining in the public outcry against racial injustices in the U.S., as the public memorializes the death of Floyd—and many others like him.

“We recognize that there is institutional racism and widespread individual prejudice against black people, and wanted to show our solidarity,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, a nonprofit for farmworker advocacy.

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Cheryl Saenz at csaenz@bloombergtax.com; Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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