Georgia Today: How The White House COVID-19 Relief Plan Aims To Help Georgia's Black Farmers
Millions of stimulus checks began hitting American bank accounts this week after passage of the Biden administration's American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, also known as the COVID-19 stimulus package. On Georgia Today, we hear how the plan intends to help the state's Black farmers.
Related GPB link: Young Farmers Face A Barrier Their Parents Didn't: Student Loan Debt
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy. Millions of stimulus checks begin hitting most Americans bank accounts this week after passage of the Biden administration's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. The American Rescue Plan also extends unemployment benefits, and it includes tens of billions of dollars for coronavirus testing, for contact tracing, for vaccine distribution and other aid. In this episode of Georgia Today, we hear how the American Rescue Plan intends to help the state's Black farmers. They've struggled for generations with discrimination, with land loss and systemic racism at both the local and federal levels. And the number of Black owned farms has declined dramatically in recent decades, with Black farmers losing more than three-quarters of their land since 1910. National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd Jr. told CBS that the Biden administration's COVID -19 relief package is a big deal for farmers of color.
John Boyd Jr.: There's been study after study, commission after commission, Congress after Congress that have found that Black farmers have been discriminated against, but there has not been a real fix to the issue. That's why we were so hopeful that with this new president that some of these things will change.
Steve Fennessy: So how did we get here? I'm joined by political science professor Veronica Womack. She's executive director of Georgia College and State University's Rural Studies Institute in Milledgeville.
A hundred years ago, there were something like over 900,000 Black farmers in the U.S., and today there's somewhere between 35, 40,000 or so. I mean, that's a decimation. What happened?
Veronica Womack: There's a lot of reasons for that drop.
Newscast: Over the past century, African Americans have lost millions of acres of farms they owned across the South. It's a trend propelled not just by economic forces, but by white racism and local white political and economic power.
Veronica Womack: And they did acquire land after slavery. There's been examples of lynchings that have occurred in communities where the reason for that was land.
Newscast: It's not just the legacy of the Jim Crow South, either. Most of the losses have occurred since the 1950s.
Veronica Womack: And USDA did not use its federal resources to benefit African American farmers. In fact, it often worked in the opposite direction.
John Boyd Jr.: For a very, very long time, Black farmers have been shut out of USDA farm lending programs and subsidy programs, and there has been a long, historic pattern of discrimination from USDA as it relates to Black farmers.
Veronica Womack: If you don't have access to credit, your ability to grow your farm — there's no way that you can do it.
Steve Fennessy: And this systemic racism within the United States Department of Agriculture — that all came to a head several years ago, didn't it? In terms of a massive lawsuit.
Reveal, The Center for Investigative Reporting: Black farmers filed a class action lawsuit against the USDA. It's known as the Pigford case after a North Carolina farmer named Timothy Pigford. The case was settled in 1999.
Newscast: A court found the farmers had been systematically denied aid, solely because they were Black, loans, grants and subsidies that white farmers received.
Reveal, The Center for Investigative Reporting: As a result, the government paid Black farmers more than $2 billion dollars: one payout at the end of the ‘90s and another authorized by President Obama in 2010.
Barack Obama: This isn't simply a matter of making amends. It's about reaffirming our values on which this nation was founded: principles of fairness and equality and opportunity.
Veronica Womack: What happened was most farmers got less than $50,000. It did not solve the debt crisis that Black farmers were in. We now have African American farmers whose Social Security checks and tax refund checks are being attacked because of debt that they have, these USDA loans.
Steve Fennessy: And what’s sort of the long-term effect of — of a debt crisis, for — for a small farmer? What's the generational impact there?
Veronica Womack: Most Georgia farms are family farms — and 95% of African American farms are family farms in Georgia. So if you have been subject to discrimination where you can't grow your business or you can't hold on to your — your family land or you can't get the credit that you need in order to expand or to sustain your business, then that is a generational effect, a financial effect, an emotional effect, a social effect.
Newscast: NBC News correspondent Allison Barber joining us now from Selma, Ala. People here, they say that a lot of the issues in this area: High unemployment rates, poverty, lack of access to basic things like food, health care, as well as just proper sewage — they say all of those problems date back to Reconstruction.
Veronica Womack: I mean, there's so much connected with farming and especially in the South where land is critical. And historically, it was also being independent and having the means to be politically active.
PBS: An organized effort keeps Black citizens from the ballot box.
Residency requirements, poll taxes, literacy requirements.
The very real threat of violence, of lynching were visited upon communities who did try to exercise the right to vote, which was why there are vast communities — so people didn't even attempt to try to vote.
Veronica Womack: When African Americans tried to register to vote and they were kicked off of the land that they were working, it spurred the work to build a land trust in southwest Georgia. Why? Because African Americans were landless and there is a lot of independence that's connected with land ownership.
Steve Fennessy: And one of the terms that's been used when we discuss agriculture in the South is this term: the Black Belt. What exactly is the Black Belt?
Veronica Womack: I'm so excited you asked me that. The Black Belt region is a very distinct region of geographical counties from eastern Texas to the eastern shore of Virginia.
Ask Alabama: Among other things, it's notable that these counties have high African American populations, which is why most people think it's called the Black Belt. But really, it's called the Black Belt for the black soil that's in the area. This topsoil was good for planting crops. There were a lot of farms there back in the day.
Veronica Womack: That rich, fertile soil that this region had that birthed this agricultural economy. So when we think about the rich cultural heritage of the Black Belt, the resilience of the people, I think there's a lot of description that can go to that historical place that I call home.
Steve Fennessy: What does all that mean when you talk about the number of Black farmers getting, you know, reduced year after year?
Veronica Womack: Black Belt culture and Black farming culture is still alive. You know, the shelling of peas on porches and cheering with people through food.
PBS NewsHour: It’s an issue of people who are in exile adapting, adapting to where they are and figuring out how to make it work. You know, in their heads, European, Native, African, Asian food ways get combined and recombined.
Veronica Womack: And so the loss of land also means that cultural heritage that's so important, or when your, you know, your rural community is not able to sustain itself in this new digital economy and the young people have to leave. That also impacts, you know, the sustainability of this rich Black Belt cultural heritage that we have.
Steve Fennessy: As executive director of the Rural Studies Institute at Georgia College and State University, you are, all the time, talking with — with farmers throughout the South, Black farmers in particular. What is the challenge that they're articulating to you? What are they up against?
Veronica Womack: There's quite a bit that they're up against. Many of them are in communities that may not have broadband access.
Newscast: high speed Internet. Just 3% of people in urban areas lack access to broadband, but in rural areas, 35% of people have no access at all.
Veronica Womack: Sixty-three percent of African American farmers in Georgia don't have access to broadband.
PBS NewsHour: The Internet is not a luxury. In fact, last year, a federal court defined it as a basic utility, like running water or electricity. But for millions of rural Americans, high-speed Internet ends before the county line.
Veronica Womack: One particular farmer that really stays on my mind a lot is someone who lost family property. And just the guilt that that person still carries around with him not being able to hold onto that land in the 1980s, when that land has been in your family since after emancipation or acquired during Reconstruction, and your family has kept that land even throughout all of the violence and turmoil that African Americans have — have had to endure. To lose that land on your watch is something that many of these farmers never get over. And so while we're talking about the economic toll, the financial toll that this systemic discrimination has — has provided, I want us to also think about African American farmers and farmers of color beyond just the stats.
John Boyd Jr.: I myself faced discrimination by the Department of Agriculture, where I was spat on by a farm loan officer. I was called the N-word by the highest official at farm service agency here in the United States. I had my application tore up and threw in a trash can and was deterred from applying for federal assistance and federal loans. So there's a long-standing pattern and history of discrimination, discrimination against Black farmers.
Veronica Womack: These are human beings. These are families. This is family heritage, emotional connection. And that's hard to get over.
Steve Fennessy: Just ahead, how the Biden administration's COVID-19 relief plan could help Black farmers in Georgia and small towns across the state. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today, I'm Steve Fennessy. We're talking about the problems faced by Black farmers and how they could benefit from the Biden administration's American Rescue Plan. The plan includes $4 billion for debt relief for socially disadvantaged farmers and more than a billion dollars goes to create a new racial equity commission designed to identify systemic racism in USDA programs. Georgia Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock lobbied hard for the package to include relief to rural communities.
United States Senate audio: The senator from Georgia.
Raphael Warnock: For too long, farmers of color have been left to fend for themselves, not getting the support that they deserve from the USDA, making it even more difficult for them to recover from this pandemic. We have an opportunity here to lift all of our rural communities by aiming the aid where it is needed given our historic past — which is very much present.
Steve Fennessy: So catching up to the events of the last few weeks, how does a provision within that that's aimed towards disadvantaged farmers, how does that become part of a COVID relief bill?
Veronica Womack: When you look at this American recovery plan? I would be remiss if I did not mention the importance of Black decision makers in the agricultural committees in the House and the Senate.
Newscast: Three months ago, several senators introduced the Justice for Black Farms Act aimed at overturning discriminatory practices implemented by the Agriculture Department. The bill includes a commission to study the legacy of discrimination against Black farmers and protections for land ownership.
Veronica Womack: As well as David Scott in Georgia, who is the first African American chairman for the House Agriculture Committee.
NPR News: ... Committee Chairman Scott, good to have you here. We are talking about more than a century of discrimination and exclusion. So how much can this measure really do?
David Scott: Let me just say that folks have got to understand this is no preferential treatment. This is no reparation. This is business. It is business that has been long overdue.
Veronica Womack: This is an important time in African American agriculture, in the history of this nation.
David Scott: Nobody has paid their dues for farming and agriculture like African American people. We were the pioneers in agriculture in slavery under the lash of the whip. I was born on a farm in Aynor, South Carolina. My grandfather's — my grandfather got that farm in the ‘30s. And back during that period, 18.9% of all the farms in the South were owned by Black farmers. You know what it is today? Less than two percent.
Steve Fennessy: Well, when we talk about the five or six billion dollars specifically apportioned to socially disadvantaged farmers within the context of the bill, what's it intended for?
Veronica Womack: The biggest focus is debt relief.
Newscast: Another one billion dollars for assistance, which includes inheritance and property issues.
Veronica Womack: There's funding for the supply chain.
Newscast; Anyone who's gone grocery shopping in the U.S. has likely encountered long lines and empty shelves.
Veronica Womack: And they're a part of the bill.
PBS NewsHour: Greg Ferrara, president of the National Grocers Association, which represents over 1500 independent grocers operating nearly 9000 stores. He's here with us now. And thanks for being here.
Greg Ferrara: Thanks for having me.
PBS NewsHour: So people will walk into stores and see empty shelves are seeing these pictures all over social media. Why is that happening and how quickly are they being resolved?
Greg Ferrara: Our supply chain is experiencing truly unprecedented event with this crisis. We've never seen levels like this across the United States and that is actually impacting the supply chain. So when you go into stores, if you see empty — empty shelves, it's taken us a while to get the product flowing through the supply chain back to the stores. But it is coming.
Veronica Womack: When you think about the pandemic, the logistics of our supply chain for food was exposed during COVID and there were a lot of examples in rural places where we needed to do some investment.
NPR News: …another $ 1 billion for assistance, which includes inheritance and property issues, and also a racial equity commission to root out discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Veronica Womack: And so this equity commission will investigate the programs and services that are provided by USDA to ensure that they are accessible to all farmers in rural communities.
David Scott: You can’t move in that direction to solve a problem unless you get the proper intelligence.
NPR News: For more on this, we're joined now by Secretary Vilsack. He was just recently confirmed again: He also led the department under President Obama. Secretary Vilsack, welcome. Thanks for joining us.
Tom Vilsack: Well, thank you.
Veronica Womack: Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, appointed a USDA senior advisor on racial equality. So that is like the highest ranking person in racial justice the USDA had.
NPR News: So why this approach? What informed it?
Tom Vilsack: The fact is that there was discrimination in the '70s and '80s and into the '90s at USDA that made it very difficult for socially disadvantaged producers to access, fully and completely, the programs at USDA. And the result, of course, is that over a period of time, they get further and further behind. And the reason being as many of the programs at USDA are designed to benefit those who produce, and if your loan wasn't granted on time, if your interest rate was higher, if you didn't get a loan, then you couldn't necessarily keep up with your neighbor in terms of production. You weren't able to buy the newest equipment. You weren't able to get the best seed. You weren't able to buy the farm next to you to be able to expand your operation. So over a period of time, a system that basically rewards production created a gap between those who were advantaged and those who were socially disadvantaged.
Veronica Womack: But the implementation piece is the key. What happens now? What's going to happen on the ground? How do we engage young farmers to sustain the farmers that we already have in order to build that strong rural Black Belt economy that we all would like to see?
Steve Fennessy: You know, I was watching the news the other day and I saw Sen. Lindsey Graham; he said that the debt relief component of this amounted to reparations.
Lindsey Graham: Let me give you an example of something that really bothers me in this bill. If you're a farmer, your loan will be forgiven up to 120% of your loan — not 100%, but 120% of your loan — if you're socially disadvantaged, if you're African American or some other minority. But if you're a white person, if you're a white woman, no forgiveness. That’s reparations; what has that got to do with COVID?
Steve Fennessy: How does that make you feel?
Veronica Womack: I don't see it as reparations when you think about the many generations of African American farmers and farmers of color who labored under those discriminatory practices. I see it as focusing in on what was done in a negative manner and putting resources toward correcting those wrongs. We have to think about the rural South in particular as a place that has not necessarily received the infrastructure resources that it needs in order to be competitive in the 21st century. So I think COVID itself revealed a lot about rural places that a lot of people didn't know. So when you talk about moving schools online or telemedicine and you realize that a significant percentage of rural communities are not in a place where they can even, you know, access high-speed broadband.
Newscast: …High speed Internet; just 3% of people in urban areas lack access to broadband, but in rural areas, 35% of people have no access at all. That accounts for about 22 million Americans.
Veronica Womack: The pandemic made it much worse. The COVID pandemic has made shaky ground for African American farmers and farmers of color quicksand.
Steve Fennessy: I think about 2020 and how it's been very much a wakeup call for a segment of American society. Are we starting to become more aware of the importance of — of Black farmers to not just the economy of agriculture, but to the social and cultural fabric of the country?
Veronica Womack: I think — I think so. I think that there has been a lot of education to go around in many, many areas during this pandemic. So having discussions about how did we get here, how did African American farmers get into the debt or not being able to pay their debt off? When we have discussions about the policy implementation and lending practices and the lack of information-sharing and lack of support that has gone on for many generations and resulted in the numbers of Black farmers decreasing as well as their inability to acquire land or keep land. I think this gives us a time of inflection here. This is a rescue plan to get us over the pandemic, right? But we still need some attention to these rural communities so that they can thrive.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Professor Veronica Womack, executive director of Georgia College and State University's Rural Studies Institute in Milledgeville. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris' Atlanta visit on Friday had been intended to promote the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue plan. But after a gunman massacred eight people, including six Asian women at three different stores across metro Atlanta on Tuesday, the White House announced a change to the focus of Biden and Harris visit. The president and vice president now plan to meet with members of the Asian American community in Atlanta, as well as visit the CDC for an update on the pandemic and the ongoing COVID-19 vaccination campaign. For more on these developing stories, visit GPB.org.
I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple. Sean Powers and Jess Mador produce our show. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.
Transcript by Khari J. Sampson