USDA rolls out $4B in relief for Black farmers

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May 24—ATLANTA — The U.S. Department of Agriculture will begin doling out $4 billion in payments to farmers of color as part of the most recent COVID-19 relief package.

The provision in the federal package, championed by U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, is aimed at combatting what many say is decades of loan discrimination against Black farmers by the USDA. The Farm Service Agency expects payments to begin trickling down to about 16,000 farmers as early as June.

A promise when he took office, Warnock pledged to address systemic discrimination against farmers of color and work with the USDA to bring them direct relief after COVID-19 plagued the agriculture industry. Coupled with a history of what leaders have called a biased lending programs, about 17,000 Black farmers indebted to the agency have been driven into foreclosure.

"This debt relief is long overdue. And let me be clear: supporting socially disadvantaged farmers in rural Georgia means supporting local jobs and the local economies they are inextricably a part of," Warnock said.

Eligible farmers will begin to receive notice for payments that will cover up to 120% of outstanding debts. Balances on loans as of Jan. 1 of this year are covered under the program. The USDA will directly pay off outstanding loans with the additional 20% intended to help cover taxes linked to their debts.

"Today, the federal government is taking a critical step to keep its promise to socially disadvantaged farmers through debt relief on eligible USDA loans," Warnock said. "But we must also look forward to ensure we are positioning our farmers for longterm success."

In 2017, according to the USDA, only about 49,000 farmers out of 3.4 million across the country were Black — with 2,870 of those in Georgia. The number is down from nearly a million Black farmers a century ago.

Warnock recently visited Byromville to tout federal relief dollars and acknowledged the generations of disappointment and hardship farmers of color have faced. According to the federal government, Black farmers received less than .1% of the USDA COVID-19 relief funds in the first federal package.

"I feel the responsibility of doing everything I can to finally deliver for these people," he said.

Despite Warnock's efforts, many farmers have remained skeptical that they will receive the promised relief due to decades of mistrust cultivated between them and the federal government. In a notable move, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Fort Valley University over the weekend to announce the relief was officially on its way.

"You folks have struggled and fought for an extended period of time. You represent generations of fighters and strugglers," Vilsack said. "It would be great if we were dealing with issues that have just cropped up and we're dealing with it, but the reality is, we've been dealing with these issues for an incredibly long period of time. The Department of Agriculture has a lot of work to do. Today is very, very important first step."

Recently, the department appointed its first senior advisor for racial equity, who will work within the federal agency to tackle internal roots of systemic discrimination against farmers of color.

The relief program has also stirred controversy. White farmers sued the USDA claiming reverse discrimination against them — a position that has been echoed by some of Georgia's GOP lawmakers. Major banking groups have also asked the USDA to reconsider the plan, arguing it will cut into bank's profits and risk future loans.

"There is a very legitimate reason for doing what we are doing," Vilsack told reporters at the White House earlier this month. "...So we're going to continue to proceed forward and understand that litigation will be what it is."

The federal relief package also includes more than $1 billion for additional investments for farmers of color. The dollars will go toward providing funding for grants and loans to address land access and heirs' property issues, supporting research and education opportunities as well as establishing an equity commission to to address systemic discrimination in the USDA.