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For Decades, the USDA Was Black Farmers’ Worst Enemy — Here’s How It Became an Ally

Through partnering with local farmers, the USDA has begun to tackle its racist past.

After decades of criticism, policy changes at the USDA seem to be driving the recovery of Black farms. (Photo: Brian Evans / Flickr)

Cather Woods, 74, rises early to start the day before the Texas heat has a chance to wake up. She smiles as she steps onto the soil she’s nurtured for years. Inhaling the fresh air, she looks at the young pines under the rising sun, and, finally, she greets the cows excited by her arrival.

The number of Black farmers in the United States is suddenly growing again.

“If you decide to take a walk, you can walk as far as your legs can carry you,” Woods says about her 300-acre farm in Crockett, Texas. Planting her feet on land she can call her own is a dream realized: “I’ve always wanted to be a farmer. I grew up on a farm, but I couldn’t make a living here.” Woods left her small hometown for Dallas as a young woman, but home always tugged at her. The feeling eventually prompted her return to Crockett in 1989.

Today, Woods lives alongside two of her siblings in a cul-de-sac of three houses not far from her farm. Her father purchased this land in 1949. Her cousins run their cattle, goats, and horses on land that’s been in the family even longer — her grandfather purchased it in 1898. Farming, Woods would argue, is embedded in her family’s DNA.

Woods spent three decades working as an engineer for Texas Instruments and another one running her own barbershop. But she covets her role as landowner the most. Finally, she’s making a living from farming.

In 2003, Woods decided to buy the 300-acre farm and applied for a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but they denied her application. Furious, she marched into her local bank and asked to speak with the bank president. “I can pay for the land,” she said. “I don’t make enough money to get the loan, but I can pay for it.” Eventually, he conceded and offered her a loan, which she used along with her own retirement money to buy the land.

Woods’ savings made her one of the lucky ones. Many other African-American farmers who couldn’t get loans from the USDA simply lost their farms.

In 1920, the number of Black-operated farms peaked at nearly a million, accounting for 15 million acres of farmland — the size of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New Jersey combined. They made up 14 percent of the country’s farmers.

The height of Black farming didn’t last. Faced with the economic and social barriers of the time and decades of racist and discriminatory policies, Black farmers spent the next century in decline. By 1982, their numbers were down to about 30,000 — just 2 percent of the nation’s total. That same year, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights predicted that no Black farmers would remain by the year 2000.

But today, the number of Black farmers in the United States is suddenly growing again. In 2012, there were more than 44,000 of them, up about 15 percent from 10 years earlier. Nationally, they were still less than 2 percent of the country’s farmers, but their growth is noteworthy after such an extensive decline. Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Florida all show gains, while Texas takes the lead with a gain of more than 2,500 Black farmers.

Policy changes at the USDA seem to be driving the recovery. Those changes come after decades of criticism. In 1965, the Commission on Civil Rights studied the USDA’s contribution to the sustainability of Black-owned farms and found that the USDA and its agencies excluded African Americans from programs that had raised the economic and educational levels of thousands of rural farmers. Despite the commission’s recommendations, subsequent reports found that discrimination persisted.

Dr. John Boyd, Jr., founder of the National Black Farmers Association, which now partners with the USDA, remembers what it was like to work with the department in decades past. “The government really treated Black farmers worse than the dirt that we worked,” he says. Boyd, a fourth-generation farmer, owns 400 acres of farmland in Virginia, where he says his seed bill alone — to plant soybeans and corn — is $15,000 a year. An annual farm-operating loan was crucial to successfully plant and harvest his crops, but it was hard to come by.

Boyd can’t forget the incidents in which White loan officers at the USDA tossed his loan application in the trash, spat on him, and even slept during the loan-application interview process. One loan officer threatened him after Boyd responded to questions with “yes” instead of “yes, sir.” If Boyd didn’t address him “appropriately,” the officer said, he’d never see a nickel of loan funds, despite his eligibility. “I sit on all the boards,” the officer warned. “In this county, I’m the next thing to God.”

When Blacks did manage to get a loan from the USDA, they often received a fraction of the amount they needed and got it too late for the planting season. Boyd says this put many farms in jeopardy of foreclosure. “That’s how they got a lot of Black farmers’ land … a lot of the farms were sold for peanuts.”

Boyd wasn’t alone in his claims. He, along with hundreds of other Black farmers, filed the class action lawsuit Pigford v. Glickman against the USDA for racial discrimination between 1981 and 1996, alleging that the department denied them access to federal farm-operating loans, disaster payments, information on farm programs, technical assistance, and other support that the agency is mandated by law to provide to low-income farmers.

White loan officers at the USDA tossed his loan application in the trash.

In 1999, the USDA settled the lawsuit. Thousands of farmers received claims, including one-time payments of $50,000, loan forgiveness, and offsets of tax liability, but thousands of others didn’t receive anything because they submitted their claims after the deadline. This triggered more lawsuits, congressional hearings, and legislation — and ultimately provided $100 million to settle the additional claims. The total amount offered by the government was $1.25 billion. Following the settlement, Hispanic, Native American, and female farmers filed similar discrimination claims and received settlements.

The settlements marked a turn in the relationship between the USDA and Black farmers. Since then, the department has aligned with the National Black Farmers Association, created the Minority Farmers Advisory Committee to advise it on outreach, and established a microloan program that serves new and small farmers and ranchers. It also modified the county committees within its Farm Service Agency (FSA) — which facilitate the day-to-day operations of the FSA and allocate farm programs at the local level — to ensure that elected representatives include minorities. Farmers who serve on the committee play a crucial role in ensuring local producers get the services they need.

Winning Back Trust

“I know that my grandfather couldn’t go into the office and get a loan,” says Dr. Joe Leonard, USDA Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights. He says the Obama administration wanted to make sure that the situation is different for people who need loans today. After seven years in this position, Leonard says he’s held the job longer than any other in his career because the agency supports his aggressive approach to civil rights. His office has traditionally “played defense,” Leonard says, meaning it merely responded to complaints about racist outcomes. But it is now playing offense as well.

“I’m calling [farmers of color], and the administration is calling them and telling them how we can help,” Leonard says. In the past, “too often we waited for customers to come to us, but under [USDA Secretary Tom] Vilsack’s leadership, it was important for us to go to them, especially the members of the class action suit.”

In 2004, after Woods purchased her land, she began using a number of USDA farming programs and was eventually elected as the first African-American woman in Texas to serve on an FSA county committee. Woods served 12 years and says having a seat at the table has been paramount in her ability to speak up and chase change for Black farmers. She says she feels Leonard is authentically invested in helping. “He has worked with us and encouraged us to get out there. When you know somebody and you got some backup, you can stick your chest out a bit.”

“They’re spying on you.”

That sense of partnership stands in stark contrast to recent history. For a long time, many Black farmers refused to complete the USDA Census of Agriculture because of their distrust of the government. They feared that if they let the government know they existed, the USDA would take their land.

The USDA has started to change that perspective by partnering directly with organizations that represent farmers, like the Landowners Association of Texas, Texas Small Farmers & Ranchers Community Based Organization, and 100 Ranchers. Representatives from all three groups participated in a huge push to find Black landowners and get them to complete the census. Woods, who participated in the efforts, recalls an encounter with a woman who said, “My dad told me, and my husband told me before he died, ‘Do not trust the USDA.'” Woods’ own father echoed those sentiments, saying, “They’re spying on you.”

The outreach teams went to churches, knocked on doors, and held meetings to plead with their community to participate, reminding them that, “If we’re not counted, we don’t exist.”

As a result, some of the new Black farmers seen in the 2012 census might not really be new. They’re just willing to participate in the census for the first time. Of the 2,500 Black farmers gained in Texas over the last 10 years, at least 1,000 appear to have been there at least that long because they indicated that they’d been farming for a decade or more. The remaining 1,500 appear to be new (although a substantial margin of error means that these figures can only be estimates). Now that they’ve been counted, their recognized presence helps the USDA structure its outreach, implement programs in locations with the greatest need, and help organizations lobby for changes in the farm bill, such as federal crop insurance.

While many farmers conceded to Woods’ plea, she estimates that 50–60 percent of the people she reached out to still refused to complete the census.

“You lose trust in buckets and gain it back in drops,” admits Leonard.

Land and Power

Franklin Wagner, 77, is the president of the Landowners Association of Texas (LAT) and has been actively involved in farming there since 2002. The retired lieutenant colonel says there are more Black farmers today because “they are now learning that agriculture doesn’t mean picking cotton.” It’s no longer forced labor, and he’s working to shed the idea that it’s demeaning work. Choosing agriculture is an active, empowering decision, which is essentially small-business ownership, says Wagner.

Wagner isn’t the first in his family to use the tools of a community organizer to encourage Black farmers. In the 1930s, his grandfather encouraged Black people to buy land and farm it. But after seeing much of that land lost through disputes about inheritance, Wagner founded the LAT in 1978 to acquire land and resolve ownership disputes.

The organization also puts on seminars where farmers learn how to develop a business plan. They also learn about the various kinds of USDA loans available and how to complete the different applications correctly and on time.

Wagner says to complete the original farm-operating loan application, “you had to drudge up your heritage from the time of Adam and Eve and follow them through Africa.” Thankfully, the microloan process has been simplified and provides up to $50,000. His wife was able to get a microloan to start an organic vegetable production, and his son got one for commercial hay bailing.

The USDA’s assistance isn’t limited to loans. Woods participated in the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which helps agricultural producers to plan and implement conservation practices for their land. “I have worked with them because I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says with a hearty laugh. The program’s financing helped her to install a pond, which allowed her to divide one area into three different pastures. They taught her how to do cross fencing, a system that allows a rancher to raise different livestock and crops on sections of a single plot of land. She’s also using a microloan to expand her tree plantation. She has 35 acres of loblolly pine and is preparing to plant 38 additional acres, which will allow her to ship and sell wood.

“The programs that we’re benefiting from, someone had to fight for.”

Although Woods didn’t receive the initial USDA loan she wanted, she recognizes the current opportunity. “The programs that we’re benefiting from, someone had to fight for,” she reflects. She admits that racism, prejudice, and discrimination aren’t going to vanish overnight, but she applauds the strides the USDA has taken. “I’m not going to go back, but I thank God I’ve lived long enough to see change.”

She sees that change in the number of new farmers who have bought cattle and equipment through microloans and the young people who received loans of up to $5,000 to do things like buy livestock or repair farm equipment. Teenagers are graduating from high school with 25 head of cattle, she says. College students can seek opportunities as well.

Boyd, too, is happy to see Black farmers on the rise and wants to challenge more African Americans to take a second look at agriculture. “When I was coming up as a little boy, farming was looked at in a very negative light for Black people and still is today. We didn’t want to do it anymore,” says Boyd. But “a landless culture is a powerless culture,” he warns.

And farmers can pass that power down to new generations. As her 73 acres of pine trees age, Woods will start thinning them, and eventually the plantation will generate income for her seven grandchildren. “I’m doing this so that the kids don’t have a reason to say ‘we had to sell the farm’ or ‘we couldn’t keep taxes up.’ They’ll have money for the next 50 years.” And Woods wants to make sure other families benefit too: She created a day camp that brings youth from the inner city to see what a day in the country is like.

Woods has advice for those who want to see farmers of color rise. She suggests joining community- and land-based organizations or starting one if they don’t exist. And serve on committees. “That’s where the real knowledge comes in. They’re only going to tell you so much, but if you’re there when the changes take place, you can pass this information on,” says Woods. “The more we apply and the more we ask, the better it’s going to get.”

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