Category Archives: Policy

Sustainable Farmers Lobby Congress

Congress is diligently working on legislation to renew the Farm Bill.

Sorry, that’s a lie. Congress is on vacation and a year behind in drafting the farm bill.

The farm bill is reauthorized every 5 years which last happened in 2018. Congress kicked the can down the road by continuing the 2018 legislation. This is not great as the world changed since the last farm bill. It’s not all bad news, though, Congress’ tardiness provides an opportunity for people who care about equity, healthy food, a cleaner more resilient environment, and sustainable livelihoods to influence the next farm bill.

Last month, hundreds of such folks met in Washington DC for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) conference & lobbying. This included a large delegation from Illinois – organized by the Illinois Stewardship Alliance. Our son, Richard (Dominic) attended as a Farm Bill Fellow. He joined other farmers and advocates to press IL representatives and senators to support four primary objectives:

  • Racial Equity across the food system
  • Climate Resilience
  • Investments in Health for Rural and Urban Communities
  • Level the playing field for small and mid-sized farms.

Racial Equity

The USDA has a long history of discrimination against Black farmers especially in regard to finance. A class action case (Pigford v. Glickman) was brought against the USDA.

Pigford v. Glickman was the culmination of years of discrimination against Black farmers. For decades, Black farmers experienced unfair treatment by their local USDA county committees when they applied for farm loans or assistance. They were denied loans, waited longer for loan approval, and faced worse loan terms than white farmers. The consequences were devastating, with many Black farmers facing foreclosures, high debt, and the potential loss of their profession. What’s more, when farmers elevated their complaints to the USDA, the agency was unresponsive. Between 1920 and 1999, 98.1% percent of Black farmers left their profession and 85% of the land owned by Black farmers was lost. In the same period, White farmers collectively saw the number of acres owned grow slightly and their numbers drop by approximately 66%.

https://heller.brandeis.edu/iere/news/press-releases/2022-01-18-pigford-project.html

The plaintiffs were victorious and 15,000 Black farmers received $50,000 each, but the issues of crushing debt, farm foreclosures, and continued unequal treatment continue to be an issue. The discrimination was not limited to Black farmers. Native American farmers won a $760 million settlement which included $80 million in debt relief (more on that case from NPR). Unfortunately, untenable debts persist.

The Biden administration is trying to rectify the situation. The American Rescue Plan of 2021 included $4 billion in debt relief for Black farmers but it was blocked when white farmers sued claiming the plan discriminated against them.

Delayed but not deterred, the Biden folks went back to work on the problem and wrote $3.1 billion in debt relief for “economically distressed” farm borrowers, effectively side stepping race, but reaching Black and other farmers discriminated against in loan and assistance programs. (Details here.)

These steps toward equity in farm policy took decades to achieve and have been fought by entrenched interests every step of the way. It’s indicative of the structural and systemic biases built in to the foundation of USDA. For this reason, everyone who seeks an equitable food and farm system must continue the work. It can be frustrating and exhausting, but the measures ensconced in the Inflation Reduction Act are wins to celebrate. They provide evidence that dogged work over time makes a difference.