A new Senate bill, called the Justice for Black Farmers Act, set to be released November 30, would mount a long-delayed federal effort to reverse the “destructive forces that were unleashed upon Black farmers over the past century—one of the dark corners of shame in American history,” lead sponsor Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told Mother Jones.
Co-sponsored with senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the bill would, among other things, create an Equitable Land Access Service within the USDA, including a fund that devotes $8 billion annually to buying farmland on the open market and granting it to new and existing Black farmers, with the goal of making 20,000 grants per year over nine years, with maximum allotments of 160 acres. It would also fund agriculture-focused historically Black colleges and universities as well and nonprofits like the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust to help identify land for the USDA to purchase, and “help new Black farmers get up and running, provide farmer training, and provide other assistance including support for development of farmer cooperatives,” the bill’s summary states.
If the land transfer sounds like a generous giveaway, consider that “we’ve done this before—we have seen massive land grants in US history,” Booker said. Indeed, the westward expansion of the United States was largely driven by land grabs followed by handouts. The 1850 Donation Land Claim Act delivered the Oregon territory to white US settlers in 320-acre chunks. The biggest of them all was the Homestead Act, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, which ultimately delivered about 270 million acres—about 10 percent of the US land base—to smallholders.
The Justice for Black Farmers Act’s much more modest proposal would amount to an “equitable balancing of the scales after decades of systematic racism within the USDA that disadvantaged Black farmers, excluded them from loans and other programs, [and] prevented them from holding on to their land,” Booker said.
In addition to the land-grant program, the bill would create a Farm Conservation Corps, which would focus on young adults from socially disadvantaged communities with USDA-funded apprenticeships on farms, with the goal of providing “academic, vocational and social skills necessary to pursue careers in farming and ranching.” While the program would be open to anyone from a disadvantaged background, Black trainees would be given priority for land grants from the Equitable Land Access Service.
The bill also attempts to purge the USDA of its ongoing legacy of racism. It would create an “independent civil rights oversight board to conduct reviews of any appeals of civil rights complaints filed against the USDA, to investigate reports of discrimination within USDA, and to provide oversight of Farm Service Agency County Committees,” and monitor the activities of the existing Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights. The bill would also remedy a long-time complaint of researchers: “USDA data is woefully inadequate if you’re trying to analyze and understand the status of Black farmers in America,” Texas A&M’s Mitchell said. The legislation would require the agency’s Economic Research Service to “conduct research on the status of minority agricultural producers, including their share of land and assistance, and farmworkers,” the summary states.