Black Farm Families Face a Struggle for a Share of COVID-19 Aid
At face value, the $2 trillion CARES Act that was signed into law on March 27 seemed like good news for small farmers. The measure included $9.5 billion that would go partly to growers who supply local farmers’ markets and produce specialty crops like fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and horticulture. It also provided $14 billion to be used for “an emergency requirement,” which plenty of smaller farmers are facing from lost markets, social distancing requirements and illness.
The $23.5 billion in aid is to be administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and by all accounts Secretary Sonny Perdue is largely free to determine who receives it. And therein lies the problem, particularly for black-operated farms, which historically have found themselves excluded from, and often harmed by, USDA programs.
Starting with the Farm Service Agency in the Great Depression through recent times, black farmers have lost millions in acres and billions in wealth, in part due to being shut out of loans and assistance—both of which they will surely need to survive this crisis.
Loretta and Sam Adderson, ages 75 and 74, run a certified organic farm in the town of Keysville in Burke County, Ga.. They have felt the impact of the pandemic as markets they sold to closed, and they became strict about social distancing when they lost a cousin to the virus last month.
“When something touches your family, you know it is for real,” Loretta says, adding that a lack of adherence to Centers for Disease Control recommendations in the community has made her and her husband even more concerned. “A lot of people are not taking any precautions. We see people going about their business like nothing is happening.”
The farm was Loretta’s childhood home, and she and her husband returned to it in 2009 after she retired as a nutritionist. “We decided to grow organic vegetables,” she says. “I felt this is an area that most people lack in their diets, especially dark leafy greens. So we grow five different kinds of kale, spinach, mustards, collards and cucumbers, squash, tomatoes. We grew 61 different items in a year’s time.”
In February, the Addersons seeded 15,000 plants in preparation for their first farmers’ market of the year, originally scheduled to open on April 21. The Veggie Park Farmers Market is in the Harrisburg community of Augusta, which is a food desert – an urban area where it’s difficult to buy good-quality, healthy food. The Addersons have been operating there for five years, and it is where Loretta says they sell about 75 percent of the farm’s produce.
They also sell to an organic supermarket, Earth Fare, which is now closed; local restaurants; a monthly market at a VA hospital; some pop-up markets in Waynesboro; a cancer treatment center; and Augusta Locally Grown online market. They also planned to open another market in a food desert in Augusta in May.
But now everything is on hold.
Adderson says the Veggie Park Farmers Market is transitioning to “a CSA (Community Sustained Agriculture) online concept for two months with a possible loss of participation,” and that the couple has decided they are too high risk at their ages to continue to deliver produce themselves or have people pick it up at the farm.
“Everything has ceased,” she says, other than their own work planting and putting up new fencing because “the deer are having dinner or breakfast every day.”
The Addersons also have a co-op with a few other local, black farmers who are also losing markets to the crisis. She says they are “trying to figure out any way that this group can utilize some funds out of that [stimulus] package.”
Answers are not easy to come by. James Ford is a fourth-generation African American farmer with more than 38 years of experience who retired from a career at the USDA. He now rents out his south Georgia farm and consults — particularly with underserved and beginning farmers “to help them maneuver through issues and programs with the USDA.”
“We try to bridge that gap between the USDA and the farming community,” he says. “If you don’t deal with them on a daily basis—they have a tendency to talk in their own language, using lots of acronyms and that sort of thing. We try to make it plain, and make the right connections.”
He adds that the technology-driven information from the USDA often “doesn’t get down to the farmers we are dealing with.”
Yet despite Ford’s many years of experience and connections, he says he hasn’t been able to get answers on who can obtain the stimulus monies and how. “I’m trying to get some of the same information you are,” he says.
This reporter made e-mails and calls to USDA’s service center in Burke County, Ga., where the Adderson’s farm is located; was then directed to the Georgia Department of Agriculture; was then directed to USDA officials in Florida and DC; and was then directed back to a general press inquiries e-mail. There were no responses to even basic questions, including what the eligibility requirements are for the $23.5 billion in stimulus funds, how a small farmer can apply, and what the USDA is doing to share information with small rural farmers who do not have access to broadband. Also unanswered were more complex questions, such as what the USDA is doing to ensure that African American farmers who have inherited their land but don’t have clear title are able to access USDA assistance.
About 60 percent of African-American farmers operate on land that has been passed down through the generations, known as “heirs property.” According to The Atlantic, this practice was largely born out of necessity due to “legal obstacles that made passing title to future generations difficult.”
Without a clear title to the land, black farmers “have historically been shut out of nearly every USDA program, including disaster assistance,” according to Monica Rainge, director of land retention and advocacy at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.
A provision in the 2018 Farm Bill was designed to help address this problem, but it has not yet been implemented.
Lack of broadband access is also a significant barrier to accessing programs and services. “In fact, when we go out to different parts of the southeast, sometimes you don’t have phone connection,” says Ford. The Southern Economic Advancement Project (which supported reporting for this article) held listening sessions with black farmers throughout Georgia, and not having internet access or a nearby USDA office was consistently reported as a problem.
“If you don’t know people who can tell you what’s available, then the likelihood of success is limited,” said one farmer in northern Georgia.
In contrast, corporate agriculture lobbyists know exactly where to go and whom to talk to. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition reports that even before the CARES Act was passed “the largest advocacy organizations that represent specialty crop growers, beef producers, and the dairy industry [had] already made requests of Congress for more than $20 billion in immediate support, so there is going to be a fight about how the $9.5 billion is divided amongst eligible producers.”
Perhaps the Trump administration’s approach to farmer assistance stemming from the trade war with China is a good indicator of where this lands: The top 1 percent of recipients received an average of $183,331; the bottom 80 percent received an average of less than $5,000. Moreover, a FOIA request revealed that more than 99 percent of approximately $8 billion in assistance went to white farm operators.
After 11 days of calls and e-mails the USDA finally offered a response, linking to tweets and the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program tab here — both of which have nothing to do with any of the questions raised about the $23.5 billion in USDA funding through the CARES Act.
On April 17, the USDA announced that it will use $16 billion of its CARES Act funding for “direct support based on actual losses for agricultural producers” — so it has come full circle in announcing what had already been announced in the CARES Act.
There are now around 45,000 African American farmers remaining — down from nearly 1 million in 1920. Their acreage has been reduced from 16 million to 2 million, with most of the land loss occurring during the past 70 years.
During the farm crisis in 1984-85 the USDA lent $1.3 billion to nearly 16,000 farmers “to help them maintain their land” — barely 1 percent of those farmers were black. A 1997 internal audit by the USDA’s Civil Rights Action Team found that in southeastern states the department took three times longer to process loans for black farmers than for white farmers. Finally, according to the Cowtown Foundation, since 2000 there are still 22,000 discrimination complaints from black farmers against the USDA that have not been addressed.
Given the history of black farmers being denied USDA assistance, and the lack of answers at county, state, and federal offices, there are ample grounds for concern that African American farmers will face the same obstacles with the current and future stimulus monies as they have in the past —not without wholesale changes in how the department approaches outreach, makes information accessible, and prioritizes racial equity in the distribution of aid.
Loretta Adderson puts the question succinctly: “Are we, like always, not going to get any funds?”
Greg Kaufmann is a journalist covering poverty in America and a contributing writer at The Nation.
This story was co-published with Microsoft News with funding support from the Southern Economic Advancement Project.