In response to the murder of George Floyd, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s largest farm organization, declared that it opposed racial discrimination and was forming a working group to determine how it’s staff can “be a positive influence against racism.”
We have some suggestions.
Black farmers have experienced a long history of state-sanctioned discrimination that has robbed them of millions of acres of farmland and billions of dollars in lost wealth. For years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) systematically denied and delayed loans to Black farmers. As a result, the number of Black farmers fell from a peak of nearly 1 million in 1910 to less than 40,000 today.
The record of racial discrimination in agriculture is not in dispute. A 1994 report commissioned by the USDA itself confirmed that the largest loans and disaster payments flowed to large white farmers. Black farmers sued the USDA. And though a settlement was reached, an investigation by the National Black Farmers Association and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) showed that the USDA made matters worse by withholding funds.
This problem is not confined to the past, despite efforts to suggest otherwise.
If the Farm Bureau wants to address racism, it should start by addressing the extent to which current agricultural subsidies reinforce the USDA’s legacy of discrimination. As our organizations have documented, Black farmers still receive a fraction of subsidies, compared to white farmers. This “subsidy gap” has grown as federal crop insurance programs have expanded in recent years. Because crop insurance subsidies are tied to the value of a farmer’s crop, the largest premium subsidies flow to the farmers enjoying the greatest sales.
These farmers are overwhelmingly white. According to the USDA’s census, only a few thousand Black farmers had crops that sold for more than $50,000. By contrast, roughly 520,000 white-owned farms did. Since premium subsidies are tied to the value of the crop, it’s almost certainly the case that 99 percent of crop insurance subsidies have flowed to these white-owned farms.
Why don’t we know for sure? Because the same congressional committees that looked the other way during decades of discrimination have prohibited the USDA from telling us. Greater transparency would help us know the extent to which past discrimination is being perpetuated by current practice.
If we’re going to understand—and ultimately address—the scale of the “subsidy gap,” here’s what the Farm Bureau can do: Ask Congress to require the disclosure of all subsidy recipients, including crop insurance subsidy recipients. Anything less would be a PR stunt. Until we know the race of subsidy recipients, we can’t evaluate the extent to which our farm safety net systematically discriminates against people of color.
Here’s what else the Farm Bureau can do: Support efforts to level the playing field. Currently, single farms can receive up to $125,000 per person, but loopholes make this limit easy to evade. Reasonable limits on who can receive subsidies and the amount they can receive would help create more equity between the largest farm businesses and small family farmers struggling to overcome a long legacy of discrimination.
Most farmers, regardless of race, support subsidy reforms. Although a few farmers receive millions, most subsidized farmers receive less than $10,000 annually. To address the USDA’s long history of racism, the Farm Bureau should insist that the bailout funding just released by the USDA to address COVID-19 be restructured to help small farmers, especially Black and brown farmers.
We know that the bailout spending designed to cushion the blow caused by Trump’s trade war has flowed overwhelmingly to white farmers, thanks to farm law scholars who obtained internal USDA documents. The USDA’s new bailout proposal will be even worse, as it loosened payment limits.
These proposals for greater transparency and modest subsidy reforms are just the start of what’s needed. Many other reforms, such as those proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), should also be prioritized, including reforms designed to stem and reverse the tide of Black land loss and address ongoing discrimination at the USDA.
But there’s one thing the Farm Bureau should do right away–change its own policies that are downright racist. Why is a farm organization opposing “arbitrary” removal of statues and monuments, calling for English to be our official language, or advocating for barriers to voting such as photo ID requirements?
Black farmers have often waged a lonely fight in their quest for justice. When legislators opposed our efforts to right these historical wrongs, the Farm Bureau was nowhere to be found.
We’re pleased to hear that the Farm Bureau is ready to start thinking differently about the impact racism has had on our agricultural landscape, and we hope it starts with the USDA. Now is the time to make things right.