For more than five years, Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar has exposed viewers to the realities of Black farmers. The ups and downs, trials and tribulations have been highlighted in a way this nation has never seen before. But as the Bordelons enter their final chapter, the fate of Black farmers hangs in the balance.
Last month as the country celebrated the signing of the Inflation Reduction Act, Black purveyors of the soil questioned their future. The Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act passed last year in tandem with the American Rescue Plan. In it, $5 billion was earmarked for loan forgiveness. But the IRA changed things. Due to legal challenges with the Relief Act, Black farmers did not see the financial aid they had anticipated. So the IRA set aside $3.1 billion, but for any and all “distressed” farmers, regardless of race.
“There was a big effort to boost Black farmers, to help them because they were in financial distress going back years due to a legacy of discrimination,” explains Cecilia Rouse, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers at the White House. “That bill identified Black farmers, but it was challenged in court by white farmers who allege that that was discriminatory because many of them believe that they have suffered from financial reasons as well.”
Congress’ inability to extend any relief to Black farmers was disappointing for the administration and Democrats in Congress who pushed for even more relief. But it was even more distressing for Black farmers, some who took out loans, anticipating they would be paid back. The Administration’s compromise was to offer some money in the interim. “There is no question that this is not what the initial rescue plan had envisioned,” Rouse tells EBONY. “But it is an important step.”
The White House now looks to the Department of Agriculture to implement the law that would further support farmers who have been victims of discrimination. The intent is to be able to redress and to compensate farmers that have financially suffered from prejudices. “In my mind that was many Black farmers, but it doesn't have to be exclusively Black farmers,” Rouse contends.
The hope is that the new allocation helps Black farmers make some headway and progress. Rouse reiterates, “It's not all that we had wanted in the American Rescue Plan, but it is significant progress and some dollars are better than none.”
Beyond the financial struggles impeding on the farming industry, a new new national survey report, Building a Future with Farmers 2022, suggests that young farmers are looking for more support from Congress to help lead climate change initiatives—a cause many young farmers are passionate about.
In the National Young Farmer Survey, 83 percent of young farmers, 87 percent of BIPOC young farmers and 88 percent of Black farmers say that one of their farm’s primary purposes is to engage in conservation or regeneration. But what is stifling these farmers, particularly Black farmers, is access to land, access to capital, health care costs, cost of production, housing and student loan debt. As noted in the study, student loan debt can prevent farmers from qualifying for additional financing needed to launch their businesses.
“The next generation of producers are innovative and open to trying alternative methods for growing food and marketing it to their communities,” the study notes. “USDA must ensure that its officers are empowered and expected to work with and understand these new growers, and to make every local, county, or state office a one-stop shop for programs specifically designed to benefit young and BIPOC farmers.”