WASHINGTON – A few years ago, Angela Dawson rented to own 169 acres in Pine County so she could raise organic vegetables, pigs, chickens and produce eggs.
She did what many farmers do – sought help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dawson applied for a $50,000 USDA micro-loan to purchase hogs that could be certified as organic, even though they were expensive.
“Pastured hogs taste better than penned hogs,” she said.
After about a year, Dawson’s loan application was denied and she was forced to abandon her plans for an organic farm. “I was so upset and heartbroken,” she said.
The USDA has had a well-documented troubled history with farmers of color like Dawson, who is Black. And it seems the agency is still struggling to meet the needs of Black and emerging farmers, many of them immigrants, who don’t farm in traditional ways.
But first there is the history of discrimination, which has been well-documented and resulted in a massive class action suit brought by Black farmers called Pigford v. Glickman that was settled in 1999. In that lawsuit, Black farmers sought to prove that they were unfairly denied by local USDA officials when they sought loans and grants that were made available to white farmers.
Native American farmers, Latino farmers and women farmers also sued the USDA for discrimination and the agency settled the cases with all of these farmers and vowed to do better. Yet problems continued.
For instance, many Black farmers whose Pigford claims were denied, maintained they had faced persistent and continual discrimination and should have been eligible for the $50,000 in Pigford settlement money that was awarded to about 30,000 Black farmers. Other Black farmers questioned whether the money was enough to remedy the financial harm they suffered. Their numbers continued to shrink, even after the USDA has been made aware of discriminatory behavior in its ranks.
Black farmers made up only 1.4% of the nation’s 3.4 million producers, according to the 2017 Census for Agriculture, the latest federal dataset on American farmland demographics. That census said there were 39 Black farmers in Minnesota when the survey was taken, 180 Native American farmers, 399 Asian farmers and 651 Latino farmers.
Meanwhile, the census counted nearly 111,000 white farmers in Minnesota.
The number of non-white farmers in the state may be on the uptick as the farm-to-table movement grows and American changes in dietary habits trend toward the organic and locally grown products many Black and emerging farmers produce.
In a report to the state Legislature last year about emerging farmers, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture said “limited access to capital and the lack of legal protections like wills that transfer property to the next generation means that communities of color and emerging farmers have been unable to fully participate in the land market.”
But the report also said “emerging farmers continue to grow beyond urban areas and within refugee and immigrant populations in Minnesota,” despite the challenges they faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are new pathways and opportunities for emerging farmers to address disparities regarding land transfer and building generational wealth in historically underserved communities within Minnesota,” the report said. “This is especially encouraging since the average age of a Minnesota farmer is 56 years old and transition/succession planning is critically important for the future of the agricultural sector.”
40 acres and a mule
Still, non-white farmers face unique challenges when seeking help from the USDA.
That has recently been backed up by an NPR analysis of USDA data.
It found that in 2022, only 36% of farmers who identified as Black received direct loans from the USDA, while 72 % of white farmers who applied obtained these loans. Direct loans allow farmers who can’t get credit elsewhere to purchase land, equipment and pay for other operational expenses to keep their farms in business.
Dawson said when she applied in 2018 for a loan at the Pine County USDA Farm Service Agency office, she determined the federal agency had “no models for organic growers,” because it had largely only interacted with traditional row crop and livestock farmers for generations. She said the USDA agent she met with was incredulous about her plans for an organic livestock farm, telling her “what makes you think you can do this?”
After she was denied a USDA loan and forced to abandon her farm in 2019, Dawson did not give up.
She found a smaller, 58-acre property in Pine County, and established the 40 Acre Co-op, named after the post-Civil War federal government’s short-lived program to give those formerly enslaved 40 acres of land and the U.S. Army’s donation of mules to some Black farmers.
Dawson has given up on her plan to raise organic livestock and grows hemp on the co-op instead.
“I’m growing hemp because that’s the way to make money without USDA help,” she said.
Dao Yang, farm manager of the Hmong American Farmers Association co-op in Hastings, said it’s difficult for the co-op’s farmers to receive USDA assistance, although some of them do, because it’s hard to get help with the bureaucracy involved.
“It’s a challenge to get the grants,” he said. “It’s a process. It can be very difficult for all the documents needed to get qualified.”
Co-op members are each allotted five to 10 acres at the 155-acre farm to raise a wide variety of vegetables, many of them from their native Asian countries.
He said his parents and other Hmong immigrants “could not find the food that they needed” when they made their home in Minnesota after the Vietnam War, “so here we are.”
He’s proud that, because of the varied produce the co-op members sell at farmers markets and to local restaurants and school systems “we have changed the palate of the community.”
And Yang said his association is growing, and with that growth has come improvements to the farm, including a new irrigation system and industrial coolers.
Minnesota’s Somali community is also moving into farming with the help of the Somali American Farm Association that was established in 2020.
Yang said the USDA is trying to be more sensitive to the needs of Black and ethnically diverse farmers through its new “Equity Commission” that released its first findings last month. Among its 32 recommendations, the commission urged the USDA to “increase the Department’s institutional bandwidth, both technically and financially, to increase support for young, new and beginning, small-scale, underserved, and specialty crop farmers.”
The report also recommended changing the way the influential farmers who serve on the USDA’s “County Committees” are elected.
“County Committees in many states have not represented minority farmers and ranchers and the powers afforded to County Committees have continued to result in decisions that often cripple the economic livelihood of minority farmers and ranchers,” the report said.
Dawson conceded the USDA is trying to right some wrongs.
“The USDA is late, but I think it’s trying to respond,” she said.
USDA sitting on billions of dollars of help to minority farmers
In an effort to bring diversity to the Farm Service Agency, which established local USDA offices across the nation, President Biden appointed Zach Ducheneaux, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, to head the FSA.
The Biden administration also pressed to include $4 billion in the 2021 American Rescue Plan for the USDA to clear the debts of farmers who are members of groups that have historically been discriminated against based on their race or ethnicity.
But not one cent of that money was ever delivered to Black farmers and other people of color because the plan was blocked by several lawsuits including one filed by a group of five white farmers from Wisconsin, South Dakota, Illinois, Ohio – and Minnesota.
The white farmers’ suit against Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said the plan to provide financial help to minority farmers violated the 5th Amendment’s equal protection clause because eligibility to participate in the debt-relief program was based solely on race.
“The government vigorously defended this program in the courts, but because of these injunctions, the $5 billion provided in ARPA remained frozen,” a USDA spokeswoman said. “This litigation would likely have not been resolved for years.”
Congress eliminated that program and replaced it with two others that do not mention race in the Inflation Reduction Act. One would provide the USDA with $3.1 billion to help “distressed borrowers” so they can stay on their land and remain eligible for new loans and grants. Another would allocate $2.2 billion in payments to farmers who have suffered discrimination by USDA farm loan programs.
“We are moving aggressively to implement these provisions,” the USDA spokeswoman said.
Now it’s the National Black Farmer’s Association President John Boyd and four other Virginia farmers who are taking the USDA to court, saying debt relief program has been “watered down” because it no longer prioritizes Black and other farmers of color.
According to Boyd, the federal government reneged on its promise to Black farmers when it changed the debt relief program to eliminate mention of “socially disadvantaged” farmers, or Black, Latino, Asian and Native American farmers.
Some Black farmers had already received letters from the USDA stating that debts would be forgiven and are now in limbo, Boyd’s law suit said that those farmers, including the plaintiffs in the case, expanded operations, purchasing new equipment and incurring other expenses because they believed their debts would be forgiven.
“They did not receive the benefit for which they had bargained,” the lawsuit, which is now a class action, said. “And they suffered financial damage in reliance on the U.S. Government’s promises by making purchases they are now unable to afford.”