The Farm Bill, signed into law on Thursday afternoon, is a massive, $867 billion piece of omnibus legislation.
Over the next months and years we’ll be highlighting different parts of the bill; there’s simply too much to go over all at once. Today, let’s look at one vital part of the Farm Bill aimed at helping black farmers.
In 1920, black farmers made up 14 percent of the farmers in the US were black, though the black population as a whole was only 9.9 percent of the country. By 2012, with more the country more than 12 percent black, less than 2 percent of the country’s farmers were black. Black farmers have won multiple discrimination lawsuits against the USDA; the most important is probably Pigford v. Glickman, a 1999 class-action lawsuit in which black farmers sued the USDA for systematic discrimination in the way the USDA allocated funding for loans and resources. By some estimates it’s the largest civil rights settlement in American history, with the first round paying out almost a billion dollars and the second, nicknamed Pigford II, paying about $1.2 billion.
The USDA has made steps in the past decade to encourage new farmers—farmers of color, women, young farmers, alternative farmers like those growing organic crops—and the number of black farmers is slowly growing, though still a tiny number compared to the whole. The new Farm Bill, though, includes some provisions that should help.
One provision allows farmers on what’s called “heir’s property” to apply for grants and loans and assistance. The USDA in the past required specific documentation of ownership, like a title to land. Heir’s property results when a landowner dies without an official will. The land goes to the owner’s heirs, but with a bunch of weird restrictions, the most important being that they don’t qualify for USDA programs.
By some estimates, upwards of 50 percent of heir’s property owners are black. Much of the black-owned, inherited land in the US originated from the decades immediately following emancipation, who spent all their money just getting the land itself. Without the financial resources to set up title handoffs to future generations, that land became heir’s property—and would stay that way for decades and decades.
Included in the Farm Bill is the Fair Access for Farmers and Ranchers Act, which allows other forms of proof of ownership besides a title, like five years of tax documentation showing occupation of the land. Instantly, this opens up huge opportunities for black farmers to hold onto their land: they can now receive the USDA funding and assistance they really should have been entitled to for generations. And holding onto land is a problem not just for black farmers; acquiring and keeping land is a major problem throughout the agricultural industry.
There are other parts of the Farm Bill that will help black farmers, or those in the agricultural industry, as well. Essence notes that 19 land-grant HBCUs—Historically Black Colleges and Universities—will receive significantly more funding. There was a provision prior to this bill that specifically limited the funding of the schools created by the 1890 Morrill Act. That provision only allowed those 1890-founded schools to carry over 20 percent of their annual funding past the calendar year. And those 1890 schools were…HBCUs, including Tuskegee University, Lincoln University, Virginia State University, and Florida A&M University. A study in 2013 found that the states weren’t even properly matching the federal funds for these HBCUs the way they were for other, whiter land-grant universities.
The new Farm Bill slashes that frankly insane provision, and also now requires that the states report to Congress exactly how much money is going to both land-grant HBCUs and other land-grant schools. Other changes: some new money is going to those 1890 HBCUs, including $40 million to each school for scholarships and $10 million per year to establish new research centers at three of the schools (to be decided by Sonny Perdue, the USDA secretary).
Work isn’t over to eliminate the deeply entrenched discrimination in the way the black agriculture industry is treated by the government, but these are major, vital steps in that direction.