top of page

This could be our chance

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.

USDA officials in Washington did not respond to phone and email queries from this newspaper. Burrell said relief can start after individual farmers contact their local Farm Services Agency to begin the loan forgiveness process. That’s news to Arkansas farmer Jeffery Webb, who needs cash for spring planting but faces high debts. “There just isn’t much information out there. I am at the brink of bankruptcy right now,” said Webb, who supplies grocers and farmers’ markets with potatoes and other vegetables grown on 10 acres in McCrory, Arkansas. “This forgiveness could keep me from going bankrupt.”

Good years brought his farm, Webb Urban Produce, as much as $80,000 on annual sales of mustard greens alone, he said, but the pandemic closed East Arkansas farmers’ markets, cutting his income sharply and putting him behind on loan payments. He said his loans total about $100,000 at USDA’s Farm Services Agency, including $32,000 for a tractor. If the loans are forgiven soon, the 36-year-old grower said, he can borrow from USDA to buy seeds, fertilizer and fuel for spring planting. If not, he’ll file for bankruptcy. Borrowing from a bank is unlikely. Many farmers who depend on USDA lending dislike or cannot qualify for the stricter loan terms made by commercial banks.

Despite the dependence, Webb said USDA practices chafe him. Some loans are parsed over time so some money arrives too late for spring planting. And after the agency urged him to buy a certain tractor model, he said, he learned a white farmer paid about $8,000 less for a similar model, a price difference he attributes to the agency pushing him into the purchase. Prosperous farmers might learn in college how to handle these matters, he said, but he must discover answers first-hand since launching the farm business four years ago.

‘‘We’re so limited on resources – African American farmers are,” Webb said. “They can pass a bill like this in Washington and we would never get the full benefits because it’s hard to know what the benefits are and how to find them out. We don’t know where to start.’’ In Memphis, Burrell figures few African Americans belong to the trade groups white farmers rely on for business insight. That’s partly because of scale.Trade groups tend to big growers rather than smaller vegetable farms. And it’s partly because African- American farm ownership has steadily diminished, lessening the Black voice in farm politics, Burrell said, noting Black people control about 2 million acres of farmland currently, compared to 16 million nearly a century ago.

One oversight appeared when the farm aid measure was drafted. Burrell said the bill failed to address minority farmers currently in bankruptcy. He said his group will file a federal lawsuit seeking relief for these bankrupt farmers. Although farm aid details are scarce now, they will emerge, said Brennan Washington, a sustainable agriculture researcher at Fort Valley State University, a historically Black land grant school in Georgia.

"It's kind of interesting that once again it doesn't seem like a good job is being done of communicating this to the people it's actually going to affect," Washington said. "But there will be a period for comments. Especially if you're in areas where you have Black congressional reps, call them. Because they would have information on what's going on with this. People who are going to be affected by this, this is the time to let their concerns be known." 'Root out racism' in the USDA

When the rescue plan began to take shape, several members of Congress including Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, cited USDA practices they feared had set back minority farmers for decades. They touted debt relief as a partial remedy for racial discrimination. The remedy was lauded by Vilsack, the USDA chief who held the same post in President Barack Obama’s White House and joined Biden’s cabinet promising, he said at his recent confirmation hearing, to “root out generations of systemic racism” in the farm agency. After the rescue plan was approved by the U.S. House on a 220-to-211 vote, Vilsack said the measure “provides historic debt relief to Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and other farmers of color who, for generations, have struggled to fully succeed due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt. We cannot ignore the pain and suffering that this pandemic has wrought in communities of color."

Some conservatives in Congress opposed the debt relief, including U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Georgia, who described the aid as racist. "I cannot justify conditioning relief based on race or ethnicity. This is not equality under the law," Clyde said, according to a report in Progressive Farmer, a national trade journal based in Birmingham, Alabama.

The measure came together largely in the House Agriculture Committee, where the chairman, U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Georgia, brushed aside Clyde’s objection. Scott said 2020's pandemic relief bills overlooked Black farmers, Progressive Farmer reported, noting Scott viewed debt relief as a reply to those omissions: "It is important for you to know that our Black farmers were not included in the other pieces, so we got them $4 billion just to help them," Scott said.

The bill steered debt relief specifically to farmers in socially disadvantaged groups, including citizens who consider themselves African American, Black, Native American, Native Alaskan, Hispanic, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. USDA classes 14,432 borrowers in these socially disadvantaged groups but "does not say how many are white women," Progressive Farmer reported, noting the current USDA loans for these farmers total $2.67 billion, plus another $414.9 million in delinquent debt. The measure forgives direct and guaranteed loans to these individuals and provides farmers money to cover taxes for a total of $3.7 billion. "I've been seeing farmers ask if they can get money for their actual farm and to purchase equipment," said Fort Valley State's Washington, adding: "That's not what this is going to do....($3.7 billion) is going directly into loan remediation work, so that means forgiving loans, paying taxes associated with those loans. Let's say you get a $100,000 loan written off (and) the IRS treats that as taxable income, so they've budgeted money in there to help pay those taxes."

Progressive Farmer estimated Oklahoma would get the most relief, about $176 million, given the state’s population of Native American and Black farmers and ranchers. Other top five states: Arkansas ($94 million), Texas ($89 million), Louisiana ($66 million), Missouri ($58 million), the trade journal reported.

Another $1.1 billion, Progressive Farmer reported, would fund support programs for minority farmers including technical assistance, education, extension and “financial assistance to those who have suffered adverse impacts from bias exhibited by USDA agencies. At least five percent of the funds must be used to improve access to farmland for these producers. These funds will also be used to establish a commission to address racial equity issues at USDA,” the trade journal reported. What happens next

Out on the farm, on an ancient flood plain of extraordinary fertility shaped by the Mississippi River, Calvin Head isn’t so sure education and technical expertise are the salvation for African-American growers. The Mileston cooperative he leads was established in the 1930s as a federal anti-poverty program. Almost nine decades later, many Mississippi Delta farmers scrape by. They don’t have hours to sit in technical training classes, he said. What they know is farming. “We’ve been trained and educated to death,” Head said. “Imagine a farmer debt-free. That’s what relief is.”

Burrell, the president of the Black farmer group in Memphis, sees another side. The $1.1 billion measure could open the way for African-American growers to ramp up larger enterprises. Rather than sell harvests only locally, he said, farmers could reach distant cities such as Chicago and New York, but first must have packing houses along with trucking, financial and marketing know-how as well as bigger farms.

“McDonald’s has a program to buy from minority vendors,” Burrell said about the fast-food chain. “But we don’t have the resources to process and distribute our products on a large scale. Corporate America is willing to do business with us but we don’t have the infrastructure in place. This could be our chance.’’


bottom of page