By Mackenzie Jeter, NFU Intern

A hundred years ago, agriculture was a relatively diverse profession in the United States: a million Black farmers operated about 14 percent of the country’s farms.

The makeup of the modern agricultural workforce could not look more different. Today, there are just 48,000 Black farmers – a 95 percent decline since 1920. There are a number of reasons for this, but the combination of discrimination in federal farm assistance and lending programs as well as loopholes in property laws are largely to blame for Black farmers’ loss of land and livelihood.

The forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of Black farmers from the agricultural industry has not only deprived individual families of generational wealth, but it has also inflicted irreversible social and economic damage on Black rural communities. Even so, until recently, there had only been modest attempts to rectify the long legacy of racism in American agricultural institutions.

A new bill could change that. On November 30th, Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the “Justice for Black Farmers Act” in order to “reform the U.S. Department of Agriculture and create a land grant program to encourage a new generation of Black farmers.” The end goal of this bill is to eradicate the systemic racism that is embedded within the agriculture industry so that current and aspiring Black farmers have the opportunity to flourish. To accomplish this giant feat, the bill outlines how it will end discrimination within USDA, protect remaining Black-owned land, restore the land base lost by Black farmers, empower historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and advocates for Black farmers, assist socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers with resources to succeed, and enact system reforms that will help all farmers and ranchers. A short summary of the bill follows:

Land Grants

This bill aims to restore and protect Black farmers’ land. One of the most important steps in accomplishing that goal would be the establishment of the Equitable Land Access Service (ELAS) within USDA. ELAS would acquire farmland from willing sellers to provide land grants of up to 160 acres to eligible Black individuals. The new agency would also provide grants to HBCUs and nonprofits to help find appropriate land for USDA to purchase, support Black individuals in acquiring that land, and provide farming training to both experienced and new farmers. HBCUs would also be eligible to expand their agricultural research and education efforts. In addition to its land grant program, the bill would establish the Farm Conservation Corps, which would provide young adults from socially disadvantaged groups with the necessary skills for a productive career in farming and ranching. Farmers who participate in the program would have priority for land grants through ELAS.

Competition

The Justice for Black Farmers Act helps all farmers and ranchers by cracking down on anti-competitive practices within the agriculture industry and return competition to agricultural markets. More specifically, it would make multiple amendments to the Packers and Stockyards Act that would provide more protections and freedoms for farmers and strip away the existing protections for large corporations that have long impacted farmers’ ability to compete. For far too long regulation and policy has benefitted multinational corporations. The bill enacts strong reforms aimed to fix this broken system.

Local Food

The bill would scale up funding for the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP) ­– which supports the development of local and regional food systems – by a factor of ten. Small and mid-size farmers are often left out of our national supply chain and instead depend on local outlets to sell their products in order to survive. According to the bill’s summary, increasing LAMP funding would allow these farmers to “provide fresh nutritious food to more Americans, through farmers markets, local and regional food enterprises, value chain coordination, and regional food-shed planning.”

Conservation

The agriculture industry has made great strides in conservation practices over the years, but more could certainly be done. Rather than including conservation as an afterthought, the Justice for Black Farmers Act would make conservation and renewable energy programs a priority. It would not only increase funding for the Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) program and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), but it would also expand CSP by making new stewardship practices eligible for supplemental funding. Furthermore, the bill would assist socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers by giving them priority for these programs and Rural Energy for America Program (REAP).

At National Farmers Union, we support “efforts to remedy historical inequities in access to farm programs and other systemic barriers;” because the Justice for Black Farmers Act does just that, we are pleased to put our weight behind it, and we urge Congress to do the same. After years of inaction and the continuation of systemic racism in the agriculture industry, we welcome the sensible and easily applicable solutions put forth by Senators Booker, Warren, and Gillibrand. This bill is a step in the right direction for racial equity, not just for the agriculture industry, but the country as a whole.


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