Combating the ag industry's history of discriminatory practices

A group of white farmers sued after a loan program targeted farmers of color. But ag has a history of discriminatory practices.

A planter stirs up dust as it buries rows of canola seeds.
A planter stirs up dust as it buries rows of canola seeds in May 2019 near Stephen, Minn.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News file 2019

The American Rescue Plan Act, a massive fiscal relief package prompted by COVID-19 and passed by Congress earlier this year, set aside up to $4 billion to erase some federal loans for farmers in groups that have historically been subject to discriminatory lending practices.

The program targets Black, American Indian, Hispanic and Asian American farmers for help with U.S. Department of Agriculture debt relief.

But a lawsuit filed Thursday by a group of white farmers from Wisconsin, Ohio, South Dakota and Minnesota asks a federal court to declare the program discriminatory and unconstitutional.

There's a long history of discrimination against women and people of color in agriculture — the effects of which continue to impact the industry today. In Minnesota, roughly 99 percent of farmers are white, a homogeneity that doesn't reflect the diversity of the state's population.

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The most recent farm census identified 39 Black farmers in Minnesota — among nearly 69,000 farms. A total of 1,267 farmers of color operate in the state, and most run small operations.

"We have a huge disparity. We have a long ways to go," said Patrice Bailey, an assistant commissioner who leads the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s emerging farmers initiative.

"There's lots of work that needs to be done in regards to helping people see themselves within agriculture in Minnesota."

Bailey held listening sessions across the state in 2019 and identified a number of consistent barriers keeping people out of farming, including a lack of access to land and credit; discrimination; high costs of health care and a lack of training opportunities.

But Bailey is optimistic about changing the industry.

"I see this as a defining time, especially what's happening nationally from the Biden administration, in regards to the Justice for Black Farmers Act and the American Rescue Plan," he said.

Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., is a co-sponsor of the Justice for Black Farmers Act, first introduced last year in Congress. The legislation would take steps to address a long history of USDA discrimination against Black farmers.

USDA loans are critical to many in the industry, because farmers often need credit to plant crops — and the USDA is a key lending source. Over the years, Black, Hispanic, American Indian and women farm operators have sued the agency over claims of discrimination in federal farm loans.

The USDA has paid out billions of dollars nationwide to resolve those claims.

In the meantime, discrimination has taken its toll on farmers of color in agriculture.

"Over the last 100 years, 90 percent of Black-owned farmland was lost,” said Smith. “We have a systemic problem here.”

The new American Rescue Plan program — which the group of Midwest farmers is suing over — focuses its debt-relief efforts on farmers from what the USDA calls "socially disadvantaged groups," because of the systemic racism and discrimination they've faced.

"This has the potential to start to even a playing field that has been so stacked against Black farmers, and all farmers of color,” Smith said. “And I think it has the potential to be really powerful.”

Smith helped work the debt-relief provision into the coronavirus relief legislation as a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. The USDA has estimated that more than 13,000 loans nationwide could be erased by the program.

Land and credit key to entry

Access to farm land and credit are often the greatest barriers to new farmers trying to enter the industry. Discrimination can make those barriers insurmountable for people of color trying to get into farming.

That discrimination has a long history, Bailey said — and goes as far back as the era after the Civil War when a promise of “40 acres and a mule” for formerly enslaved people who wanted to become farmers was never realized.

Smith said it's true that young white farmers trying to get into the business also sometimes struggle with access to land and credit.

"But the point is that those farmers have all sorts of access to opportunities that our Black and brown and Indigenous farmers are systematically excluded from, so what we're trying to do is to fix that system that holds back those farmers," she said.

Patrice Bailey believes communities of color, long excluded from agriculture, need a restored connection to their food.

Bailey, who grew up in New York City, talked about traveling to northwestern Minnesota to see sprawling fields of bright yellow canola.

“A kid that lives in Brooklyn Park or [the] Frogtown or Rondo [neighborhoods in St. Paul], wouldn’t even be familiar with what it looks like, or smells like, and then going to the grocery store and seeing a product, [like canola oil,] to cook your food,” he said.

"We need to be talking about agricultural terms not just in the affluent areas, and the rural areas, but we also need to be talking about agriculture in the metro area."

Bailey sees a growing interest in urban agriculture, but he also wants to see more interest in seeking opportunities for people of color to get involved in all phases of the industry. He hopes to see new ag training programs in urban areas, and more federal and state assistance in overcoming the barriers to entry.

And the timing is critical: With the average Minnesota farmer edging closer to retirement, a new generation will be taking over one of the state’s largest industries.

“There's going to be a big transition. And we need to make sure that we have people ready to take the reins and to move forward. And as our communities are growing more diverse, including in rural Minnesota, we can't afford to exclude any one group of people,” said Smith.

“We have to make sure that the next generation of farmers represents the people who live in Minnesota and that everybody who lives in Minnesota has an opportunity to move into farming and take it wherever it's going to go next.”