In farming, the late Farm Journal economist John Marten liked to say, we keep score with acres.
Right or wrong, acres — and the wealth they represent — have always been a measure of personal and professional success. The converse is true, too; the lack or loss of acres usually implies failure of sorts.
That critical measure is at the center of the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture effort to remedy its well-documented, “vast” and “systematic” discrimination against “minority farmers” through Section 1005 of the recently enacted $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, commonly referred to as the 2021 COVID relief package.
In the new legislation, Congress set aside as much as $4 billion to address the devastating impact USDA’s failure to fully implement and fairly administer color-blind, government ag lending programs. That failure can, as usual, be found in the numbers.
According to USDA, 949,889 Black farmers worked 41.4 million acres in 1920. Today, just 48,697 Black farmers, or only 1.4% of American’s 3.4 million farmers, own or rent 4.7 million acres, a staggering 88% less than a century earlier.
By any measure — acres, farmers, percentages — that’s a virtual wipeout.
There are many reasons for the steep decline — industrialization of the U.S. economy, domestic migration, the rise of new ag technologies — but one, indisputable reason that USDA itself acknowledges is its widespread discrimination in ag lending programs. That overt action helped fuel an exodus of Black and socially disadvantaged farmers from U.S. agriculture.
A June 18 federal court filing by the U.S. Department of Justice charts decades of USDA loan program discrimination despite several court-ordered and congressionally-mandated remediation efforts.
The revealing, cathartic DOJ filing came in response to a June 10 federal court order that required USDA to halt the $4 billion loan relief program. The order came after the Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty sued USDA on behalf of “white farmers who” contended they were “not eligible for the same debt relief,” according to DTN.
The Wisconsin lawsuit isn’t the only legal challenge the $4 billion program faces, but it is getting the most attention. After the federal judge issued the temporary restraining order to freeze USDA’s action, the lead attorney for the white farmers praised the judge’s order by noting the “Biden administration is radically undermining bedrock principles of equality under the law.”
Nonsense, wrote DOJ lawyers in their tart, 42-page reply to the judge’s order. Almost every government effort to redress past discrimination in USDA lending programs has been litigated — some, repeatedly — and rendered legal, it noted. The 2021 program is meant to finally fix a broken bureaucracy that USDA now readily admits it has repeatedly failed to remedy.
Remarkably, that failure continued even in the early COVID relief programs because, DOJ explains, “nearly the entirety of USDA’s Market Facilitation Program,” a $14.4 billion Trump administration scheme to counter the market impact of its export tariff policy, “and almost all of the $9.2 billion provided through USDA’s first Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, went to non-minority farmers.”
How does USDA send almost $24 billion in no-strings-attached taxpayer money to U.S. farmers and ranchers in two years and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers end up with nothing more than chicken feed?
Simple, DOJ notes in its June 18 court filing, “Congress again found … the lingering effects of systemic discrimination in USDA programs.”
In fact, it added, quoting Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, USDA’s “latent barriers and historic discrimination” remain so strong that “73% of Black farmers were not even aware of the agricultural aid provision of (these) coronavirus rescue programs.”
That’s unbelievable until you listen, really listen, to Stabenow’s words. Systemic discrimination. Latent barriers. Historic discrimination.
This is 2021, not 1921 or even 1821.
But you wouldn’t know it by the scoreboard.