In 1920 one in seven U.S. farms was operated by black farmers. By 1992 that number had dropped to a mere one in 100, a decline due partly to the USDA’s pervasive racial discrimination in providing loans and subsidies and foreclosing on farms, Jessica Hoffman reports for ColorLines.
Compounding the problem, the USDA’s system for processing civil rights complaints “continues to be deficient despite years of attention,” according to a May 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office. Recalling a farmer who lost his farm to foreclosure before his civil rights claim was reviewed, former USDA civil rights department director Lloyd Wright acknowledged, “We found that the Department of Agriculture was guilty, but we really couldn’t compensate him because his land was gone.” In his first week as Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack highlighted the department’s ongoing struggle with civil rights as a challenge he will prioritize in his new position.
Meanwhile, black farmers have been working for reform. A coalition led by the National Black Farmers Association successfully lobbied for several provisions important to black farmers in the 2008 Farm Bill, including improved outreach to black farmers and a suspension of foreclosures on farmers with pending discrimination claims against the department. Fueling many of these farmer-activists is the knowledge that, in order for the black-owned family farm to endure, they must show young people that it’s possible to make a decent living as a farmer.