USDA ISSUES BILLIONS IN SUBSIDIES THIS YEAR. BLACK FARMERS ARE STILL WAITING FOR THEIR SHARE. “We have lived under economic terrorism for decades,” said Georgia farmer Eddie Slaughter. Subsidies issued during Covid-19 are just another form of exclusion, he and other farmers say.
Oct. 28, 2020, 11:26 AM PDTBy Patrice Gaines
The federal government is projected to issue record subsidies to farmers across America this year. The cash has been a boon to a significant part of President Donald Trump’s rural base, particularly in the run-up to the election next week. However, Black farmers, whose numbers have been dwindling for generations for many reasons, say they have yet to see any big changes to keep their farms afloat.
“In a few instances, some Black farmers we know have been saved by Covid relief funds,” said Angie Provost, wife of Wenceslaus “June” Provost, whose family owned a 5,000-acre sugar cane farm in New Iberia, Louisiana. They lost it in 2014 because of underfunding and because federal loans did not arrive soon enough. Their experience is part of a larger, documented form of discrimination that Angie Provost refers to as “the plantation economics of the South.
“The bailout should be called a buyout for votes — not that the farmers don’t need them,” she said.
Trump engaged in a trade war with China in 2018, and his administration created a subsidy program to mitigate farmers’ losses. Retaliatory tariffs by China, natural disasters and the pandemic have dealt such big blows to nearly all of the country’s agricultural exports that this year alone, the subsidies are estimated to reach a record $46 billion, according to the New York Times.
Black farmers say this level of aid has passed them by, not just in 2020, but also historically.
“We have lived under economic terrorism for decades,” said Georgia farmer Eddie Slaughter, one of the hundreds of Black farmers whose land is in foreclosure because of documented racist practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
John Boyd of Baskerville, Virginia, founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, which has 116,000 members in 42 states, said, “That money went predominantly to white farmers and large corporate farmers.” In 2019, The Counter, a nonprofit news organization focused on food and agriculture, reported that 99 percent of the subsidies provided to farmers linked to the trade war with China went to white farmers.
Boyd, who raises cattle and grows corn, wheat and soybeans, called Trump’s trade war on China “devastating.”
“The administration decided they would take on China and didn’t open up any other markets for farmers, something that would have been common sense to me,” said Boyd, who blamed “the arrogance of the president.” Even though a majority of farmers voted for Trump, Boyd said “I didn’t, and I won’t, and I don’t think many other Black farmers will.”
In 1920, there were almost a million Black farmers. Today, there are fewer than 50,000, according to a 2017 USDA report.
Researchers Zoe Willingham and Abril Castro of the think tank the Center for American Progress wrote that agriculture in the U.S. is a prime example of the ways structural racism “has robbed Black farmers of the opportunity to build wealth.” This racism, they wrote, has contributed to “the loss of more than 36 million acres of farmland between 1920 and 1978.”
Black farmers filed official complaints about mistreatment that typically went ignored. After winning a class action suit against the USDA in the late 90s, they considered the creation of the office of assistant secretary for civil rights at the USDA in 2003 an important victory. The Trump administration has left the position unfilled, although there are an associate assistant secretary, a deputy secretary and an acting chief of staff for civil rights.
Meanwhile, Black farmers have still witnessed friends lose their homes and livelihood because agents at the Farmers Home Administration, or FHA, a USDA agency that ended in 2006, denied them privileges extended to whites. For years, it was documented that many agents didn’t trust Black farmers, so instead of issuing them no-strings-attached checks, they only gave them managed accounts that required oversight by FHA managers. Consider the story of Slaughter, the Georgia farmer.
Slaughter borrowed $265,000 from the USDA in 1986 to buy “both of my farms and irrigation and everything I needed to farm,” he said. But the loan ruined Slaughter’s credit. He couldn’t borrow money. His farm went into foreclosure, and for the past 17 years he has lived off the rent someone else pays him to farm his 200 acres.
He explained, when a white farmer goes to the local USDA office and is approved for a loan, the farmer “gets a check and goes back to farming.” When Black farmers are approved, the structure of the loans they’d qualify for would require them to go to the bank with a county supervisor from the USDA, who has to co-sign the loan, Slaughter said.
That then meant that whenever Slaughter needed money from his loan, he had to drive 60 miles to the local USDA office to get the county supervisor to sign a check for him.
Most Black farmers he knew had supervised accounts, he said. “And white farmers did not. If I saw equipment I wanted to buy and it was on sale and I wanted to take advantage of that sale, the county supervisor could say, ‘You don’t need it.'”
Or take another example: “The same thing happens with buying peanuts. If I find good-quality seeds with 98 percent germination and I want to buy them, I have to run 60 miles to his office for him to sign a check. If he’s not there and I have to go back, by the time I get the money, the seeds have been sold.”
Slaughter said he believes he is one of the few Black farmers to have received money from the USDA during the Trump administration. The USDA did provide debt relief for Slaughter, but it barely helped. After 17 years in foreclosure, he was owed more in interest than the original principal for his farm loan. And to pay his debt, he said, the government garnished his Social Security checks and tax refunds for nine years.
“The unequal administration of government farm programs, crucial to protecting farmers from an inherently risky enterprise, has had a profound impact on rural communities of color,” according to the Center for American Progress.
Two decades ago, Boyd, the Virginia farmer, filed and won the first discrimination lawsuit against the USDA.
He bought his first farm in 1984 and had to make 90-mile trips to the FHA to apply for loans. He did this regularly, and each time he was denied.