Posted on May 27, 2021

A Windfall for Minority Farmers Divides Rural America

Jack Healy, New York Times, May 22, 2021

Shade Lewis had just come in from feeding his cows one sunny spring afternoon when he opened a letter that could change his life: The government was offering to pay off his $200,000 farm loan, part of a new debt relief program created by Democrats to help farmers who have endured generations of racial discrimination.

It was a windfall for a 29-year-old who has spent the past decade scratching out a living as the only Black farmer in his corner of northeastern Missouri, where signposts quoting Genesis line the soybean fields and traffic signals warn drivers to go slow because it is planting season.

But the $4 billion fund has angered conservative white farmers who say they are being unfairly excluded because of their race. And it has plunged Mr. Lewis and other farmers of color into a new culture war over race, money and power in American farming.

“You can feel the tension,” Mr. Lewis said. “We’ve caught a lot of heat from the conservative Caucasian farmers.”

The debt relief is redress set aside for what the government calls “socially disadvantaged farmers” — Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and other nonwhite workers who have endured a long history of discrimination, from violence and land theft in the Jim Crow South to banks and federal farm offices that refused them loans or government benefits that went to white farmers.

The program is part of a broader effort by the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress to confront how racial injustice has shaped American farming, which is overwhelmingly white. Black farm advocacy groups say that nearly all the land, profit and subsidies go to the biggest, most powerful farm operations, leaving Black farmers with little. But in large portions of rural America, the payments threaten to further anger white conservative farmers.

The plans have drawn thousands of enraged comments on farm forums and are being fought by banks worried about losing interest income. And some rural residents have rallied around a new slogan, cribbed from the conservative response to the Black Lives Matter movement: All Farmers Matter.


{snip} In 1920, African-Americans owned some 14 percent of the farms in the United States. But after a century of racial violence, foreclosures, migration into cities and farm consolidation, there are just under 49,000 left, representing 1.4 percent of American farmers. {snip}


Nonwhite farmers, who make up about 5 percent of farmers, say they struggle disproportionately to get loans and government grants. They received less than 1 percent of the billions of dollars in subsidies that flowed into farm country last year under former President Donald J. Trump to compensate farmers hurt by the coronavirus pandemic and the trade war with China.

Mr. Lewis said he spent years struggling financially and searching for credit as he built his cattle herd from a few cows on rented ground to about 200 cows and calves on more than 100 acres of his own land. {snip}

Getting his government loan paid off now could change everything: He said he could pay down other loans on his livestock. Expand the patchwork of fields he owns to compete against established farmers. Get financing to build a home so he and his wife can escape their one-bedroom apartment.


But several of his white neighbors in Lewis County, where 77 percent of voters supported Mr. Trump in November, see it differently.

Now, raw conversations about discrimination in farming are unfolding at farmers’ markets and on rural social media channels where race is often an uncomfortable subject.

“It’s a bunch of crap,” said Jeffrey Lay, who grows corn and soybeans on 2,000 acres and is president of the county farm bureau. “They talk about they want to get rid of discrimination. But they’re not even thinking about the fact that they’re discriminating against us.”

Even in a county that is 94 percent white, Mr. Lay said the federal government’s renewed focus on helping farmers of color made him feel like he was losing ground, a sign to him of the country’s demographic shifts.


White conservative farmers and ranchers from Florida, Texas and the Midwest quickly sued to block the program, arguing that the promised money amounts to illegal discrimination. America First Legal, a group run by the former Trump aide Stephen Miller, is backing the Texas lawsuit, whose plaintiff is the state’s agriculture commissioner.

“It’s anti-white,” said Jon Stevens, one of five Midwestern farmers who filed a lawsuit through the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative legal group. “Since when does Agriculture get into this kind of race politics?”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack defended the debt-repayment program at a White House briefing this month, saying that earlier coronavirus relief had gone disproportionately to white farmers. He also said the government had never addressed the cumulative effects of years of racial discrimination against farmers.


The use of race in federal programs has been a subject of litigation for decades, with a narrow majority of the Supreme Court deciding in 1995 that it is permissible only if the programs are “narrowly tailored” to accomplish a “compelling governmental interest.” The courts have generally held that institutions have a compelling interest in remedying their own past discrimination.