COVID-19 relief bill offers long-denied aid to Black farmers

Martha Quillin
The Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. — In 2017, Latonya Andrews bought a 60-acre tract of Warren County land to become the fourth generation of her family to farm it. A former Air Force medic who now works as a research assistant at UNC, she took a methodical approach to reintroducing agriculture on land that had lain dormant for more than a decade.

She consulted with other Black farmers in the community, and they all offered the same advice.

“Read the fine print,” Andrews said they told her. “Don’t let anybody take your land from you.”

Since the end of Reconstruction, Black farmers have learned their biggest threat is not drought, blight or insect infestation, but something more insidious: Discriminatory practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the very agency that is supposed to help farmers stay on the land and be productive.

The USDA has admitted it systematically denied Blacks and other people of color access to the same loan and grant programs that have helped generations of white farmers get the financing they needed to hold onto their land in lean years and even expand their operations.

Help may be on its way finally through a provision in the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill approved by Congress and recently signed into law by President Joe Biden. The package provides $5 billion for socially disadvantaged farmers of color, including $4 billion for the forgiveness of outstanding debt and $1 billion for training, outreach, education, technical assistance and grants.

“It’s a significant piece of legislation that’s going to help thousands of farmers get relief,” said John Boyd Jr., founder and president of the non-profit National Black Farmers Association. Boyd, also a fourth-generation Black farmer, launched the organization in the mid-1990s to fight discriminatory practices at USDA that contributed to his losing one of his two farms and were a factor in the massive loss of land by other farmers of color.

Losing property

At the turn of the 20th century, formerly enslaved Black people and their heirs owned 15 million acres of mostly Southern farmland, according to America’s Black Holocaust Museum and federal agricultural census data.

In an investigative series published in 2001 called “Torn from the Land,” the Associated Press documented how Black landowners had lost their property as a result of violence, intimidation, trickery and legal manipulation well into the 1950s.

By 2012, just 1.6% of U.S. farms were Black-owned, accounting for 3.6 million acres.

North Carolina reported 1,435 farms on which 1,699 Black farmers were the principal producers in the USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture. Black owners held 3% of North Carolina’s 46,418 farms in that most recent census. Black people make up just over 22% of the state’s population according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 1997, Cumberland County farmer Timothy Pigford filed a class-action lawsuit in which he and other claimants said federal farm programs had systematically discriminated against Black farmers by denying loans, loan-servicing and benefits, or by setting unfair terms on Black farmers’ loans. That suit, and a subsequent suit referred to as Pigford II, resulted in settlement payments totaling more than $2 billion.

Similar suits later were filed on behalf of Native American farmers and Hispanic farmers.

Advocates continued to argue on behalf of socially disadvantaged farmers, saying the USDA had not done enough to correct its policies and to prevent discrimination by agents in local field offices. Throughout the South, including in North Carolina, Boyd said, thousands of Black and other minority farmers remained at a financial disadvantage, holding less competitive loans on smaller farms compared to their white counterparts.

“White farmers were getting their debts written off, or getting loan amortization and rescheduled payments,” said Boyd, who still farms in Virginia, near the North Carolina border. “They weren’t offering any of that to Blacks. The USDA hasn’t been friendly to Black farmers.”

Tillis opposition

The Black farmers aid provision in the COVID-19 relief bill was controversial, with some Republican lawmakers saying it was unfair to offer debt relief only to people of color.

Sen. Thom Tillis was opposed to it. In a statement, he said, “All North Carolina farmers work hard to feed our state and the rest of the country and they have faced an especially difficult time during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was unfair and potentially unconstitutional for Congressional Democrats to award federal assistance based solely on a farmer’s race instead of their individual economic need.”

Boyd, who worked with advocates in Washington to help craft the provision in the federal relief bill, said the most important part of it is debt relief. For eligible farmers, that will mean forgiveness of loans made or guaranteed by the USDA, plus enough money to cover the tax that will be levied on the forgiven debt.

The USDA makes and guarantees loans for farmers unable to get loans from commercial lenders. The loans can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“Debt relief gives farmers a chance to regroup,” Boyd said. “If you don’t have that debt hanging over your head, you can revamp your farming operation.”

Boyd said the next challenge will be making sure the USDA uses the money as the bill intends, and that it makes sure field agents don’t discriminate in deciding who is eligible.

“A lot of Black farmers don’t trust USDA,” Boyd said, so the agency will have to invest in outreach to encourage farmers to apply for aid provided in the relief bill.

Latonya Andrews didn’t ask the USDA for money when she bought her farm, in part, she said, because mentors in the farming community cautioned her about the agency’s tainted history in dealings with Black people.

Andrews, 42, grew up in Raleigh but was a frequent visitor to the family farm outside Norlina. It came into her family in the 1940s, when her great-grandmother, Suzie Valentine Andrews, bought it. On her death, it passed to Andrews’ grandfather, Merlin, who raised pigs, goats, soybeans, tobacco, cucumbers and other crops on the gently rolling property. As a child, Andrews visited her grandparents regularly in the summer and on weekends. She can still remember where the hog lot stood, and which crops were grown in which fields.

Andrews’ father, John, later inherited the property, but he had no interest in farming and leased the land for a time to other growers. When he retired, he told Andrews he planned to sell the property.

‘I’ll take on the farm’

Andrews had gone into the Air Force in 1997, right after graduating from Enloe High School. She got out in 2006.

For the past five years, she has worked full time as a research assistant at UNC on a project studying HIV in women.

“I was away from home for a long time while I was in the Air Force,” Andrews said. “I never thought about going back home, going back to the farm, until I was back here and the opportunity came, and I was like, ‘Sure. I’ll take on the farm.’”

Andrews said she wondered whether, as a Black woman veteran and first-time farmer, she would have trouble getting financing. But she borrowed the money from a bank and paid her dad, giving him a cushion for his retirement.

She set about learning land-management techniques from the USDA and Extension specialists, forming a plan to bring the farm back to life. In 2018, she planted broccoli, squash, cabbage and collards.

As the 2021 spring growing season approaches, Andrews has seedlings at her home in Raleigh getting ready for transplant. On the farm recently, she had a crew cutting young pines and clearing undergrowth, burning the debris. Gray smoke lifted and swirled against the blue sky on an unseasonably warm afternoon. Ash from the fire will be churned back into the chocolate-brown soil to enrich it.

Andrews will plant about 11 crops on about three cleared acres this year, most of which she expects to sell through a faith-based CSA, or community-supported agricultural cooperative. Arugula, several varieties of lettuce, bok choy, turnips, beets — Andrews is learning to grow them all. She hopes to get certified as an organic grower, relying on natural pest-control practices that will make the food she raises more healthful and worth more on the market.

She has other plans for the farm as well, leasing some to hunters, keeping some in forest, and developing an outdoor event site along a creek that runs through it, for weddings and family reunions.

Soul city farm

Andrews named her operation Soul City Farm, because it’s close to one of the boundaries of Soul City, a planned development designed in the early 1970s as a new town that would provide housing and employment opportunities for minorities and the poor. Soul City floundered when it lost federal support, but Andrews has fond memories of summer visits to the pool there, and hopes the development might one day be revived.

Walking through a deeply furrowed section of field in her cowboy boots and jeans, Andrews said she feels the presence of her forebears on the farm, and feels lucky to be able to keep it in the family, something many Black farmers have been unable to do.

“I think about what my great-grandmother had to endure to get the money, to save it, and for people to believe that she could actually do it,” Andrews said. “That’s emotional. It means so much for me.

“I feel like with this new bill coming into play, that will give me the opportunity to pass down that generational wealth that we are all looking to give to our children and our children’s children. Every farmer’s hope and dream is that their hard work can be passed down to their kids and then their kids, so that they can enjoy the fruits of their labors.

“That’s a precious gift.”