Op-Ed: Why White Farmers Should Fight for Black Farmer Debt Relief | Civil Eats

Op-Ed: Why White Farmers Should Fight for Black Farmer Debt Relief

For family-based farms and ranches to survive and thrive, we must work together to fight for policies and programs that help us all. 

Lateef Dowdell watches the sunrise from what remains of land once belonging to his uncle Gil Alexander, who was the last active Black farmer in the community of Nicodemus, Kansas. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Lateef Dowdell watches the sunrise from what remains of land once belonging to his uncle Gil Alexander, who was the last active Black farmer in the community of Nicodemus, Kansas. (Photo credit: Charlie Riedel/AP)

In the past, most of our food was produced on locally based family farms and ranches. Since World War II, agribusiness corporations have slowly gained power and influence over food and agriculture policy, making it harder for these operations to exist.

I find it appalling that white farmers in Texas—including the state’s agricultural commissioner—joined dark money interests to file a lawsuit to block a federal debt relief program for struggling Black and other marginalized farmers. White farmers in other states—including Wisconsin, Florida, and Tennessee—have also filed lawsuits against the program, claiming “reverse” discrimination.

We should be lifting each other up, not tearing each other down. As long as farmers are pitted against farmers, regardless of race or scale of operation, rural America—and the rest of the country—will suffer.

Every year, hundreds of family farmers file for bankruptcy, and thousands more fall deeper into debt. Nearly half of these farmers take second jobs to survive. Meanwhile, multinational corporations like Tyson, Cargill and Perdue Foods take home 80 percent of agricultural subsidies. Just four companies in each sector control 85 percent of the corn seed market, 90 percent of grain trading and 63 percent of food retail. Of the $4.9 billion in 2020 Covid-related farmer relief funds, more than three-quarters went to the top-grossing 20 percent of producers.

For half a century, the U.S. government has propped up big agribusiness corporations at the expense of smaller operations, pushing more and more family farmers out of business and off their land. This unfair treatment has been particularly hard on Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized producers who’ve been subject to discriminatory practices by the USDA, including the denial and mismanagement of FSA loans enabling banks, developers, and large operations to steal their land. According to a new study by the University of Massachusetts-Boston, discrimination by the USDA robbed $326 billion worth of acreage from Black farmers during the 20th century.

It’s been 18 months since the $4 billion federal debt relief package for Black and other marginalized producers passed under the American Rescue Plan, yet no relief has come for the 15,000 farmers and ranchers of color who applied because of these bogus lawsuits. Some continue to invest in expensive equipment, seed, and fertilizer to keep their operations going without knowing if they will even have a farm to operate next season. Others have received notices warning them of possible foreclosure; while the USDA has said these were automatic mailings that should be dismissed, no farmer can ignore the stress of not knowing if their debts will come due in the end. This is all because a handful of white farmers were misled into believing that ignoring decades of racial discrimination within the USDA would somehow benefit them.

The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a founding member of the National Family Farm Coalition that has upheld the rights and interests of Black farmers, landowners, and voters since 1967, is working alongside the USDA to defend the debt relief program. The Federation is seeking declarations from farmers or ranchers of color who have experienced discrimination at the USDA, and from white farmers who have observed discrimination, over the past 10 to 15 years. If you have experienced or observed such discrimination, please contact the Federation by June 24, 2022 to show solidarity with your fellow farmers.

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Small- and medium-scale farmers must stand together; that’s the only way we will survive and thrive.

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Jim Goodman is an organic dairy farmer in Wisconsin and board member of Family Farm Defenders. He blogs for the National Family Farm Coalition. Read more >

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