U.S. farmers of color are battling in the courts to save a $4 billion debt relief program approved by Congress
There was a time when Black farms prospered.
Just two generations out of slavery, by 1910 Black farmers had amassed more than 16 million acres of land and made up about 14 percent of farmers. The fruit of their labors fed much of America.
Now, they have fewer than 4.7 million acres. Black farms in the U.S. plummeted from 925,000 to fewer than 36,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest farm census. And only about one in 100 farmers is Black.
They were able to overcome the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule” to the newly freed slaves — a military order, later rescinded. But over the last century, they faced one obstacle after another because of their race.
Farmers needed loans to expand, to buy seed, to bridge the time between harvests. But lenders — chief among them, the USDA — often refused to give them money, and often rushed to foreclose. Suppliers and customers undercut them. Laws of inheritance led to the breakup of homesteads.
Now the government wants to make amends by providing billions of dollars in debt forgiveness for farmers of color as part of the pandemic relief package. But a judge has put the money on hold in the face of lawsuits filed by white farmers claiming that the program is unfair — reverse discrimination.
Today’s Black farmers and the descendants of Black farmers who struggled and lost their stakes argue that they are the ones who have been the victims of injustice:
The Virginia farmer who barely was able to keep part of his farm when the USDA threatened to sell it at auction. The Kansas man who lost the land his grandparents once homesteaded. The Arkansas farmer who is holding on by a thread, praying the federal aid will come through in time.
It was racism, says farmer John Wesley Boyd Jr. And it still is.
“I think discrimination is still pervasive. I think that it’s done in a much subtler way,” Boyd says. “I don’t think you’re going to see many USDA officials spitting on people now or maybe calling them colored, but they aren’t lending them any money — the way they lend white farmers.”
Steering his John Deere tractor with his left hand, the 55-year-old Boyd clutches a rusty, mud-encrusted horseshoe in his right. Discovered in a field by one of his workers, it’s become something of a talisman.
“This horseshoe here probably came off one of the mules,” he says as the squeaky-creaky planter carves rows into the rocky soil. “Because that’s what Blacks were using. They weren’t using no tractors like this, man.”
On this blistering summer day, Boyd is sowing his cash crop, soybeans, making passes up and down a rolling 1,000-acre tract along the broad Roanoke River in Virginia. It’s one of several parcels he owns, totaling 1,500 acres — some of it land that his ancestors once tilled as slaves.
And now, it’s his. Some days, it’s hard to believe.
“I’m owning land that many of my forefathers worked when it was scotch free. You know — slave labor, man,” says Boyd, his black cowboy hat casting a shadow over his face. “I’m just trying to make them proud.”
Like the other Black farmers, Boyd has encountered prejudice in many ways. An example: Boyd’s wife, Kara, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, recalls the time her husband took a load of soybeans to the grain elevator and got a low price for it. Too much trash or moisture in it, he was told.
When Kara Boyd brought in another load from the same field, she got a better price. But when her stepfather, who is white, took a load out of the same field, she recalled that he was told: “Man, these are the best beans they’d seen and how many more could he bring them?”
But Boyd’s battle with the USDA was epic. It almost wiped him out.
Boyd was just 18 years old when he assumed an existing USDA loan when he bought his first farm in the early 1980s. He says walking into his local USDA office was like a return to the Jim Crow era. Black farmers had supervised accounts and could only get appointments with the local lending officer on a single day of the week, a practice that came to be known as Black Wednesday.
Boyd endured racial slurs. A loan officer once spat tobacco juice on him — he accidentally missed the spit can, the official would claim. Another time, Boyd saw an official tear up his application and throw it in the trash.
In 1996, USDA took just 30 days to foreclose on some of his farmland. Then the department moved to auction off the remaining 110 acres.
Boyd joined other Black farmers at a protest in Washington, tying a mule named 40 Acres to the White House gate. Their demonstration was successful; less than a week later, then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman soon declared a farm foreclosure moratorium. Boyd had just enough time to save his farm.
Documents from a USDA internal review that Boyd provided to The Associated Press show investigators found his operating loan requests were not processed for years, despite explicit instructions from the agency’s state director. It also found that his account was improperly referred to a credit bureau as delinquent when it should have been restructured, deepening his financial difficulties.
Boyd recounts how, unlike their white counterparts, Black farmers who fell behind on a payment would see their loans immediately accelerated, no negotiations. They would be given just 30 days to pay the full amount or they were pressured to sign their deed over to USDA under a program which purportedly allowed them to lease and later buy back their land when their financial situation improved.
But that typically didn’t happen because USDA’s local county committees — comprised mostly of white local farmers — would be given first option on such leases. That’s how Boyd says he lost his 46-acre tobacco farm in 1996. It ended up in the hands of a white farmer who was a member of the committee.
These kinds of practices prompted U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman to approve the landmark settlement of the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit filed by Black farmers in 1999.
The settlement provided about $1 billion to 15,000 farmers who said USDA unfairly turned them down for loans because of their race between 1981 and 1996. A second round of $1.25 billion stemming from that lawsuit was approved by the court in 2011 for people who were denied earlier payments because they missed filing deadlines.
“It is up to the Secretary of Agriculture and other responsible officials at the USDA to fulfill its promises, to ensure that this shameful period is never repeated and to bring the USDA into the twenty-first century,” the judge wrote.
Though USDA paid more than $2.4 billion under the Pigford settlements, state taxes eroded recoveries, debt relief was incomplete and reports before Congress show the settlements did not cure the problems faced by minority farmers.
Government lawyers noted in a court filing that between 2006 and 2016, Black farmers were subject to 13% of USDA foreclosures — despite receiving fewer than 3% of direct loans.
Tucked amid the vast plains of Kansas are the remnants of what was once the bustling Black settlement of Nicodemus. It is the most famous of the Midwestern settlements where former slaves known as “exodusters” migrated more than a century ago, hopeful that farming their own land here would help them escape the racism and poverty of the South.
Little remains today of that farming heritage as even the few Black families who were able to hold on to their land now mostly lease their ground out to white farmers. Nicodemus farmers who once tilled hundreds of acres of farmland no longer actively farm, and much of their ground has been lost over the generations.
Just a couple of miles outside the town sit the 200 acres that the grandparents of Theodore Bernard Bates once homesteaded. The Black farmer and his father bought the family homestead in 1970, taking a loan from what was then the Production Credit Association of Stockton, Kansas.
USDA’s farm loan lending agency refused to even give them an application to fill out, said Bates, one of the original named plaintiffs in the Pigford lawsuit. He received, as he puts it, “not a penny” from that settlement.
“I learned later the reason (USDA) didn’t want to give me an application was because they didn’t want it hanging in their office that they discriminated against a Black person,” Bates says. “They’d be in trouble, see, so they didn’t want that in the office. They didn’t want that record.”
The 1980s were especially tough on the Bates farm. They suffered through a drought one year, a late freeze in another and then a hailstorm that wiped out their wheat crop. Their lender foreclosed.
Three years before his death, the former president of the Production Credit Association swore in a 2012 affidavit that there was a plan to get Bates “out of farming.” Elvin D. Keiswetter said in that affidavit that the lender’s board decided it would “rather foreclose, even if they lost money” than take Bates’ money, regardless if it was paid on the notes.
Keiswetter said that shortly after their lawyer filed the foreclosure petition, Bates came to his office with his parents and his children. Bates owed about $180,000; he asked whether, if he paid $100,000, the lender would give him until after harvest, or six months, to pay the balance.
They took his farm machinery first, and then they took the land. Then the sheriff came and cut the lock on his grain storage bins. Bates and his wife watched for hours that night as trucks hauled out thousands of bushels of wheat they had worked hard to harvest.
After they took everything, Bates says the family was forced to go on food stamps to survive. He worked a few odd jobs over the years, including a stint as a corrections officer. Every time they go to Nicodemus now, they drive alongside the edge of their old homestead to look at the land.
“It is just something you can’t explain,” he says. “It hurts so deep.”
Years later, the now 84-year-old Kansas man is still haunted by the memory of Nov. 7, 1986 — the day they went to the federal court hearing in Wichita where the foreclosure was finalized. They got home late that Friday evening and his father, Alvin, asked him, “What you guys get done today?”
“We got foreclosed on,” Bates told him.
His father didn’t say a word, he recalls.
“I guess he just couldn’t stand it to see his family homestead go, you know, and he died that Sunday,” Bates says.
The USDA was not responsible for all the misfortunes of Black farmers. Other structural impediments also have taken their toll.
One involves family land that is passed on to several surviving kin without a will, known as “heirs’ property.” USDA studies show the practice is prevalent among Black people in the South, Appalachian white families, Hispanics in southwestern colonia communities and Native American tribes.
The result: a lack of access to money, because lenders are usually reluctant to extend credit without a clear title to the land. Congress authorized in the 2018 farm bill language that would ease loans to those farmers. But it was not until this year that USDA actually funded a $67 million heirs relending program to resolve land ownership and succession issues.
Many Black farms have been lost over the decades in what are called partition sales. In the South, particularly, many Black landowners distrusted the local courts, or were barred from them, and failed to leave wills or even record their deeds. Over several generations, a single tract can end up being held in common by dozens or even hundreds of heirs.
In places like coastal Georgia and South Carolina, popular vacation destinations, speculators would track down distant members of these families and buy their interest in the old family farm, which the heir may never have even seen. That outsider can then petition the court to sell the entire tract and divide the money, leaving the entire tract of land to be sold at auction, often at a fraction of its real value.
Paul Bradshaw signed in 2008 a lease that upon his death gave his son, Rod, a 10-year option to farm and eventually buy the entire 2,950 acres that the Black farmer had accumulated near Jetmore, Kansas — a move meant to keep the family farm intact for the next generation.
By then, the father and son had already been farming together for decades. Paul Bradshaw, who died two years after signing that lease agreement, had also separately drawn up a will that evenly split the money received for the farm among his eight children, his son says.
Over the years, Rod Bradshaw had made several discrimination complaints against USDA. When his claim seeking debt relief under the Pigford lawsuit was denied, he says he was unable to buy out his sisters’ shares.
A bitter family fight ensued after his father’s death, and a local judge threw out the lease agreement and split the family farm among the son and his seven sisters. Rod Bradshaw says he ended up with about 350 acres of it that he still farms, while his sisters sold or leased their acres to white farmers.
“If Dad knew what happened, he would be livid,” he says.
Bradshaw ended up filing for bankruptcy — something he said he never would have had to do, had it not been for USDA’s refusal to give him debt relief under the Pigford settlement and its confiscation of his farm program payments. He filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against USDA in 2004, leading to a bench trial in 2018. He is still waiting for the judge’s decision.
Bradshaw — who has more than $300,000 in direct USDA loans that would qualify for the debt relief — has been unable to obtain any money through pandemic relief benefits open to all farmers.
“I think I am probably going to suffer some setbacks, but I think I can hang on … depending on what happens,” Bradshaw says.
USDA spokeswoman Kate Waters says the agency is committed to rooting out systemic racism and reducing barriers to accessing services. She says the department plans to launch an Equity Commission later this year to identify problems and fix them.
Congress, meanwhile, approved a $4 billion debt relief program for 16,000 farmers of color in March as part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package.
The funding was intended to remedy past discrimination in USDA loan programs, and to provide $1 billion for outreach and technical assistance for what it calls socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers — a group that includes not only Black farmers, but also Hispanic, Native American and Asian producers.
White farmers have filed lawsuits in Florida, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming, Illinois, and Minnesota. In June, U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard issued a nationwide, preliminary injunction halting the program.
The Texas case is led by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and brought by America First Legal, a nonprofit started this year by Stephen Miller and other senior members of former President Donald Trump’s administration.
Sid Miller, who is suing in his personal capacity as a farmer and not on behalf of the state, contends the debt relief is unconstitutional because it excludes white farmers based on their race or ethnicity. He argues USDA no longer discriminates against farmers of color and called the loan forgiveness a “backhanded way” of offering reparations.
“It is just flat wrong,” Miller said. “Us Republicans and old white guys, we get accused of being racist all the time, but this is racist by the administration. It couldn’t be a plainer case of racist.”
But it is clear that minority farmers still suffer disproportionately. As of May 31, 11% of white farmers were delinquent on a government farm loan, compared with 37.9% of Black borrowers, 14.6% of Asian borrowers, 17.4% of American Indian borrowers and 68% of Hispanic borrowers, according to court documents.
For Abraham Carpenter, a 59-year-old Black farmer whose family grows fruits and vegetables near Grady, Arkansas, the injunction means he has to wait and hope for help with about $200,000 in loans, even as rain has wiped out hundreds of acres of watermelons, turnips, collards and other crops.
“I’ve seen some really, really tough times, you know, but I’ve always been able to survive because of God’s blessing and his mercy and his grace. And they are still upon us,” Carpenter says. “So I am not going to say I am going to go belly up. I am going to work a little harder and I am going to pray a little harder.”
Hegeman reported from Belle Plaine, Kansas.