A history of slavery, sharecropping and loss of land have impeded Black farmers’ success and nearly halted their participation in U.S. agriculture. In 2017, about 1.4% of the country’s producers were Black, and about 1.6% of farms were Black-owned, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
But the federal government is making an effort to begin addressing those consequences. President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus package that passed March 11, dubbed the American Rescue Plan, will dedicate $10.4 billion to agriculture, according to The Farm Bureau. The company estimates that about half of that sum will be issued to “socially disadvantaged farmers.” Approximately a quarter of farmers in this group are Black, per The Washington Post.
In late March, the USDA announced “it will dedicate at least $6 billion to help smaller-scale and socially disadvantaged farmers who were hurt by the pandemic, along with producers of organic food and other specialty crops,” Reuters reports.
"For generations, socially disadvantaged farmers have struggled to fully succeed due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement when the bill passed. “On top of the economic pain caused by the pandemic, farmers from socially disadvantaged communities are dealing with a disproportionate share of COVID-19 infection rates, hospitalizations, death and economic hurt. The American Rescue Plan ensures that we get the economy on track for everyone, especially those who have been marginalized, who are hurting, who have been overlooked or shut out in the past.”
‘A Step in the Right Direction’
While the industry awaits more details on the American Rescue Plan USDA stimulus, the agency has announced a program called Pandemic Assistance for Producers that includes a $2-million grant program for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers April 5. Applicants have until May 5 to vie for individual grants of amounts between $20,000 and $99,999.
With that $2 million grant program, the USDA will accept applications for grants related to Coronavirus Food Assistance Program 2 (CFAP 2), farm operating and ownership loans, price loss coverage and more. The agency will give priority to projects focused on the CFAP 2, which includes hemp under a row-crop designation.
“The farms and farmland remain the birthplace of family business, sustainability and even innovation for the African-American population in this country,” says Q. Nicole McNair, founder and CEO of WH Farms, an Eastern North Carolina farm that grows cannabinoid hemp and is involved in a co-op with several African American-owned farms in the area. “Many of our ancestors developed their skillset by force and, unfortunately, sharecropping and being a part of that [farming] experience [to benefit] others."
“When, in such a tumultuous time in our history, with civil rights and what African Americans and the Indigenous population—because I can't leave them out of this conversation—what they were forced to endure during those very harsh seasons for our community, to be able to extract ownership of land from that process, is priceless.”
As a team of advisers looks into stimulus options for WH Farms and other businesses in the co-op, McNair, a serial entrepreneur and real-estate investor, is plowing ahead with her hemp business. The operation white labels cannabidiol (CBD) products such as tinctures, edibles, pain balms and bath bombs, and she and other farmers in the co-op aim to share resources to operate in the hemp fiber and grain spaces.
McNair tells Hemp Grower that financial assistance from the federal government “allows for infrastructure investment. It allows for labor and staffing and revitalizes communities. It creates programs and opportunities for farmers to really reestablish their farm and the commerce of their farm as we grow and learn about different crops and different plants that can be grown and produced on the farm.”
Angela Dawson, founder of 40 Acre Co-Op, an organization dedicated to supporting socially disadvantaged farmers, tells Hemp Grower that the stimulus from the American Rescue Plan "is a step in the right direction.”
“I have some cautious optimism about the new bill and hoping that it’s administered in way that it actually does reach Black farmers, first of all, and that it doesn’t force us to have relationship with people in the USDA who aren’t wanting to serve us,” Dawson said, adding that the federal government has attempted to provide financial assistance to Black and other minority farmers before following class-action lawsuits alleging racial discrimination dating back to the 1980s. Known as Pigford I and II, these lawsuits were supposed to result in $2.3 billion going to Black farmers—however, an investigation by The Counter found only a fraction of Black farmers actually received those funds.
Dawson has a personal negative experience with the USDA. She says the agency once previously denied her a loan because years prior, she made a late payment on a student loan (which she later discovered was in deferment).
Battling a History of Discrimination
The USDA has a long-cited history of discriminatory actions against minorities, including numerous instances of denying Black farmers access to credit and ignoring or delaying loan applications, as reported by The Washington Post.
While these embedded practices may not change with additional funding, more federal efforts are being made to address deeper cultural solutions.
Several U.S. senators recently introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act in effort to “enact policies to end discrimination within the USDA, protect remaining Black farmers from losing their land, provide land grants to create a new generation of Black farmers and restore the land base that has been lost, and implement systemic reforms to help family farmers across the United States,” according to a press release.
"Overtly discriminatory and unjust federal policy has robbed Black families in the United States of the ability to build and pass on intergenerational wealth,” said Senator Cory Booker, a sponsor of the bill, in a statement. “When it comes to farming and agriculture, we know that there is a direct connection between discriminatory policies within the USDA and the enormous land loss we have seen among Black farmers over the past century. The Justice for Black Farmers Act will address and correct USDA discrimination and take bold steps to forgive debt and restore the land that has been lost in order to empower a new generation of Black farmers to succeed and thrive.”
The bill, which is separate from the American Rescue Plan stimulus, was introduced in February and is currently moving through Congress.
Money from the American Rescue Plan stimulus is also supposed to be directed toward establishing a racial equity commission to address discrimination at the USDA. But some are wary of how that may come to fruition.
"I will say that there are a great number of Black farmers like myself who are really wondering, how is that really going to happen?” Dawson asks. “What does that [look] like? Am I supposed to go back to that same office now and now they’re going to be nice to me? Do they have training? Are they going to hire new people?"