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This could be our chance

Southern Black farmTed Evanoff Sarah Haselhorst Safiya Charles

Memphis Commercial Appealers react to American Rescue Plan stimulus

President Joe Biden and Congress just ordered a massive farm aid measure for minority farmers, but African Americans wonder if the USDA can get past racial discrimination charges and provide aid on time.

President Joe Biden and Congress just ordered a massive farm aid measure for minority farmers, but African Americans wonder if the USDA can get past racial discrimination charges and provide aid on time.

Five miles south of Tchula, Mississippi, on fertile soil in a county home to the nation’s highest share of African-American farmers, Calvin Head strides through the field. His mission: Make sure trenches drain his 11-acre vegetable farm of storm water. Head leads the Mileston Cooperative Association, a decades-old network of 11 farms growing vegetables, corn and soybeans on about 4,000 acres not far from the Mississippi River. Mileston’s own singular mission: Survival. “We are fighting hard to save and maintain our land,” Head said.

With a mood afoot in the country to address racial injustice, Mileston’s and other minority farmers are now counting on that fight to get a big lift from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tucked into the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is a directive to forgive repayment on about $3.7 billion in USDA loans made to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers throughout the nation.

While the overall rescue plan was billed as the greatest anti-poverty measure in a generation, the farm aid has spurred hope, but also drawn barbs and questions. Conservative politicians assail its minority focus. Minority farmers favor aid but some wonder if the government can deliver on time – before the planting season gets fully underway. In a virtual meeting Tuesday with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Head heard Vilsack reiterate “help is on the way.” Head remains cautiously optimistic. “Will it come soon enough?” he wondered. “Timing is everything with farmers.”

FARMING ROADBLOCKS:Black farmers were sold 'fake' seeds, Memphis-based group says Farmers look cautiously at USDA

Just why farmers sound cautious traces to a point overlooked in most cities but felt by many African-American farmers. They blame predatory USDA practices for driving generations of Black farmers out of business. Now, the agency has been ordered to help. The American Rescue Plan calls for both a look into racial equity at USDA and under the banner of pandemic relief offers to lift financial stress off minority farmers and ranchers. The bill amasses $4.8 billion for minority farm aid. The largest piece, $3.7 billion, would forgive delinquent USDA Farm Services Agency loans, pay off direct and guaranteed loans at the agency, and pay related taxes farmers may owe when the loans are retired.

“It is a victory for socially disadvantaged farmers,” said Thomas Burrell, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, a Memphis-based trade group for 21,000 members nationwide. “They can forgive their debt, start over and go back to the front of the line. They’re not asking for any more than anyone has received. They’re just asking for their share.” Still, among the estimated 45,000 Black farmers in the United States, some are troubled by notions the USDA can reform old ways:

  • "Ironically that money is going to dissipate through USDA and not go directly to farmers. So, we don't know exactly how that's going to come out," said Demetrius Hooks, a fourth-generation farmer in Shorter, Alabama.

  • "There has been a lot of unfair delving out of money in the past, and then we just went through four years where we were told you can't get any crop insurance because you don't have irrigation. There seems to always be some ruse or something that keeps us from getting federal funding, something that makes it harder," said retired U.S. Air Force veteran Marshall Davis, a farmer in Browntown, Alabama.

  • “Right now, we’re on the bleachers. This will help us get on the playing field,” said John Coleman, who farms 45 acres of soybeans in Bolivar County, Mississippi.

FARMING ROADBLOCKS:A black family grew its farm against the odds, until planting a certain brand of seeds Farm Services Agency debt relief Just when they might get on that field isn’t clear yet. President Joe Biden signed the rescue bill March 12. A week later, many farmers wonder when farm aid kicks in. Few details have emerged.