The federal government is projected to issue record subsidies to farmers across America this year. The cash has been a boon to a significant part of President Donald Trump's rural base, particularly in the run-up to the election next week. However, Black farmers, whose numbers have been dwindling for generations for many reasons, say they have yet to see any big changes to keep their farms afloat.
"In a few instances, some Black farmers we know have been saved by Covid relief funds," said Angie Provost, wife of Wenceslaus "June" Provost, whose family owned a 5,000-acre sugar cane farm in New Iberia, Louisiana. They lost it in 2014 because of underfunding and because federal loans did not arrive soon enough. Their experience is part of a larger, documented form of discrimination that Angie Provost refers to as "the plantation economics of the South.
"The bailout should be called a buyout for votes — not that the farmers don't need them," she said.
Trump engaged in a trade war with China in 2018, and his administration created a subsidy program to mitigate farmers' losses. Retaliatory tariffs by China, natural disasters and the pandemic have dealt such big blows to nearly all of the country's agricultural exports that this year alone, the subsidies are estimated to reach a record $46 billion, according to the New York Times.
Black farmers say this level of aid has passed them by, not just in 2020, but also historically.
"We have lived under economic terrorism for decades," said Georgia farmer Eddie Slaughter, one of the hundreds of Black farmers whose land is in foreclosure because of documented racist practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
John Boyd of Baskerville, Virginia, founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, which has 116,000 members in 42 states, said, "That money went predominantly to white farmers and large corporate farmers." In 2019, The Counter, a nonprofit news organization focused on food and agriculture, reported that 99 percent of the subsidies provided to farmers linked to the trade war with China went to white farmers.
Boyd, who raises cattle and grows corn, wheat and soybeans, called Trump's trade war on China "devastating."
"The administration decided they would take on China and didn't open up any other markets for farmers, something that would have been common sense to me," said Boyd, who blamed "the arrogance of the president." Even though a majority of farmers voted for Trump, Boyd said "I didn't, and I won't, and I don't think many other Black farmers will."
Researchers Zoe Willingham and Abril Castro of the think tank the Center for American Progress wrote that agriculture in the U.S. is a prime example of the ways structural racism "has robbed Black farmers of the opportunity to build wealth." This racism, they wrote, has contributed to "the loss of more than 36 million acres of farmland between 1920 and 1978."
Black farmers filed official complaints about mistreatment that typically went ignored. After winning a class action suit against the USDA in the late 90s, they considered the creation of the office of assistant secretary for civil rights at the USDA in 2003 an important victory. The Trump administration has left the position unfilled, although there are an associate assistant secretary, a deputy secretary and an acting chief of staff for civil rights.
Meanwhile, Black farmers have still witnessed friends lose their homes and livelihood because agents at the Farmers Home Administration, or FHA, a USDA agency that ended in 2006, denied them privileges extended to whites. For years, it was documented that many agents didn't trust Black farmers, so instead of issuing them no-strings-attached checks, they only gave them managed accounts that required oversight by FHA managers. Consider the story of Slaughter, the Georgia farmer.
Slaughter borrowed $265,000 from the USDA in 1986 to buy "both of my farms and irrigation and everything I needed to farm," he said. But the loan ruined Slaughter’s credit. He couldn't borrow money. His farm went into foreclosure, and for the past 17 years he has lived off the rent someone else pays him to farm his 200 acres.
He explained, when a white farmer goes to the local USDA office and is approved for a loan, the farmer "gets a check and goes back to farming." When Black farmers are approved, the structure of the loans they'd qualify for would require them to go to the bank with a county supervisor from the USDA, who has to co-sign the loan, Slaughter said.
That then meant that whenever Slaughter needed money from his loan, he had to drive 60 miles to the local USDA office to get the county supervisor to sign a check for him.
Most Black farmers he knew had supervised accounts, he said. "And white farmers did not. If I saw equipment I wanted to buy and it was on sale and I wanted to take advantage of that sale, the county supervisor could say, 'You don't need it.'"
Or take another example: "The same thing happens with buying peanuts. If I find good-quality seeds with 98 percent germination and I want to buy them, I have to run 60 miles to his office for him to sign a check. If he's not there and I have to go back, by the time I get the money, the seeds have been sold."
Slaughter said he believes he is one of the few Black farmers to have received money from the USDA during the Trump administration. The USDA did provide debt relief for Slaughter, but it barely helped. After 17 years in foreclosure, he was owed more in interest than the original principal for his farm loan. And to pay his debt, he said, the government garnished his Social Security checks and tax refunds for nine years.
"The unequal administration of government farm programs, crucial to protecting farmers from an inherently risky enterprise, has had a profound impact on rural communities of color," according to the Center for American Progress.
Two decades ago, Boyd, the Virginia farmer, filed and won the first discrimination lawsuit against the USDA.
He bought his first farm in 1984 and had to make 90-mile trips to the FHA to apply for loans. He did this regularly, and each time he was denied.
Boyd saw white farmers walk in, walk past him and immediately get big checks while he was denied $5,000 loans. The FHA officer was accused of tossing Boyd's applications in the trash, taking naps during their meetings and once spitting his chewing tobacco on Boyd's shirt. The officer met with the nine Black farmers in the county only on Wednesdays.
Eventually, the USDA Civil Rights Office investigated Boyd's complaints, and the officer admitted that they were true. After other farmers stepped forth with similar stories, Boyd founded the National Black Farmers Association in 1995.
Two years later, he and 400 other Black farmers sued the USDA in the landmark lawsuit Pigford v. Glickman, which alleged that USDA officials ignored Black farmers' complaints and denied them loans and other support because of rampant discrimination. In 1999, the government settled the case for $1 billion.
But the settlement was complicated. While some of the farmers received $62,500 each, they were in tremendous debt from years of having been denied needed loans and charged high compound interest. In addition, other Black farmers who didn't know about the lawsuit were left out.
Boyd fought for them, too. But it was a long fight. Meanwhile, many of the aging farmers died, while others lost their farms.
It took eight years of lobbying before Boyd persuaded Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois to be the lead sponsor of the measure to reopen the Pigford case for others. In December 2010, Obama, who was now president, signed a bill authorizing $1.25 billion in compensation to the late claimants, settling the lawsuit known as Pigford II.
Still, Black farmers said their farms remain in foreclosure because they'd accrued so much debt — and the penalties continue. What they need, they said, is debt forgiveness, grants, equity and a way to keep the USDA accountable.
Joe Leonard, an Obama appointee, was the last person to hold the position of the USDA’s assistant secretary for civil rights. He said he and his staff tried to work as fast as possible to process old claims by Black farmers.
Asked by NBC News about filling the position, the USDA said only that the civil rights office "oversees USDA's efforts to ensure that USDA's conducted and assisted programs are free of unlawful discrimination. We provide training, outreach and technical assistance through our 2501 Program."
Under Pigford II, Leonard said, "18,000 Black farmers got $62,500 and $100 million in land write-offs, debt owed specifically to USDA."
Leonard said that while he had more staff members than there had been in previous administrations, the staff needs to be increased in the future to deal with the accumulation of cases to be investigated.
Leonard said his office inherited a huge backlog of cases, because of inconsistency in processing those claims over the years. He said his greatest disappointment was that he wasn't able to help those farmers with legitimate complaints of discrimination who fell outside the Pigford II lawsuit.
Leonard said what Black farmers need now are "grants, not loans."
"This would go a long way in generating generational wealth for Blacks," he said.
The USDA said in an email that "the class action was resolved and monetary, programmatic, and debt relief have been awarded to class members."
After having fought for so long to create a more equitable world for all farmers, Boyd said he is troubled by the signs of divisiveness, like the "rebel" flags he sees flying in his part of rural America "in coordination with the Trump signs." He said they evince a darker time for Black people, the antebellum South.
He recalled that one of his white neighbors recently said that whites "see themselves as a superior race" and that they support the divisive nature of the country these days. But "that's not the America I see at the grocery store," Boyd said. "I see Hispanics, women, Blacks, Native Americans. Even in rural areas, that's the makeup of the U.S."