Farm Aid News & Views February 1997
FARM AID NEWS & VIEWS
Volume 5, No. 3
- MINORITY FARMERS FACE EXTINCTION
- AFRICAN AMERICAN LAND LOSS
- NATIVE AMERICAN FARMERS HAVE SPECIAL
- HISTORY OF LEGISLATION HELPING MINORITY FARMERS
- FARM GROUPS CALL FOR IMPROVEMENTS IN COUNTY
- GROUPS PRESSURE USDA ON DISCRIMINATION ISSUE
- USDA CIVIL RIGHTS ACTION TEAM RELEASES REPORT
- FARM GROUPS RESPOND TO REPORT
MINORITY FAMILY FARMERS FACE EXTINCTION
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.
AFRICAN AMERICAN LAND LOSS
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
NATIVE AMERICAN FARMERS HAVE SPECIAL OBSTACLES
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.
HISTORY OF LEGISLATION HELPING
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.
FARM GROUPS CALL FOR IMPROVEMENTS IN COUNTY
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.
GROUPS PRESSURE USDA ON
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.
USDA CIVIL RIGHTS ACTION TEAM
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
% Creation of an Assistant Secretary position with authority to
review civil rights records of USDA agency heads.
FARM GROUPS RESPOND TO REPORT
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.