How the Long Shadow of Racism at USDA Impacts Black Farmers in Arkansas—and Beyond | Civil Eats

How the Long Shadow of Racism at USDA Impacts Black Farmers in Arkansas—and Beyond

Cotton Belt farmers have been waiting on long-overdue debt relief to right historic wrongs. But some see court battles, legislation, and red tape as a continued sign of systemic discrimination.

Arkansas farmer Clem Edmonds sits on his riding mower in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. (Photo by Wesley Brown)

Arkansas farmer Clem Edmonds sits on his riding mower in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. (Photo by Wesley Brown)

In Cotton Plant, Arkansas, farmer Clemell “Clem” Edmonds can recall the heyday of the once-thriving Black farming community next to the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, where the legendary ivory-billed woodpecker was supposedly rediscovered in 2004 after being presumed extinct for more than 60 years.

Recently, Edmonds, who is 91 years old, has been praying that some of the “$5 billion” he’s been hearing about will get to him before he passes away. Like many other Black farmers, Edmonds is keeping his eye on the promises Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been making to alleviate farmer debt and correct historic wrongs. Since an initial pot of debt relief money was designated through the American Rescue Plan in 2021, court battles, new legislation, and the long process of USDA program design have left Black farmers wondering and waiting for the money to arrive.

Racism endemic in the USDA and the banking system, Edmonds says, has prevented many underserved farmers like him from making a living, acquiring land, or gaining any meaningful access to markets. Edmonds applied for several loans with the USDA over the years, but he adds that he was always turned down at the last moment for some trivial issue like a wrong signature, wrong date, or some other information he was informed was missing after the fact. After several appeals to the USDA, he says finally gave up and stopped trying to get a loan.

“They did a lot of us like that. There was a time when there were Black farmers all across this valley,” says Edmonds. “Now, I am the only one still living.”

After years of documented discrimination and racially motivated violence, such as the 1919 Elaine Massacre, Edmonds and others represent the last remnants of Black agricultural communities that once flourished across the entire Delta region when cotton was king in Arkansas. They are testament to the fact that even those who have escaped the direct effects of racial violence in America have fallen victim to the structural racism that has felled generations of Black farmers.

“There was a time when there were Black farmers all across this valley,” says Edmonds. “Now, I am the only one still living.”

According to University of Massachusetts economist Dania Francis, Black agricultural land ownership in Arkansas and across the South dropped by nearly 90 percent between 1910 and 1997. Francis estimates the compounded value of the Black land loss in Arkansas and 16 other southern states during this period at roughly $326 billion. Francis and others point to systematic racism at USDA as the main culprit.

Broken Promises

Years ago, Edmonds thought he would be able to file a claim in the 1999 Pigford v. Glickman class-action lawsuit against the USDA, which showed how the agency discriminated against Black farmers based on race and failed to investigate or adequately respond to their complaints. In 2010, during his first term as USDA secretary in the Obama administration, Tom Vilsack and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a $1.25 billion settlement to cover a second round of payments. Still, fewer than half of the claims filed by farmers were approved.

If he had received a loan years ago, the former sharecropper says he would have purchased the land he now rents that was once his family’s homestead. Before his father died, Edmonds gave each of his four children 40 acres of bottomland on the Cache River. Still active after retiring from farming at 80 years old, he watches every day as the river scrub, trees, and brush gradually swallow up his family’s property.

Beneath the brush, Edmonds can still see glimpses of his former ax-hewed log cabin, a 50-year-old John Deere combine, and a 100-year-old barn that harvested the tall cotton and hay that made many Black farmers and landowners wealthy and self-reliant.

Clem Edmonds stands next to his old John Deere tractor parked in his barn. (Photo by Wesley Brown)The log cabin on Clem Edmonds' land, which he says used to be the family home. (Photo by Wesley Brown)

Left: Clem Edmonds stands next to his old John Deere tractor parked in his barn. Right: The log cabin Edmonds says used to be the family home. (Photos by Wesley Brown)

Edmonds was also once optimistic that one of his three sons would stay in farming. Ed Randle is now the chief of police in Brinkley but still lives in the community only miles from his father. Another son, Brad Cade, lives on a 5-acre plot near an Arkansas River tributary in the farming community of Scott but works as a train engineer for Union Pacific.

Cade says that at one point, he considered becoming a farmer full-time but changed his mind partly due to the struggles that his father had trying to make a living. He still keeps a 1-acre garden nine months out of the year to share his bounty with his church members and neighbors. But that’s not enough to call himself a farmer.

“Farming is a hard life,” he says, of his 91-year-old father’s experiences.

While Edmonds wants to believe the latest incarnation of USDA leadership genuinely wants to make right some of the many wrongs the agency has inflicted on Black farmers, he knows that it’s an uphill battle. Shortly after the American Rescue Plan (ARP) directed USDA to make $4 billion in debt relief payments to Black farmers, white farmers filed lawsuits alleging discrimination. Courts then stopped the agency from distributing funds. Vilsack and the Biden administration said they would vigorously defend the program in the courts, but Edmonds and other Black farmers were not hopeful.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” says Edmonds.

In fact, the administration never got the chance. In August of 2022, a group of lawmakers successfully led a push to replace the program with a new race-blind debt relief program in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). In an attempt to bypass the court battles and get money to Black farmers faster, their IRA provisions eliminated the ARP program entirely.

The provisions set up a new $3.1 billion fund for financially distressed farmers and a $2.2 billion fund for farmers who can prove they’ve been subject to USDA discrimination. Some Black farmer advocates cheered the new approach, while other groups felt blindsided by the elimination of race from the conversation and the fact that the court fights ended before they could be argued.

Ups and Downs in Cotton

Where Edmonds and his family suffered as a result of not being able to get loans from the USDA, Oscar Richardson has a different reason to be wary of how the agency, and Secretary Vilsack, might compensate Black farmers. The 70-year-old farmer in West Helena got a guaranteed $468,000 loan from the USDA in 1998 and couldn’t make the note, so the government foreclosed on his land, causing him to lose 250 acres of his 400-acre cotton-planting operation. Later on, in the first Pigford case, he received a $50,000 settlement for his past issues with the USDA.

Richardson, however, does not blame the USDA for the up-and-downs that he experienced in farming since he began chopping as a 7-year-old in Phillips County. After starting his farming career as a teenager near Elaine, he says he brought in 52 straight harvests in the Delta River bottom.

“Farming gets in your system, and it’s hard to get out. It crawls on that table two or three times before you know it,” says Richardson, lamenting that the ranks of Black-owned farming operations in Phillips County are now less than 10.

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Today, Richardson leases more than 1,000 acres and owns another 220 acres in Lake View, Arkansas, only miles from the Mississippi River. He is also part of Cargill’s Black Farmer Equity Initiative, a newly launched program that offers Black farmers and producers a small price premium—eight cents more a pound, in Richardson’s case—for the product they bring to market.

“Farming gets in your system, and it’s hard to get out.”

For Richardson, that premium makes economic sense, especially as the price of cotton has declined from around $1.40 per pound during spring 2022 to about 85 cents per pound in recent weeks. “They’ve got me planting cotton after being out of it for 24 years,” said the Phillips County farmer.

Concerning the funds that the Biden administration has been promising for two years now, he hopes it doesn’t take much longer to get to Black farmers, including some that are still waiting on claims they filed with the USDA in the Pigford case. Richardson says he knows one nearby Black farmer who earmarked for part of the ARP funds and struggled to hold on to his farm for nearly 15 years.

“I told him there is a blessing that everything he has fought to keep can be yours again. But . . . we don’t know what is going to happen,” he says.

Will This Time Be Different?

In October, the USDA announced it had already distributed $800 million and allocated $500 million of the $3.1 billion in IRA debt relief to tens of thousands of “distressed borrowers.” Then, on March 1, the agency announced another $43 million in payments had been made to 4,500 borrowers. But because the law did not require or authorize the agency to track race, it’s unclear how much of that money went to Black farmers.

At the same time, the USDA started the process of allocating the $2.2 billion fund for farmers who have experienced USDA discrimination. Officials are currently setting up partnerships with outside vendors and organizations that will process applications and distribute the funds through four regional hubs. Their goal is for payments to be made by the end of this year. When asked whether this fund will track how much of the money ends up going to Black farmers specifically, an agency spokesperson would say only that “USDA is still in the design phases.”

“There are a lot of Black farmers in Arkansas and across the nation that just don’t trust that the USDA will do what’s right.”

Two other Black Arkansas farmers, Hazell Reed and Ronald Rainey, are more hopeful than others that the USDA will soon address its long history of racism against Black farmers. In February, Reed and Rainey were named by the USDA to the newly established Equity Commission and its Subcommittee on Agriculture.

Authorized and funded by the ARP, President Biden launched the independent commission to keep a campaign promise to provide the necessary resources to address historical discrimination at USDA.

The 15-member commission has met four times to date. On February 28, it presented its first interim report, which includes 32 key recommendations on policies, programs, and actions needed to address racial equity issues within the USDA and its programs to Secretary Vilsack. Eight of the recommendations directly address how USDA works with farmers, including addressing inequities within the agency’s loan programs and county committees.

Although the report is not considered final, at an event promoting the recommendations, outgoing Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh said, “We don’t have to wait” to begin making the fixes. “We’re ready to get started.”

A plant scientist by training, Reed’s family has raised cotton, soybeans, and some corn. He earned a master of science degree at Penn State University and a Ph.D. at the University of Arkansas. Reed is also executive director of the National Black Growers Council and the retired vice chancellor for research and economic development at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

“There are a lot of Black farmers in Arkansas and across the nation that just don’t trust that the USDA will do what’s right,” says Reed, who was born and raised on his family’s farm in St. Francis County in eastern Arkansas.

And with good reason: In 2019, a report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) looked at how decades of structural racism have impacted Black farmers. A century ago, roughly 14 percent of farmers were Black; by 2012, that number had shrunk to 1.58 percent, according to “Progressive Governance Can Turn the Tide for Black Farmers.” That CAP report examines the ways in which discriminatory policies by the U.S. government, and especially the USDA, have led to the virtual elimination of Black farmers.

“This report illustrates the importance of understanding American history and the impact of systematic racism in our agricultural system,” said Danyelle Solomon, vice president of race and ethnicity policy at CAP. “As the report notes, Black farmers were systematically removed from the farming industry through government policy and practices. Between 1920 and 2007, Black farmers lost 80 percent of their land. Moving forward, policymakers must ensure that agricultural policy includes targeted and intentional policies that correct these harms by expanding access to land and technical resources for Black farmers.”

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In launching the new Equity Commission, Vilsack in February admitted how some of the USDA’s programs, policies, and practices contributed to barriers to inclusion or access and systemic discrimination.

“USDA acknowledges we have not done enough to provide all farmers and ranchers an equal chance of success and prosperity, and we are striving to change that,” Vilsack said in a statement. “This commission will support our work to build a USDA that does not ignore or leave anyone behind anyone as we dismantle barriers that historically underserved communities have faced in accessing USDA programs and services.” On March 2, he announced the appointment of L’Tonya Davis as the agency’s first permanent chief diversity and inclusion officer.

Rainey, one of the nation’s few Black farming economists, is the vice president of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. He said the commission is looking forward to advising Vilsack on ways to strengthen accountability and address past systemic equity issues at USDA.

“As a product of the land-grant system, I am honored to be part of this inaugural committee seeking to help USDA evaluate its programs and practices in order to equitably drive economic development in agriculture and rural America,” Rainey says. “It’s an honor and opportunity for me to pursue growth in this space across the Division of Agriculture to enhance our programs and service.”

In his work on the president’s commission, Reed stresses that the biggest hurdle for underserved and Black farmers remains access to land and capital. “Until those issues are addressed, then we will continue to struggle to remain (viable),” Reed said after the USDA’s third meeting.

In Washington, lawmakers, at least, are not yet done with pressuring the agency to do more. At the end of January, a group of seven senators re-introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which would create new lending and land access programs for Black farmers and a new system for investigating discrimination and civil rights complaints within USDA.

“We have to acknowledge that the USDA has a history of institutionalized discrimination against Black farmers and farmers of color,” said Senator Tina Smith (D-Minnesota), one of the sponsors. “That is the history we cannot look away from.”

Lisa Held contributed reporting to this article.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that only $100 million of a $1.25 billion settlement had been paid to Black farmers to resolve Pigford. Congress did allocate an additional $1.15 billion to complete the second round of Pigford claims.

Wesley Brown is a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats. Based in Arkansas, he is the former publisher of the Daily Record, and a long-time business and political reporter. His articles on corporate news, the energy industry, and the stock market have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and Dow Jones international newswires, the Associated Press and dozens of top U.S. newspapers. Wesley is also a board director for the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, and serves on the Arkansas Freedom of Information Task Force. He is also chairman of deacons at Christway Missionary Baptist Church in Little Rock. Read more >

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