Relief bill is most significant legislation for Black farmers since Civil Rights Act, experts say

$5 billion would go to farmers of color, who have lost 90 percent of their land over the past century because of systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt

A Black farmer sits on a tractor. (Image: twitter/@XercesSB)

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A little-known element of President Biden’s massive stimulus relief package would pay billions of dollars to disadvantaged farmers — benefiting Black farmers in a way that some experts say no legislation has since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Of the $10.4 billion in the American Rescue Plan that will support agriculture, approximately half would go to disadvantaged farmers, according to estimates from the Farm Bureau, an industry organization. About a quarter of disadvantaged farmers are Black. The money would provide debt relief as well as grants, training, education and other forms of assistance aimed at acquiring land.

While it’s a fraction of the $1.9 trillion bill that passed in the Senate on Saturday, advocates say it still represents a step toward righting a wrong after a century of mistreatment of Black farmers by the government and others. Some say it is a form of reparations for African Americans who have suffered a long history of racial oppression.

“This is the most significant piece of legislation with respect to the arc of Black land ownership in this country,” said Tracy Lloyd McCurty, executive director of the Black Belt Justice Center, which provides legal representation to Black farmers.

Black farmers in America have lost more than 12 million acres of farmland over the past century, mostly since the 1950s, a result of what agricultural experts and advocates for Black farmers say is a combination of systemic racism, biased government policy, and social and business practices that have denied African Americans equitable access to markets.

Discrimination started a century ago with a series of federal Homestead Acts that offered mainly White settlers deeply subsidized land. Since then, local U.S. Department of Agriculture offices charged with distributing loans have frequently been found to deny Black farmers access to credit and to ignore or delay loan applications. Many Black farmers don’t have clear title to their land, which makes them ineligible for certain USDA loans to purchase livestock or cover the cost of planting, and they have seldom benefited from subsidy payments or trade mitigation compensation — almost all of President Donald Trump’s $28 billion bailout for those affected by the China trade war went to White farmers.

Today, the average farm operated by an African American is about 100 acres, compared with the national average of about 440 acres, according to the last farm census. The Center for American Progress found that in 2017, the average full-time White farmer brought in $17,190 in farm income, while the average full-time Black farmer made just $2,408.

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