Elected Officials to Protect America backs Biden’s USDA incentive program and demands discriminatory agriculture policies end

April 1, 2021

By Ramona du Houx

American agriculture accounts for more than 10.5 percent of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, according to the estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Farmers are on the frontlines of climate change and can become an integral part of the climate solution. They know the climate crisis is a reality — they live it. American farmers have suffered major losses from floods and droughts that have grown more destructive across the country. The East coast endures extreme weather systems too. Hurricanes and flooding are more frequent than a decade ago.  

“Hurricane Matthew devastated the entire region. Afterwards we didn’t get assistance to fix our drainage systems. Now, with every storm Sellers and our farmer’s land flood. With hurricanes and storms getting worse, our people need help holding back the devastations of climate change,” said Barbara Hopkins, Mayor of Sellers, South Carolina. “We need equality and equity in farming with federal policies.”

Two of the Biden administration’s biggest priorities are racial inequality and fighting climate change. They merge within agriculture. 

The Biden administration wants to steer $30 billion in farm aid money from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Commodity Credit Corporation to pay farmers to implement sustainable practices and capture carbon in their soil. President Biden also pledged to tackle a legacy of discrimination that has driven generations of Black Americans from their farms, with steps to improve people of color and other minority farmers’ access to land, loans and other assistance, including climate smart production.

Biden has started to realign policies with measures in the The American Rescue Plan (ARP) which has relief funds for 14,000 Black farmers and calls to look into racial equity at USDA.

“While the ARP will pay 120 percent of federal loans for farmers of color, more must be done to address the underlying racism. It’s a broken system,” said Jenna Wadsworth, Elected Officials to Protect America spokesperson, Vice Chair of the Wake County Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors.“More land, more loan access, incentives and direct access to other assistance has to happen for women and farmers of color. All farmers have an unique opportunity to continue to provide healthy food sustainably, while playing a leading role in solving the climate crisis. Once more of President Biden’s plans are implemented then we’ll be moving in the right direction.” 

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s Agriculture Resilience Act harnesses science and resources to advance regenerative farming practices. The Act would help reduce agricultural emissions by 50 percent before 2030 and make this segment of our economy net-zero by 2040. 

“The Agriculture Resilience Act is designed as a roadmap to sequester more carbon in the soil and reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by supporting farmers where they are. We need to empower farmers with the best available science and provide a range of conservation tools, because what works for one farmer in Maine may not work for another in Iowa or Georgia,” Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (ME) said of her bill. Pingree has been an organic farmer since the 1970s and is a recognized national policy leader on sustainable food and farming.

Research shows that healthier soil resists erosion, acts like a sponge to buffer farms from worsening floods and droughts, and keeps water clean. Many farmers are already finding success with a mix of cover crops, no-till, crop rotations, and grazing management to boost soil health, but a wider transition requires much more financial support. That’s where incentives and loans from the USDA could be a game changer.

Last year the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis issued their recommendations in a report,Solving the Climate Crisis: The Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America, which calls on Congress to build a clean energy economy that values workers, centers environmental justice, and is prepared to meet the challenges of the climate crisis.Pingree’s Agriculture Resilience Act serves as the model for the agriculture section of the report, and it is what the President is aiming to implement.

“Clean air and clean water are a way of life for people across North Carolina and across the country. Climate change is a direct and present threat to that way of life and threatens to exacerbate the already significant challenges of racial inequity and income inequality that so many communities are facing,” said Erica Smith, Former North Carolina State Senator  “We need to choose our farmers and our workers over big oil, acknowledge the reality of climate change and seek real and comprehensive solutions.”

The history that led to the inequalities is important to understand as there is a level of mistrust surrounding the USDA. Farming in America is rooted in racism, sexism and capitalism, which has determined who owns, accesses, and benefits. Technological developments in Western agriculture to promote massive production were originally meant to help feed the world, but subsidies, chemicals and corporations have eroded the ideal. Laws in Congress have led to multinational corporations reaping profits at the detriment of small farmers.

U.S. policy supporting industrialization and consolidation in food production has perpetuated racial and ethnic inequities. Hundreds of millions in commodity subsidies within the farm bill, trademarked plant and animal varieties, and international markets have accrued to the largest white-owned farms. Meanwhile, farmers of color, immigrant farmers, and female farmers, who typically have smaller farms and grow higher-value, labor-intensive products have received abundantly less government support.

“Big farming incentives and subsidies traditionally have geared towards big operations, and corporations and against small farms run by people of color and women. If we don’t change our discriminatory federal subsidy system our bread baskets will be devastated by climate change. Right now, American farming seems to be as segregated as it was a century ago,” said Nervahna Crew, North Carolina Wake County Soil and Water Supervisor. “The Biden administration’s plans could finally bring justice to this essential workforce.”

In the American South the 14th Amendment, which provides equal protection under the law to all people, was rendered mute by the USSupreme Court Slaughter-House cases decision, which  gave states the opportunity to discriminate legally with laws known as Black Codes. These Codes, along with the sharecropping system, andJim Crow segregationist policies revived slavery. With big plantations farming one crop intensively the South was open to an abundance of one pest. Aboll weevil beetle infestation caused massive cotton crop damage and started the Great Migration to northern cities, ending the plantation system.

The number of Black farmers in America peaked in 1920, with close to 1 million.  In 1997, over 400 Black farmers sued the USDA alleging that from 1981 to 1997 USDA officials ignored complaints brought to them by Black farmers and that they were denied loans and other support because of rampant discrimination. In 1999, the government settled the case for $1billion. But the discrimination didn’t end. From the USDA loans allocated in 2015, only about0.2 percent of the roughly $5.7 billion designed for small farmers went to Black farmers.

From 2012 to 2014, white people generated 98 percent of all farm-related income from land ownership, including tenant farms, and 97 percent of the income that comes from operating farms. Farmers of color comprised less than 3 percent of non-farming landowners and less than 4 percent of owner-operators. They were more likely to be tenants than owners, own less land, and generated less income from farming on smaller farms.

U.S. agriculture continues to be overwhelmingly 95 percent white. Of the country’s 3.4 million farmers only 45,508, are Black, according to 2019 USDA figures. They own only 0.52 percent of America’s farmland. Black farmers who have managed to hold on to their farms make less than $40,000 annually, compared with over $190,000 by white farmers.

“These trends are unacceptable. We cannot afford to remain inactive in this fight. It is time these disparities are addressed and the structures that have perpetuated discrimination are knocked down. Black Farmers Matter,” said North Carolina Supervisor Wadsworth. “There’s no doubt we’ve got a lot of work to do to rebuild the trust Black farmers have in USDA. President Biden’s new initiatives should start us down the right path.” 

TheJustice for Black Farmers Act sponsored by US Senator Cory Booker would enact policies to end USDA discrimination, protect Black farmers from losing their land, provide land grants for a new generation of Black farmers, and implement systemic reforms to help family farmers across the United States.

“Sen. Booker’s bold legislation is long overdue. I would like to thank him, and also highlight that women share in this plight. Black women are often subjected to a double dose of discrimination. This intersectionality needs to be addressed — we can and should start in the agricultural sector,” said Danielle Adams, Former Vice Chair of the Durham County, NC Soil & Water Conservation District, and EOPA National Leadership Council member. “I am hopeful Sen. Booker’s bill will pass with the loan forgiveness in the American Rescue Plan. I also look forward to the Biden administration’s incentives for regenerative farming from the USDA being accessible to all farmers.”

During WWI and WWII over 6 million women took over running farms in America. After the wars they were encouraged to return to being homemakers, as the men returned home. Many didn’t want to. For decades USDA has discriminated against people of color and women farmers, yet36 percent of U.S. farmers are women and 56 percent of all farms have at least one female decision maker. Most women run smaller farms, are older, and more likely to be full owners of the land they farm. Only 16 percent of women farmers, compared to 27 percent of men, earned over $50,000 in 2017.

In 2008, the USDA was ordered to pay out $1.33 billion to Latinx and female farmers who were denied loans because of their gender and race. However, the practices didn’t stop and women still face many barriers. 

2019 study of female farmers in Iowa found that discrimination continues. 

“The study found that Farm Service Agency staffers and male tenants pressured women farmers not to make changes to their land that would promote conservation, such as restoring wetlands or planting cover crops. It’s outrageous,” said Alissa Schafer, Broward County Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor, Florida. “Women farmers have been underrated. These proven managers, business leaders have suffered sexism and discrimination for far too long. Caring about the earth, air and water deserves respect. I look forward to the day the USDA treats all famers with equality and equity. The Biden administration says these are its goals. Let’s make them happen.”

Farmers and ranchers manage nearly 60 percent of the land in America’s. However, the nation’s soil has lost more than half of its original organic matter content, resulting in erosion, soil nutrient losses, increased greenhouse gasses, and reduced productivity.  Healthy soils can increase yields, and in the long term are more productive. Women farmers tend towards using environmental farming practices.

“Being stewards of the land, farmers can and should be a part of the climate solution — it’s a natural fit. But they need equity and equality starting with system wide changes at USDA and incentives. Shown a path that yields results, they’ll embrace sustainable practices,” said Natalie Murdock, North Carolina State Senator. “All they’ve ever asked for is a level playing field. It’s about time they were given it.

The US census showed that the smallest farms make up 0.1 percent of all farmland— the largest account for 58 percent. The large corporate agribusiness farms take the bulk of the profits. Just 5 percent of farming operations produced 75 percent of all sales in 2017.

The agriculture community is hurting. Land owners face mounting pressure to sell to developers, oil and gas extraction companies, larger corporate farms, and investment companies in America and abroad. In 2017 seventy percent of farmers made less than a quarter of their income from farming and only 46 percent had a positive net income from their operations. 

In many counties where large-scale Western agricultural systems have been incorporated, the soil has been eroded, crops have failed and migrations have started, exacerbated by climate change. Yet, research suggests removing carbon already in the atmosphere and replenishing soil worldwide could result in a 10 percent carbon drawdown

The United Nations has warned that efforts to curb global emissions will fall short without drastic changes in global land use and agriculture.

In the words of Maya Angelou, “We have lived a painful history, we know the shameful past, but I keep on marching forward, and you keep on coming last. Take the blinders from your vision, take the padding from your ears, and confess you’ve heard me crying, and admit you’ve seen my tears. Equality, and I will be free. Equality, and I will be free.’”

Equality and equity for the farming community would help save the future for all.