Agriculture Department’s Outreach to Farmers: Response to Agricultural Lawsuits and Campaigns against the 2020 Agriculture Cuts Cuts in Rural America
The department was directed by Congress in the recently passed Democratic reconciliation bill to create a brand new program to give out the money. The program was to be carried out by third parties or nongovernmental organizations instead of the USDA. A staffer for the Democratic party said that the legislation was enacted to address farmers’ concerns of USDA bias.
“For more than 100 years the USDA did little to alleviate the burdens of systemic inequality for Black, Brown and Native farmers and was often the site of injustice,” the then-candidate stated in his plan for rural America. Biden referred to the class action lawsuits brought by farmers as he promised to bring equity to the Agriculture Department’s methods of supporting farmers.
Nearly two decades ago a class action lawsuit led by Black farmers against the USDA was settled. Native Americans, Hispanic farmers, and women farmers took part in the class action. Many small and beginning farmers as well as young and beginning farmers say they’re not included in USDA’s programs or structure even after lawsuits from minority groups.
As a part of the American Rescue Plan, the early 2020 pandemic relief bill, lawmakers approved $5 billion toward debt relief and cancellation for farmers of color. It excluded white women, because the legislation was focused on “socially disadvantaged” African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and Native Americans.
In response to the concerns, USDA said they worked quickly to dole out the funds to farmers most at risk of losing their farms. It said that the department was in a more complicated phase.
The request for information is a chance for farmers, advocates and more to provide advice about the third-party program administrator, as well as the department’s outreach to farmers who borrowed from the USDA.
The USDA began collecting information in October on how to create and implement the program. The comment period closed in November and the department is currently reviewing those submitted.
The USDA wants to know what makes the program work for people with different lived experiences, which is why the request for information has very specific questions. “What we want is a farm-focused program that will work in ways that maybe others have not.”
The Pennsylvania Farm Show: Grown Up for an Other Farmbill Heres Whats-On-The-Menuu 2023
Lawmakers drank thick milkshakes brought to them by the Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association as they listened to farmers, ranchers, and community leaders from around the state talk about their needs and wants for the 2023 farm bill.
The opening ceremony for the Pennsylvania Farm Show was a perfect place to begin discussions about the measure that funds parts of the American food supply chain and rural development.
“We’re getting ready for crunch time here,” Thompson said as he began the listening session. “This is an industry that’s important, not just to those of us who live in rural America. This is probably the most important industry from the standpoint it touches the lives of every American family more than any other industry.
There are many pieces of legislation which have different policies. The bill is made of 12 titles, which are blended together to make it the biggest safety net for American farmers.
Meanwhile, mayors, crop advocacy groups, labor advocates, utility companies, and more are already vying for their piece of the farm bill pie ahead of the September expiration date for the 2018 bill.
The Farm Bill in 2023: A Measure of Investment in SNAP Employment and Training Programs for Training and Learning for Previously Incentivized People
The Center for Employment Opportunities is a group. Based out of Harrisburg, CEO is the largest non-profit organization providing pay for training to formerly incarcerated individuals across 12 states. The organization serves about 600,000 people annually.
Kia Hansard, program director at CEO, came to the listening session hoping lawmakers take the opportunity to see that the bill expands beyond animals and crops.
The biggest portion of the bill is the nutrition title. Approximately 80% of the bill’s spending is used to manage nutrition assistance programs such as food stamps. The farm bill makes the rules for nutrition programs which are funded through regular budget bills.
The farm bill in 2023 should increase investment in what is called “SNAP Employment and Training” according to Hansard. The program allows SNAP recipients to get employment training, provides transportation, childcare and clothing allowances as participants find employment.
Currently, Hansard said, ‘income’ received from the Employment and Training program for learning and training is being counted as income to calculate SNAP eligibility.
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Simmons said that his Grandfather had never seen a program like this before and that it had an impact on farmers. “Now, the programs can be designed in a manner that will cater to those that need it versus those that want it. There’s a big difference.
Crop insurance: Elizabeth Hinkel, president of the Pennsylvania Corn Growers, testified during the farm show listening session about the need to make crop insurance more accessible. About 45% of corn acres in the state are not insured, so farmers are on the hook for costs if their crops fail due to climate or other disasters.
Rural development: The Department of Agriculture is the only federal agency with the explicit mandate of deploying programs to help the development of rural areas. This includes grants to build hospitals, schools, traditional infrastructure and utilities services.
The title of conserve received a boost after recent Congressional efforts to invest in climate- change mitigating efforts. Lawmakers want programs to be voluntary and not mandatory for producers. Many people think the programs are oversubscribed because there’s more demand to be a part of them than they have incentives to give.
David Scott has sent out a list of his priorities in the New Year, which include expanding rural broadband, extra funding for the 1890 Land Grant African American College and Universities Student Scholarship Program and more help for farmers looking to get involved in USDA programs.
Stabenow said that the climate crisis was one of the biggest risks for farmers. It’s the biggest investment in conserve land and water in the country. So it’s very important to our quality of life and hopefully we’ll be able to get the bipartisan support we need to get it done.”
Both Stabenow and ranking member John Boozman want to look at how disaster relief programs are structured for producers hardest hit by natural disasters.
In regards to the disaster relief funding, Congress is able to appropriate it as needed, but the spending is sporadic, and that’s a problem.
Funding the bill is a topic of great interest. Agriculture, climate and development groups are all calling for more money. Thompson said he didn’t know where he was supposed to find the money.
But he credited the American Rescue Plan, the 2020-era pandemic relief bill, and the Democrats’ reconciliation package for providing pots of money that past farm bills didn’t have as a resource.
The reconciliation package contained a historic 20 billion dollars to voluntary programs, and Stabenow agreed with the idea that this improves the baseline of money.
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The Republican conference voted against Kevin McCarthy’s election as Speaker. Mary Miller was also with her at the Pennsylvania event.
Thompson, however, is not worried. He argues that the political differences in farm bill talks are less about party lines and more about geographic and industry splits.
There are signs of opposition. Thompson and other Republicans have said that the proposal to remove the nutrition title from the farm bill is a lie. But the group has other suggestions too including phasing out the sugar program and federal dairy subsidy programs.
The latest federal dataset on American farmland says that there are about 3.4 million producers but only 48,697 who identify themselves as Black. A majority live in the southeastern and mid-Atlantic states.
“There are people who are still living from the first round of Pigford and they’ve never been made whole,” Davy said. People think Pigford addressed the racial discrimination that Black farmers faced, but in reality it was only for a few years.
The Farm Service Agency helped the farmers who couldn’t get a traditional loan at a bank. “They are the next option or the last option,” Jeffers said. “They actually have leeway built into the rules to work with these farmers and, we’re hearing, those rules are only being applied to more white farmers.”
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They say barriers to access to programs include incorrect denials, cumbersome paperwork and a lack of clear communication about what applicants could qualify for to begin with.
The program was halted by about 12 lawsuits, one of which was led by Stephen Miller, who was an adviser to Donald Trump. The program was discriminating against them because they were white.
The deadline to appeal injunctions that froze the slide was let by the justice department, and they decided to keep the fight going at the local level.
“The government vigorously defended this program in the courts but because of these injunctions, the $5 billion provided in ARPA remained frozen,” said Marissa Perry, press secretary at USDA. It’s likely that this litigation wouldn’t have ended for a long time.
For some farmers, that means complete cancellation. For others, it means partial assistance, even after they were promised full cancellation one year ago.
Lucious Abrams is the third generation to take over the family Georgia farm, an operation that has long grown cotton, corn, and soybeans. When he did not receive a loan in time to buy the seeds and supplies he needed, he joined the Pigford v. Glickman class action lawsuit against the USDA.
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The second round of payouts was approved by Congress in 2010. But still, many did not receive them due to more denials of claims and deadline and processing issues.
The way people are farming is also changing. Urban farms, farms with multiple crops, and others challenge the loan system which was originally designed for larger farms.
Data shows that African American and Asian farmers were the least successful in getting a direct loan during the first two years of the Biden administration.
Hmong farmers in Minnesota, for example, may often lease land but they are not given a written contract that they need to qualify for loans, said Janssen Hang, executive director and co-founder of the Hmong American Farmers Association.
Farmers keep records and file taxes, but not in a way suitable for the Farm Service Agency, USDA’s lending branch. It is complicated by the lack of bilingual federal employees, documents and training materials.
“They can enroll in a farm business management course, but it’s all conducted in English. And this particular constituency here does not read, read or write English fluently or understand, so they can sign up for the farm business course, pay $2,000 a year just for this course here and what did they walk out with? Stress,” Janssen said. They leave without any useful information because they don’t know how to do it in a language they are not familiar with.
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I have been trying to get them in the door for a while now, and I’m very angry about it, because I think there should be some access to that department for everyone. “My personal goal is to get all of these to as close to 100% as we can.”
He credits lessons learned in Indian Country for some of the department’s solutions including working closer with cooperative groups. The USDA is trying to reach out to farmers through agreements with organizations that represent different producers.
We think this can be a way to leverage the trust we don’t have in these communities. Ducheneaux said in many cases, it was rightfully so. Agreements are spread across veteran and young farmer groups.
The agreements have allowed these organizations to increase staff, expand their outreach, and give feedback to the USDA.
It’s one of the first steps to rebuild trust that we have treated people badly in the past and discriminated in the past. “There is that inherent, intrinsic trust in that NGO or that nonprofit that probably in our lifetime, we’re never going to rebuild it at the agency or department level. We have to start someplace, that is a great place to begin.
USDA Equity Commission Report on Farm Loans, Conservation Laws, and Inflation Reduction Act Payments for Agricultural Landowners in Kansas
The department wants to reduce the amount of paperwork by cutting the applications in half to 13 pages.
The USDA Equity Commission was born out of a Biden executive order calling for federal departments to address racial equity and underserved communities. It is headed by outgoing Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh and a United Farm Workers president.
The group met earlier this month to vote on recommendations ranging from making it easier for farmers to qualify for conservation programs to making the language in Farm Service Agency loans more accessible – actions they believe the USDA can get a head start on. The final report is due by the end of the year
Rod Bradshaw, a farmer in Kansas, said that his margins are thin because of rising costs of fuel and production and that they have not gotten any relief as a result.
They were promised something by the government, but they were put on hold for a year and a half. “They were told money was allocated to them during the pandemic. They were not able to use those funds. Now the Inflation Reduction Act was passed, they added more money to that pool but they aren’t doing debt forgiveness. They just had a couple of payments.
As of Jan. 30, the USDA paid out more than $823 million for the Inflation Reduction Act program to farmers who were either delinquent on payments or on the verge of foreclosure.
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“We have to be open-minded to see if there are some solutions that can be brought to the table that help address some of those cumulative impacts of previous discrimination,” said Dewayne Goldmon, the first senior advisor for racial equity at the USDA. That is an important part of the process.
“I would consider [the efforts] successful when my position is no longer needed. When you don’t need an adviser. I have to keep it in mind, but I am not being naive.
However, other farmers argue that the new, race-neutral program may be better at providing aid to those immediately struggling without triggering lawsuits. Some of them are farmers of color.
Brandon Smith is a cattle rancher in Texas who received a payment from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund and said that he lost a lot of trust when there was very little trust in the beginning. It’s just the trust that was promised to them, that’s what makes people try to be grateful.
“The steps we’ve taken so far are really for lack of a better analogy, to stop the bleeding,” said Zach Ducheneaux, administrator of the Farm Service Agency, the lending arm of the department.
Since we started providing this assistance, we have not had a single foreclosures in our guaranteed loans. That’s an ongoing process to clean up those complex cases,” Ducheneaux said. “And, of course, having a bankruptcy judge and other creditors make those even more complex.”
Identifying Social Disdisadvantaged Farmers with the Inflation Reduction Act: California, Arkansas, Texas and Puerto Rico as Case-by-Case
NPR obtained data that shows Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and Puerto Rico are receiving the most money from the Inflation Reduction Act.
Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas also happen to be the largest states for FSA lending for what USDA labels “socially disadvantaged” producers – which are people of color and white women. Oklahoma leads the way in lending to those types of borrowers.
Almost any way you slice the numbers: looking at raw totals of borrowers and dollars, or average payments per borrower or loan, Puerto Rico – which is not among the nation’s top agriculture producers – consistently lands among the top recipients. The island of Puerto Rico has the fourth highest borrowers and IRA payments in the nation, with more than 760 direct loan borrowers receiving a combined $72.3 million.
They are disadvantaged in other ways. That’s not surprising to me,” said Iris Jannett Rodriguez, president of the coffee sector of the Puerto Rican Farm Bureau. Many farms have a lot of land, but the land used to produce crops is very small.
USDA officials say race did not factor into payments, so it doesn’t track that data. Some states that have the highest proportion of USDA loan borrowers that are socially disadvantaged are also getting the most of the IRA payments.
“The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act was absolutely a tough pill to swallow with regard to the overturning of American Rescue Plan [program],” said Dãnia Davy, director of Land Retention and Advocacy at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, however adding that some results have benefited her membership. I have to say that a lot of our farmers were very positive as they received benefits that they didn’t anticipate, thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act. It’s been a positive response.
Farmers who received notice in 2021 that their debt would be forgiven sat in limbo for a year, and many of them felt like the department slow-walked the program, giving time for lawsuits to stall it.
Eddie Lewis is a farmer in Louisiana and he said that he is $600,000 delinquent. He said the delay in getting any payment under the new program is affecting his ability to get the capital he needs.
“I would be the perfect candidate for a case-by-case basis. I am a good farmer. I got good yields and good character. I got good credit,” he said. Lewis is in limbo, unable to secure other loans he needs because of the outstanding delinquency.
The cost of debt to Black farmers was one of the objectives of the letter sent to USDA by Mrs. Adams in June 2022.
There’s still probably a significant amount of white farmers who have benefited from the subsidies and COVID benefits, but they have been so shortchanged that it is hard to tell,” he said. “I think that program can’t truly be called a success for civil rights because you have to really intentionally address racial discrimination if you want to call it a success for civil rights.”
In defense of the original race-targeted program, the government argued in court that white farmers were far less likely to be delinquent on their loans. The ratio of white borrowers who are delinquent on FSA loans in 2021 was 11%, compared to 38% of Black borrowers, 15% of Asian borrowers, 17% of American Indian and Alaskan Natives, and 68% of Hispanic borrowers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (Denver) acknowledges the urgency of working together to promote equity and opportunity for racial equity
Simmons, a farmer in North Carolina, had a hard time with the department. He cited familiar problems, like a confusing application process and deadlines, as barriers he faced getting involved with the department’s programs.
When the pandemic hit, he lost 22% of his inventory. The Inflation Reduction Act loan payment came through when he was near liquidating his assets, it amounted to two years worth of money he owed.
The Equity Commission at the U.S. Department of Agriculture has released its first report detailing over 30 recommendations to bring equity to farming.
The interim recommendations were not meant to look like things that have been seen in previous reports. We wanted to do systemic change.
“We understand that for far too long there have been underserved and unserved populations that desperately need what USDA can provide,” Vilsack said on Tuesday. “As long as I am the secretary, I am deeply committed to making that happen.”
USDA works with farmers daily, as well as changes to the structure of the department and changes to nutrition assistance, are some of the main areas of the recommendations. The report recommends that the department:
There are dozens of recommendations and they range from supporting congressional legislation to researching how programs are distributed.
“You’ll find that in fact steps have already been taken in many of the areas that you can apply to be serious about this,” Vilsack said. “I suspect that every federal agency has had some history in terms of discrimination, but this is a department that has been willing to begin the process of opening itself up to review — to having folks take a critical look not just at individual circumstances, but systemic issues.”
USDA thanks the Equity commission for their contribution to the mission, and looks forward to engaging them to find opportunities to advance equity for all.
Helping Black farmers is among the accomplishments to advance racial equity and opportunities the Biden administration highlighted ahead of a visit to Selma, Ala., to mark the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.