Black farm owners make up 1.3 percent of the country’s 3.4 million farmers.
Kamal Bell, 29, is one of the few still operating. His farm in Durham, North Carolina, could benefit from proposed new farm bill legislation to help increase the number of Black farms and also help existing ones survive.
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The new farm bill, the Justice for Black Farmers Act, has been introduced by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).
The Justice for Black Farmers Act seeks to address and correct historic discrimination in the U.S. Department of Agriculture related to federal farm assistance and lending that caused Black farmers to lose millions of acres of farmland. This discrimination has robbed Black farmers and their families of hundreds of billions of dollars of inter-generational wealth, according to a press release.
The bill would create an annual $8 billion fund to purchase farmland on the open market and then grant it to Black farmers. The goal is to make 20,000 grants per year for nine years with maximum allotments of 160 acres, according to Mother Jones.
About 95 percent of rural farmland across the country is owned by white farmers. It hasn’t always been that way.
In 1920 there were more than 949,000 Black farmers, according to a 2017 report released by the USDA. Today, due to this history of discrimination, there are less than 50,000 remaining Black farmers in the U.S., according to The Guardian.
From the 1860s to the 1920s, white people in dozens of towns violently attacked entire Black communities, forcing them to flee their homes and land using terrorist tactics that included racist mobs, ABC News reported.
The announcement of the farm bill was well-received on Twitter. One user tweeted, “Congratulations to Senators Booker, Warren and Gillibrand. This is truly a substantive beginning to undoing the consequences of systemic racism.”
But some in the ADOS movement are wary of the farm bill, taking note of how it’s written with terms that say it benefits “people of color.” One ADOS supporter tweeted, “Watch out for the trick bag words. I needed to say specifically for Native Black descendants of slavery.”
Another ADOS supporter wrote, “Every cent should go to Black Farmers. Not POC or anyone else. ADOS built this country and has had most everything they built, nurtured stolen from them. Be very specific. American Descendants of Slavery deserve every form or repayment/reparations possible. No more grifting.”
The bill is supposed to help Black farm owners like Bell, the CEO of Sankofa Farms. Bell sees the proposed bill as a step forward. “I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction … but we need to create pipelines for African Americans to be educated on a 21st-century farm,” Bell told ABC News. “The production aspect of how to stay in business isn’t taught to you. … We learned this on our own and from other Black farmers we ended up meeting.”
Bell purchased is farm while he was in college. His goal is to serve as a sustainable food source in urban communities, particularly so-called food deserts where there are few available options for fresh produce, ABC News reported.
A doctoral student, Bell earned a bachelor’s degree in animal sciences and a master’s in agricultural teacher education at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.
“Overtly discriminatory and unjust federal policy has robbed Black families in the United States of the ability to build and pass on intergenerational wealth,” said Sen. Booker. “When it comes to farming and agriculture, we know that there is a direct connection between discriminatory policies within the USDA and the enormous land loss we have seen among Black farmers over the past century. The Justice for Black Farmers Act will work to correct this historic injustice by addressing and correcting USDA discrimination and taking bold steps to restore the land that has been lost in order to empower a new generation of Black farmers to succeed and thrive.”
The Justice for Black Farmers Act will enact policies to end discrimination within the United States Department of Agriculture, (USDA), protect remaining Black farmers from losing their land, provide land grants to create a new generation of Black farmers, restore the land base that has been lost and implement systemic reforms to help family farmers across the U.S.
Ike Mills, the executive director of the Texas AgriForestry Small Farmers and Ranchers, has long pushed for Congress to end discrimination against Black farmers and ranchers. He said he is hopeful about the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which will create an independent civil rights oversight board to reviews appeals of civil rights complaints, investigate reports of discrimination at the USDA and oversee Farm Service Agency County committees.
“The end goal is obviously to make farming and ranching whole by setting aside a land grant entity that would work with them to help them make their land productive, but also to have a mechanism would be key,” Mills told Port Arthur News. “When you participate in a USDA project, you have to come up with a cost-share amount. If a farmer had $20,000 to $30,000, they wouldn’t need the project. Most farmers and ranchers don’t have that operating capital, so you’re at a disadvantage right off the bat.”
Working to end discriminatory practices within the USDA is expected to go a long way in helping Black farmers.
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The bill is a “a quantum leap for justice” that confronts the “racism embedded in the USDA since its founding, and that has been allowed to control the destiny of Black farmers’ lives,” said Lawrence Lucas, president emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees.
Lucas himself was a whistleblower, shedding light on internal USDA racism in a 2008 US House hearing. He helped shape the Booker-Warren bill, which grew out of a letter he and a group of Black farmers and advocates wrote to Sen. Warren during her presidential campaign in 2019, urging her to take on the USDA’s racism and issues of Black farmland loss, Mother Jones reported.
“This is the Black Farmers Civil Rights Act of 2020, and it’s long overdue,” Lucas said.