Farm Aid News & Views February 1997

February 1997
Volume 5, No. 3



In 1982, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, in a report entitled 
"The Decline of Black Farming in America," said that "unless 
government policies of neglect and discrimination are changed, 
there may be no black farmers by the year 2000."   Fifteen years 
later, that prediction still threatens to come true unless action is 
taken to reverse the trend.

In 1920, over a million black people farmed, primarily in the 
rural South.  Many were tenants and sharecroppers, but black 
farm owners and operators owned 15 million acres of land.  The 
1992 census of agriculture reported that the number of black 
farmers had decreased to only 18,000, owning less than 2.3 
million acres of land.
Minority farmers face the same challenges as white farmers, 
including low prices at the farm gate, natural disasters and 
government policies that favor corporate farms over family 
farms.  Minority farmers face the additional problem of 
discrimination in private and public lending.  This factor 
contributes to the fact that the minority farmer's average 
household income is one-third lower than for white farmers 
and poverty rates are about 20 percent higher for minority 

For decades, black and other minority farmers have alleged that 
they have been given smaller loans than their white 
counterparts, making it harder to keep financially afloat.  Other 
allegations say loans are granted late in the crop season, 
aggravating debt problems.  Minority farmers are denied equal 
help with loan applications, and in some cases the applications 
are shelved by county officials or false numbers are entered.  As a 
result of allegations by farm organizations that the United States 
Department of Agriculture has been discriminating against 
minority and socially disadvantaged farmers, USDA Secretary 
Dan Glickman appointed a Civil Rights Action Team to examine 
the issue in depth.  This issue of Farm Aid News & Views will 
examine the history of discrimination by the USDA, look at 
recent developments in issues affecting minority farmers and 
report on the findings of the Civil Rights Action Team.


Government statistics indicate that black farmers have been 
going out of business at three times the rate of white farmers. 
Currently, African-American farmers lose one thousand acres of 
land each day.  In the last agriculture census, the average age of 
minority farmers was nearly 60 years, and there were only 175 
black farmers under the age of 25 in the entire nation.  

It is sometimes mistakenly assumed that because many black 
farmers own relatively small acreages, they can't compete in the 
marketplace.  The fact is that the net return on investment by 
black farmers is equal to or exceeds that for all farmers.  Jerry 
Pennick of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land 
Assistance Fund (FSC) states, "Blacks are good farmers but 
continue to lose land due to a lack of technical and management 
assistance, as well as reliable and fair markets. Other contributing 
factors include legal, financial and discrimination problems 
involving public and private lending institutions." 

In fact, an Associated Press analysis of lending records from 1980 
to 1992 found that black farmers received about 51 cents for every 
dollar lent to whites.  While the number of loans to white 
farmers dropped by 66 percent over that period, the number of 
loans to black farm borrowers tumbled by 82 percent.  Many farm 
advocates allege that these statistics are a direct result of 
discrimination by lending institutions and the U.S. Department 
of Agriculture.


According to Gregory Smitman of the Intertribal Agriculture 
Council, Indian land trusts have never been under either state 
or county jurisdiction, and by law these lands are not taxable by 
the state or county.  State and county governments, therefore, 
consider themselves justified in excluding Native American 
lands and people from services provided at that level.  Even 
though USDA services are provided by federal dollars (Indian 
landowners do pay federal taxes) the local delivery mechanisms, 
which consider themselves aligned with the state or county, 
exclude Indian lands and people from service, even though 
reservation acreages are included for budgeting purposes.  

A contributing problem results from the constitutional 
prohibition from state regulation of Indians.  When territories 
achieved statehood and mapped out their counties there was a 
conscious effort to not "burden" any one county with Indians.  
Consequently, says Smitman, almost all Indian reservations are 
gerrymandered into several counties, thereby splitting the 
Indian vote in all elections including USDA committee 
elections, and splitting USDA service areas so that no one office 
is responsible for the Indian lands.  This also ensures that 
Indians remain a minority force in the county, rather than the 
majority which they are in all reservation areas.


The 1987 Agricultural Credit Act helped thousands of farmers 
stay on the land.  The Act was particularly beneficial to minority 
farmers because it made additional FmHA (now FSA) loan 
funds available to minority farmers.  This gave farmers  the 
opportunity to develop a plan to save their farms and operate 
profitably.  Many black farmers took advantage of the 
opportunity and were able to continue in farming.

Organizations such as the Rural Coalition, the Federation of 
Southern Cooperatives, the Land Loss Prevention Project, the 
National Family Farm Coalition and the Farmers' Legal Action 
Group played pivotal roles in the passage of this legislation.  
Three years later, these same groups helped pass the Outreach 
and Assistance Program for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and 
Ranchers, authorized in Section 2501 (a) of the 1990 Farm Bill.  
This program provides grants for outreach to socially 
disadvantaged farmers and supports outreach and assistance to 
low income minority farmers and cooperatives to diversify 
operations and build markets.  Over 30 educational institutions 
and community-based organizations have assisted thousands of 
farmers under this program.  

However, this program has been underfunded from the 
beginning.  Funding for this key program has never come close 
to the $10 million authorized level.  Ralph Paige, director of the 
Federation of Southern Cooperatives, has stated that "more 
money is spent to preserve the spotted owl than to protect 
minority farmers."  With additional funds, cooperating 
institutions could do much more to provide additional services 
and reach large numbers of underserved producers in similar 
areas where resources have not yet been allocated.

Unfortunately, the 1995-96 Farm Bill radically altered 
opportunities for farmers.  In this Farm Bill, any farmer who 
had either a debt write-off or filed bankruptcy to save their farm 
can no longer receive loans from the Farm Service Agency, 
known as the "lender of last resort" and particularly crucial to 
minority farmers who have traditionally had less access to credit 
than their white counterparts.  

Another mandate of the Farm Bill that will adversely affect 
family farmers, particularly minority farmers, is the seven year 
transitional payments provision.  The government will provide 
subsidies for the next seven years, and after that, farmers are on 
their own.  Any farmers growing crops will have to sell their 
products on the world market.  Without the subsidies, they will 
be at the mercy of a market controlled by large corporate farms.  


The Farm Service Agency (FSA) of the U.S. Department of 
Agriculture is responsible for, among other activities, issuing 
loans to farmers who have nowhere else to turn.  FSA county 
committees, made up of three to five farmer-elected 
representatives, are the cornerstone of administration of farm 
programs in each county.  They have the responsibility of 
carrying out FSA programs fairly and equitably in accordance 
with federal regulations and act as the liaison between the local 
farming community and state and national policymakers.  

Allegations of unequal distribution of FSA funds and unfair 
treatment of minority farmers by county committee members 
has lead to the examination of county committee membership.  
Full participation of minority and socially disadvantaged 
farmers on FSA county committees has not been realized Q 
according to 1996 government statistics, of the 8,378 county 
committee members in all 50 states, only 153 (1.8%) are 

This picture of under-representation of minorities on FSA 
county committees has proved to be a point of contention.  
Critics of the current system are calling for expanded outreach 
efforts to ensure the full participation of minorities on county 
committees, while others suggest that at least some county 
committee members should be appointed to ensure a racially 
representative balance of members.    

Lack of information about farm policy, farm programs, and 
program administration contribute to the financial problems of 
family farmers.  Many farmers are concerned about their lack of 
input in the decision-making process affecting their farming 
operations.  Groups such as the North Carolina-based Land Loss 
Prevention Project, the Rural Coalition and the Federation of 
Southern Cooperatives are taking action by publicizing the 
importance and impact of FSA committees and urging eligible 
farmers to run for county committee positions and actively vote 
for members who will represent their interests.


For years, family farm organizations have been pressuring the 
USDA to address the issue of discrimination against minority 
farmers. In 1992, for example, the Federation of Southern 
Cooperatives, the Rural Coalition, the National Family Farm 
Coalition and others organized a Caravan for Justice to 
Washington, DC to highlight discrimination in USDA 
programs.  In addition, Farmers' Legal Action Group and the 
Land Loss Prevention Project have pursued numerous 
discrimination complaints against USDA on behalf of minority 
farmers.  In December 1996, a group of black farmers went to 
Washington, DC to protest USDA's continued discriminatory 
practices in employment and service delivery.  The publicity 
surrounding this protest, along with years of organizing by 
family farm groups, caused the USDA to take action.

USDA Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman appointed a Civil 
Rights Action Team of USDA officials to hold Listening Forums 
throughout the country to get input from the public, especially 
socially disadvantaged and minority farmers and USDA 
employees, concerning civil rights issues facing the USDA in 
both program delivery and employment.  In addition, Glickman 
ordered a suspension of government farm foreclosures across 
the country pending the outcome of an investigation into racial 
discrimination in the USDA's loan programs.  


On Friday, February 28, the Civil Rights Task Force appointed by 
USDA Secretary Dan Glickman released their report examining 
minority discrimination within the Department.  

The summary of the report, entitled "Civil Rights at the U.S. 
Department of Agriculture," states, "To recognize the goal that 
every USDA customer and employee be treated fairly and to 
finally solve the persistent problems discussed in this report, 
USDA must make decisive breaks with the past.  Among other 
things, failure to change will mean that minority farmers 
continue towards extinction."

During the release of the report, Secretary Glickman stated, "Our 
actions today are meant to address both the problems and the 
perceptions that are out there.  And that starts by admitting that 
for far too long USDA has turned a blind eye to serious, 
pervasive problems with our civil rights systems."  Glickman set 
a deadline of six months for implementation of 
recommendations contained in the report.

Among the 92 recommendations of the report, the Civil Rights 
Action Team suggested:
% An elimination of the backlog of discrimination complaints 
within 120 days;
% A permanent policy suspending foreclosures in cases of alleged 
% Creation of a civil rights arm of the Office of General Counsel;
% Changes in county committee structure to include a voice for 
under-represented groups;
% Creation of an Assistant Secretary position with authority to 
review civil rights records of USDA agency heads.

Farm organizations that have been working to assist minority 
farmers for many years were cautiously optimistic about the 
report issued by the Civil Rights Action Team.  According to 
Ralph Paige of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, "This is 
the first report documenting discrimination against black 
farmers since the 1982 Civil Rights Commission report.  USDA 
needs to make sure that farm and rural groups are included in 
this process to ensure that changes really happen."  David Harris 
of the Land Loss Prevention Project says, "Implementation of 
the recommendations will be difficult.  We need to pay attention 
to the process to make sure it happens."  Lorette Picciano, 
executive director of the Rural Coalition, agrees, adding, 
"Within six months, we'll know whether the USDA has done 
anything to really address these problems." 
The USDA does not have a good track record of getting to the 
heart of the discrimination issue and making lasting changes, 
says Stephen Carpenter, staff attorney for the Minnesota-based 
Farmers' Legal Action Group (FLAG) "Discrimination has been a 
consistent feature of the USDA farm credit programs since their 
inception over six decades ago. When discrimination has been 
raised as a problem within the Department, USDA has made a 
habit of promising immediate changes and then failing to follow 
through on those promises," Carpenter says.

Family farm organizations plan to keep the pressure on USDA 
to ensure that the recommendations to end discrimination 
become realities.  With only a handful of minority farmers 
remaining in this country, further delays in action will only 
hasten their demise.


The USDA Civil Rights Action Team report is available on the 
World Wide Web at <http://www.usda.gov>.

USDA Civil Rights Hotline: 1-800-358-4309

For more information about issues affecting minority farmers, 

Land Loss Prevention Project  919-682-5969

Farmers' Legal Action Group  612-223-5400

Rural Coalition  202-544-9611

Federation of Southern Cooperatives  404-765-0991

The National Family Farm Coalition  202-543-5675

Intertribal Agriculture Council  406-259-3525

Farm Aid News is produced by the Institute for 
Agriculture and Trade Policy for Farm Aid.  Editors 
Harry Smith and Kate Hoff.  We encourage the 
reproduction of Farm Aid News & Views.  Comments and 
suggestions welcome. Farm Aid (617) 354-2922.  Fax: 
(617) 354-6992. Email: Farmaid1@aol.com.  For more 
information on agricultural publications contact IATP, 
(612) 870-0453. Fax: (612) 870-4846.