U.S.D.A. Plans to Pay Debt Relief for Minority Farmers After Months of Delay
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega. It's good to be with you. Now we're going to do things a little differently today because The Takeaway goes to the farm. Now, for most of us, when we hear the word "farm" or "farmer," we imagine a heroic version of rural life. Perhaps most famously told by Paul Harvey.
Paul Harvey: God said, I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper, then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board," so God made a farmer.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening here to Paul Harvey, the iconic radio man who brought America-
Paul Harvey: -the rest of the story-
Melissa Harris-Perry: -for more than 50 years. Harvey delivered this speech, "So God Made a Farmer," at the 1978 Future Farmers of America convention. It reveals the deeply ingrained myths of our collective farming imagination.
Paul Harvey: It had to be somebody who'd plow deep and straight and not cut corners, somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed and rake and disc and plow and plant and tie the fleece and strain the milk and replenish the self-feeder and finish a hard week's work with a five-mile drive to church, somebody who'd bail a family together with a soft, strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says that he wants to spend his life doing what dad does, so God made a farmer.
Willie Nelson: Mammas, don't let them babies grow up to be killed, don't let them pick guitars and drive them old trucks. Let them be doctors and lawyers and such.
Melissa Harris-Perry: These agrarian myths began to crumble in the 1980s. Suicide rates spiked among male farmers as drought and debt and foreclosure forced thousands to sell family farms to big corporations. Enraged by the loss of this all American way of life, country music legend, Willie Nelson, founded Farm Aid in 1985. Let's take a listen to Nelson talking with NBC's Harry Smith in September of 2020, just as Nelson was preparing for the 35th annual Farm Aid event.
Willie Nelson: We'd come out and we'd sit on the bus and talk and drink a beer or something and talk about things.
Male Speaker 3: He was the governor, Jim Thompson.
Willie Nelson: He was telling me how bad it was getting for the farmer, for the small family farmer, after he told me what he did, and we realized how important it was, 21 days later, we had our first Farm Aid.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Even as Americans rally to shore up family farms crumbling under Reagan error agricultural policy, the stories of Black farmers remained untold. The contributions of Black farmers were not lionized in poetry. The losses of Black farmers were not front-page stories and the collective efforts of Black farmers to save one another were rarely heralded on the evening news.
In 1940, the year that my father was born, there were 682,000 Black farmers in the United States. By 1973, the year I was born, there were only around 45,000 Black farmers. In one generation within our living memory, Black people lost more than 12 million acres of land, and the new owners, of what accounts to more than 95% of formerly Black-owned land, Wall Street.
No, no, investment bankers are not putting in long days on the tractor, but as 2019 reporting from the Atlantic Chronicled, multiple rounds of consolidation rested productive acres from Black farmers and transformed them into corporate holdings. What does it mean that Black Americans lost 12 million acres of land? Let's try to think about this in terms of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which we discussed here on The Takeaway last week. A detailed analysis from Brookings estimated that the destruction of property and business in that massacre resulted in the loss of at least $200 million in wealth. The neighborhood that was devastated in the Tulsa massacre was about 40 acres. 200 million lost in 40 acres. Just consider the Black wealth that evaporated with the loss of 12 million acres.
Today, around 98% of farmers are white. Those farmers also received the vast majority of funds allocated in the COVID-19 stimulus package passed under the Trump administration. The American Rescue Plan passed in March under President Biden was supposed to be different. Included in the package was $4 billion in debt relief to Black farmers and other farmers of color.
Senator Raphael Warnock: The Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act begins the process of leveling the playing field for farmers and farming families of color to help them not only recover from the devastation of these crises, but to give them the tools and the assistance to thrive after years of suffering.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was Senator Raphael Warnock, one of the co-sponsors of the provision to provide relief to Black farmers. He was speaking in March at an event organized by Acres of Ancestry and the Black Agrarian Fund. Now, months later, the USDA is only just getting around to starting that debt relief. In the meantime, major banking groups have pushed back against the government's relief lands. Here's the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, in an interview with Roland Martin, responding to the bank's concerns at the end of may.
Tom Vilsack: Frankly, I am surprised. I think it's incredible that some banks have suggested, "Jeez, if you pay us off, that may mean that we may not loan money in the future to socially disadvantaged farmers." Seriously? It's just shocking to me that people would even make that argument.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Shocking, perhaps, but certainly not unprecedented. Here with me now is Lloyd Wright, farmer from Westmoreland County, Virginia, and a former director of the USDA Civil Rights Office. Mr. Wright, thank you so much for coming back on the show.
Mr. Wright: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Mr. Wright, I want to start with this plan to offer debt relief to minority farmers. It was part of President Biden's stimulus package back in March, but it's only just now beginning to be implemented according to the USDA. What took so long?
Mr. Wright: All of the farm organizations are asking the same question. We had hoped that farmers would have relief by Memorial Day, and from Memorial Day they receive what I call "a process." That mean that, hopefully, within the next week or two, they will get letters stating the amount that they owe to department.
Then they'll have to send that back in, at some point, hopefully, during the summer, they'll get that relief. I don't understand why it's taking so long. We haven't gotten a good explanation, but they have busy developing processes, and that bothers many of us who will support us, the Black farmers, in that we've had that experience before, where we've been promised things, and after long delays, we don't get it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can you talk to me a little bit more about the specifics of that, Mr. Wright? What other kinds of things have Black farmers been promised that never came through?
Mr. Wright: If we skip over the fact that we were promised 40 acres [unintelligible 00:08:26], but more recently the Pickford lawsuit that was signed in 1999 promised Black farmers that they would get compensation, that relief, and priority for future programs services. At the end of the process, and it took like five years to give them a final decision. Out of the first 2700 who applied, only 371 received partial debt relief. During that process, many of them were informed by their attorneys that they did not need to make payments on the loan because it was going to be forgiven, because they had something in writing stating that.
At the end of the process, only a handful of them got debt relief and only partial that relief. Many of the farmers end up losing land and their farms because the penalties and the interest had accumulated over that five years. Just because it's in writing, Black farmers understand that that doesn't mean you're going to get it. Then in 2010, there was a process to try to do some debt relief for some of these farmers. That didn't happen because we were able to get the House to pass it, twice actually, but we didn't get help from the Department, and the Senate never passed it. More recently there's been two efforts, and neither of them panned out. This is the third effort. We have more confidence in that. Most of us are convinced that the president wants this done, but we're still dealing with the last plantation. They haven't, in 150 years, done much to help Blacks. They're not moving very fast.
Melissa Harris-Perry: By the last plantation here, you're referring to the USDA?
Mr. Wright: Correct. That is correct.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about the current Secretary of Ag, Tom Vilsack, who, of course, was also the Secretary of Ag during President Obama. For many of us, we'll remember the moment when apparently not knowing who the estimable Shirley Sherrod was. He relieved her of her position after a conservative website put out that very doctored video. When Vilsack came back as the secretary, did that undermine confidence, especially given that you're calling USDA the last plantation here?
Mr. Wright: Fine Shirley was just one of many things that happened that was of concern to Black farmers. Actually, a study indicated that Blacks got less service and funding under the first Vilsack administration than we did on the prior Bush administration. We were very concerned that we got almost nothing. It was more than just fine Shirley. He had he surrounded himself primarily with all whites in his inner circle. He treated a number of Blacks the way he treated Shirley. In general, we were concerned that he was coming back. Now he's saying all the right things at the present time, but we are still concerned about this slow process.
We still got the same OGC, Office of General Counsel, and a farm service agency is the agency that has been known to discriminate against Black farmers. Those are the two who are doing the work here on putting this together. Until a farmer receives that write-off and the 20% for the taxes and had the lien removed from their property, we are not convinced yet. Although I think we are probably closer than we were with the last two efforts that failed.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Mr. Wright, I want to also talk a little bit about banks here. We've been talking about the USDA, but Secretary Vilsack says that part of what's happening is that banks aren't too excited about this legislation. They say that they're going to be losing out on profits from interest payments. When you have had to deal with these kinds of loans, and you just helped us to understand why this debt exists, what's your perspective on what the banks are saying here?
Mr. Wright: I think, in a nutshell, they're being greedy and that the banks will receive 100% of the debt for those banks that included early payment clause. They'll get that payment as well. Chances are, the banks were charging considerably more than the Department. These are guaranteed loans now, which means that they are only exposed to 10% of the debt and that USBA guarantee you 90% of the debt. They had limited exposure.
Then, if you have a lien on the property, you almost had zero exposure. Then, you could you can get, between own operating loans or up to real estate loans, somewhere between 2% to 3.5% interest, if you have a direct loan with the Department. These banks are charging considerably more than that. Maybe they don't have someone lined up that they can turn this money over that they're getting ready to receive and get the same interest rate on it.
I'm not sure what the problem is, but they're going to be made whole, they're not going to lose a nickel, and an opportunity costs, is what they're talking about, in addition to the penalty, and the penalty, or the early payment clause, it's designed to deal with potential losses, that result number early payment. I just think that might be greedy and get paid more than they are entitled to.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mr. Wright, there are some white farmers who've complained that this action is actually a form of what they would call "reverse discrimination." Do you have a response to that?
Mr. Wright: Yes. For the last 150 years, white farmers have received almost all of the benefits from the Department of Agriculture. There was a report in 1982, the commission, a US Commission on Civil Rights that documented how the county committees and USDA was mistreating people of color, primarily Blacks, and that all of the money was going primarily to the white farmers.
They received almost all of it for 150 years. Now that we're getting ready to give crumbs to some extent to people of color, American Indians, who they took the land from, to begin with, and Blacks who cleared the land and slaves for them back generations ago, so now that they're getting ready to give crumbs to minorities, they have ants in their pants. They didn't get concerned four years ago when the Trump administration did emergency payments to farmers and 99+% of it went to white farmers.
I didn't hear about lawsuits then, concerned that people of color were not getting money. Only when a little bit of money are provided to people of color do these white farmers suddenly get up and bothered about who's getting money and who's not. I guess they want it all. The other problem is that this is not going to help many of the Black farmers, a lot of Black farmers don't have USDA loans or guaranteed loans. They will not get money from this. It's not that it's a 100% payment to all Black farmers, just those that have loans with USDA. That's another section that might deal with some of the other categories to some extent, but, primarily, it's those who have loans.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's go to that larger picture of Black farmers. Earlier I talked about millions of acres lost in the lifetime and the one generation between the time my father was born in 1940 and when I was born in 1973, the loss of millions of acres of Black land. Can you tell me what we may need to do to bring some semblance of justice to that broader perspective?
Mr. Wright: Yes. One of the things that's needed, this will help. I don't like to discount this effort. This is neat. I tell folks, this is the greatest effort to try to help some of the Black farmers since the '64 Civil Rights Act, because it's important if, when it happens, and I want to hope that it will, so one of the things we can do is deal with the debt, and that would be done.
Another thing is to deal with ways of getting Black farmers more land. There's Justice for Black Farmer Act that's been introduced, that would do that, would actually give 160 acres to Black farmers, similar to what was done to white farmers back 100 years ago. That would help some, and then we have to have money available to farmers, Black farmers, and both Black and white farmers operate with loans, operating loans you met, they don't have real estate loans.
You can't give a Black farmer alone in June and expect them to plant crops and make money. I purchased my soy beans last summer and paid for them. I ended up getting the kind of beans I wanted. I got a discount because that paid early. USDA has a tendency to give Black farmers approval for their loans late. If you're in May and you're still trying to get money to purchase your seed, you're going to lose money.
We got to get rid of some of that history. I often state that, really, you need to reorganize USDA. I would get rid of the county committees, make all of the farm service agencies federal employees, at all levels, and then hold them accountable for how they treat Black farmers. There's a lot of things need to be done. I'm going to wait to see this administration do it. They'll have to do better than they did in the first 8 years, because on the bill sack, they didn't do very much, and may have done damage in the first 8 years. He has the long ways to go if he's not straightened some of that out.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mr. Lloyd Wright is a farmer from Westmoreland County, Virginia, and former director of the USDA Civil Rights Office. Mr. Wright, thank you so much for talking with us this morning.
Mr. Wright: You're very welcome.
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