Metro Atlanta Urban Farm (MAUF) CEO Bobby Wilson established Metro Atlanta Urban Farming (MAUF) in 2009 to address the growing need of affordable food in low-income communities. His five-acre plot of land in the hear of College Park, Georgia is just minutes from downtown Atlanta. With the help from U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resource Conversation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency (FSA), MAUF was able to address the resource concerns of the land, the education gap of the farm for the community, and provide financial assistance where needed. USDA Photo by Preston Keres

Senator Booker’s bill may remedy decades of USDA discrimination against Black farmers | The Light Series

Black farmers who are struggling to retain their land despite racial discrimination and little assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), could find relief in a measure called The Justice for Farmers Act.

Introduced last week in the Senate, The Justice for Farmers Act is historic legislation that finally includes full debt cancellation, federal tax relief, and a foreclosure moratorium for our Black legacy farmers.

“When it comes to farming and agriculture, we know that there is a direct connection between discriminatory policies within the USDA and the enormous land loss we have seen among Black farmers over the past century,” wrote the Act’s sponsor Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) in a news release. “The Justice for Black Farmers Act will work to correct this historic injustice by addressing and correcting USDA discrimination and taking bold steps to restore the land that has been lost in order to empower a new generation of Black farmers to succeed.”

More than 100 organizations have endorsed the Act, including The National Black Farmers Association, The National Family Farmers Coalition, The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, and The National Conference of Black Lawyers.

“If they can pass this bill, it would be great for Black farmers,” Gale Livingstone, 49, told Ark Republic. Livingstone, who is listed on Black Farmers Index, owns Deep Roots Farm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. But given the longstanding fractured relationship between Black farmers and the government, Livingstone who grows vegetables, herbs, and spices such as ginger, asked a simple “How will it be implemented?”

U.S. Senator Cory Booker speaking with attendees at the 2019 Iowa Federation of Labor Convention hosted by the AFL-CIO at the Prairie Meadows Hotel in Altoona, Iowa. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

The USDA has a long history of racism against Black farmers. A June 2019 report published in  The Counter, an online investigative newsroom focused on food issues, documents how the USDA seized land from Black farmers. In the past, a  common USDA practice was to foreclose on farms owned by Black people who had filed discrimination complaints against the agency. The Counter details how the USDA would ignore complaints then, allow them to sit unanswered  until the statutes of limitations  ran out. 

Added to the USDA’s history of neglect, the federal agency repeatedly  denied loans to Black farmers. And it inflated its census figures to make it appear that Black-owned farms had increased in the U.S. when they had decreased drastically due to USDA inaction.

“In 1920 there were nearly one million Black farmers in the United States,” wrote Senator Booker. “Today, due to this history of discrimination, it is estimated that there are less than 50,000 remaining Black farmers.”

Co-sponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the Act will create an independent oversight board to investigate discrimination claims against the USDA.  It will also create an Equity Commission to develop recommendations to reform Farm Service Agency County Committees.

. . . . 

To prevent the remaining Black farmers from losing their land, the Act increases funding to a USDA lending program which helps farmers resolve “heirs property” issues, such as land ownership and who is next in a family’s line to inherit certain lands.

If the Justice for Farmers Act passes, a new program called the Equitable Land Access Service will be formed within the USDA. The service will obtain farmland and provide up to 160 acres to new Black farmers, who will be given access to USDA mortgages and loans with favorable terms. 

Included, a Farm Conservation Corps created under the Act will reach out to young adults from socially disadvantaged communities and give them the academic, social, and vocational skills needed to become farmers. While in the program, they will apprentice with farmers and ranchers. After a successful completion, participants entering farming will have priority in accessing the land grants.

As well, HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and nonprofits will have a role to play under the legislation. By identifying land for the USDA to provide as land grants, they will also provide training and other assistance to Black farmers. New funding will be given to the HBCUs to use in expanding their educational research.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resource Conversation Service (NRCS) District Conservationist Shemekia Mosley works with Nuri Icgoren who operates Urban Sprout Farms, a biodynamic, certified organic urban farm Lakewood Heights, Georgia. Their five-acre plot, just a few miles southeast of Downtown Atlanta, is home to hoop houses, fresh herb and flower beds, with a big vision for the future. USDA Photo by Preston Keres

Livingstone is particularly interested in the land granting portion of the Act. “How do you train young people from economically disadvantaged communities (to be farmers)? Farming is a lot of responsibility, especially in an environment where many things are out of your control – the weather, operating under a pandemic.”

“Getting (USDA) loans has always been a problem,” said John Thaxton, 55, owner of Thaxton Farms in South Boston, Virginia. Thaxton, who is also listed on The Black Farmers Index, told Ark Republic that he has been farming for about 30 years. 

“I got land from my grandfather,” he said. Thaxton grows vegetables and bakes homemade pies for sale. While he thinks the Act will be helpful to Black farmers, he notes that not many young Blacks show interest in farming. “They may want to start farming, but most have a hard time getting the money to do it,” Thaxton said.

| Read: Representation matters for a Black farmer

“I commend Senators Booker, Warren and Gillibrand for thinking about us,” said  Anna Marie Carter, also known as “The Seed Lady of Watts.” Carter sells her non-GMO organic food and seeds globally, including to African and Caribbean countries. She also trains and employs young people in South Central Los Angeles. She teaches them gardening and how to make and market her products.  Everything she produces comes from Watts.

Carter told Ark Republic that any land granted through the Justice for Black Farmers Act should be examined for toxicity, particularly acres located in the South. “The land has been compromised by years of use of toxic pesticides like DDT,” she explained. “A lot of energy companies were built (in the region) which produce energy from coal. Some of the land and tributaries from rivers near the land has been contaminated with coal ash. We don’t want (to farm on) wasteland.” She added that legislation created to assist Black farmers should show them how to sell and trade their produce internationally.

As of this writing, no hearings on the Act have been scheduled in the Senate yet.  The current Congressional session concludes on January 3, 2021.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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