OPINION: America's Black farmers need debt relief now

Friday, 30 July 2021 10:00 GMT

A worker picks blueberries during a harvest at a farm in Lake Wales, Florida, U.S., March 31, 2020. Picture taken March 31, 2020. REUTERS/Marco Bello

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Black farmers like me are often denied loans just because of who we are.

Brennan Washington is a farmer and co-owner of Phoenix Gardens in Lawrenceville, Georgia along with his wife, Gwendolyn. Washington works with Southern SARE, Georgia Organics and is the co-founder and former Board Chair of the Georgia Farmers Market Association.

I’ve run a small family farm in Georgia for 15 years. I’m lucky to work alongside my wife and I’m passionate about cultivating the land, but it’s not an easy job.

We’ve been through difficult times, including a devastating fire that burned down our home and destroyed our property. I remember the fear and panic I felt when I got that phone call. My family and I were out of town, and by the time we could return, we had lost everything. What would happen to our business now? 

Luckily, our insurance helped us recover. If we had applied for a loan to cover the costs, we may not have been able to recover at all.

Black farmers like me are often denied loans just because of who we are. For centuries, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has denied farmers of color access to financial opportunities – just last year, the USDA granted loans to white applicants at nearly twice the rate of Black applicants.

Racism in the industry, combined with rampant corporate consolidation, has made it impossible for us to sustain our businesses over time. In 1920 there were nearly one million Black farmers in the U.S. Today there are fewer than 50,000.

Fortunately, I’m part of a tight network of small farmers who helped support us. I shudder to think of other Black farmers going through such a setback without support. Any one of the many climate disasters we are facing today could wipe out a family’s savings and crush their business.

Now, I’m more dedicated than ever to my community. When I travel around the country and speak with Black farmers, I hear that what folks need most is access to capital so they can invest in growing their farms. 

Recently, the USDA promised to address this issue by distributing debt relief payments to farmers of color. I was excited at first, but my hopes were dashed when a handful of extremists launched lawsuits to block the program. This is a feeling Black farmers have experienced over and over.

It's incredibly frustrating to see justice being denied to Black farmers after decades of discrimination. These plaintiffs are trying to enforce a system where some white farmers benefit from the USDA’s discriminatory practices at others’ expense.

Some of the white farmers who are backing these suits could even be farming on land that was stolen from Black farmers.

They can try to stand between me and equal rights, but I'm confident that justice will prevail because debt relief has broad support, and not just among farmers of color.

When I speak with white farmers in my community, it's a relief to hear that they don't agree with these extremists, and they support the program because they understand that it will bolster opportunities for all small farmers.

It’s time to get this program back on track, not just for the Black farmers and other farmers of color who deserve equal opportunity, but for the communities they live in.

Black people are disproportionately likely to live in neighborhoods that lack access to healthy food at affordable grocery stores, where folks must make ends meet with what’s available at dollar stores or fast food restaurants.

This kind of food apartheid results from generations of discriminatory development policies, and we need focused government efforts to reverse this pattern. As we work to address structural racism in programs like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that continues to fail people of color, the USDA debt relief program will be a critical part of the solution.

Independent farmers understand the needs of our communities and I’ve seen Black farmers come together to provide healthy, affordable food to their neighbors. In my own state of Georgia, one in five residents live in a low-income community with limited access to food, so we’re working to expand farmers markets and make sure markets accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

I’ll continue to advocate for programs to support diverse farmers, but I still worry I might see the extinction of the Black farmer in my lifetime. My business has survived against all odds, so we named it Phoenix Gardens – a farm built out of the ashes.

But our success is no miracle, it took hard work to turn adversity into opportunity. Other farmers have faced even greater challenges but have nowhere to turn for assistance. 

Now, it will take commitment from all of us to call for this debt relief program to move forward and support greater equity in agriculture. Black farmers are not looking for a handout, just an even playing field.

So, whether you’re in Georgia or Wisconsin, a rural town or an urban city, you and your community can benefit from local, sustainable food, and it’s time to speak out to support the Black farmers at the forefront of the movement.  

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