By ROXANA HEGEMAN, Associated Press
Minority farmers who for decades have faced systemic discrimination will begin to receive debt relief beginning in this month under what Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called one of the most significant pieces of civil rights legislation in decades.
In an op-ed piece published in USA Today, Vilsack also called the debt relief a “major civil rights victory,” saying it responds to systemic discrimination perpetrated against farmers and ranchers of color by the Agriculture Department.
“It is a historic move that will symbolize that USDA actually cares and that the Biden administration is doing whatever they can to mend fences and show the minority farmers that they do care about them during his administration,” said Abraham Carpenter, a 59-year-old Black farmer whose family grows fruits and vegetables on about 1,500 acres near Grady, Arkansas.
Carpenter expects the debt relief will pay off about $200,000 in farm loans, freeing up money that can now be put toward farm operations like buying seed and equipment instead of making loan payments.
“I know they have said it about a thousand times that they wanted to bring everybody together to make sure everybody was treated fairly. You can say it a million times., but until you show it nobody really believes it,” he said. “But this action of paying off debts for the minority farmers shows they actually do care about treating everybody fairly.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency has published the first notice of funding availability under the American Rescue Plan Act for borrowers with qualifying direct farm loans. A subsequent notice for farmers with government-guaranteed agricultural loans held by private lenders will be published within 120 days.
A provision in the pandemic relief law directs USDA to pay off the farm loans of nearly 16,000 minority farmers and begin to address racial equity challenges. It authorizes the Agriculture Department to pay up to 120% of direct and guaranteed loan outstanding balances for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
“I’m feeling really good,” said Rod Bradshaw, a 68-year-old Black farmer who raises wheat, cattle and milo on 2,000 acres near Jetmore, Kansas. “We knew it was coming, we didn’t know when.”
Bradshaw, who has been farming since buying his first ground in 1976, has made several discrimination complaints with Agriculture Department over the years. He said he has four direct loans totaling more than $300,000 with USDA that he anticipates will be paid off under the debt relief plan.
“It’s going to free us up and let us halfway conduct business as usual,” Bradshaw said upon learning of Friday’s announcement. “This has been going on for so long, this is the first step of getting Black farmers and farmers of color back to where they need to be.”
The Agriculture Department said in its news release that for much of its history, socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers have faced discrimination, sometimes overt and sometimes through deeply embedded rules and policies.
“USDA is recommitting itself to gaining the trust and confidence of America’s farmers and ranchers using a new set of tools provided in the American Rescue Plan to increase opportunity, advance equity and address systemic discrimination in USDA programs,” Vilsack said.