Today, June 19th, or Juneteenth marks the anniversary of the announcement in 1865 in Texas that all slaves were freed by General Order No. 3. 1

Soon after, the army promised Black Americans ’40 acres and a mule,’ a vow that was quickly rescinded.2 Thus began a seemingly endless series of broken pledges that, among other rueful outcomes, has resulted in the decimation of Black farm ownership. In 1920, Black Americans owned approximately 1 million farms. One-hundred years later, barely 45,000 farms were Black-owned.3

Making Amends

Recent administrations have sought to make amends. For example, in 1990, lawmakers added a ‘socially disadvantaged’ class of farmers in the farm bill. This has since enabled the USDA to create programs that prioritize getting USDA services to Black farmers. But in the recent COVID bailouts, that prioritization seems to have largely been ignored,

Nearly all of the $9.2 billion bailout provided to farmers last year by the Trump administration went to White farmers, according to the Environmental Working Group. White farmers received $6.7 billion in Coronavirus Food Assistance Program payments, while Black farmers received $15 million and Latino farmers $100 million, according to calculations by the EWG based on U.S. Department of Agriculture data.


In order to correct course the current administration created a provision in the most recent COVID relief package that would make sure to compensate socially disadvantaged farmers.

The program pays up to 120% of direct or guaranteed farm loan balances for Black, American Indian, Hispanic, Asian American or Pacific Islander farmers. President Joe Biden’s administration created the loan forgiveness program as part of its $1.9 trillion COVID-19 pandemic relief plan.


However …

The program has been contested by a group of farmers who have convinced a federal judge to temporarily block payments.

Judge William Griesbach found in an order issued Thursday that the white farmers “are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim” that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “use of race-based criteria in the administration of the program violates their right to equal protection under the law.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Washington Post that the program was needed to address longstanding inequities.

“For generations, socially disadvantaged farmers have struggled to fully succeed due to systemic discrimination and a cycle of debt,” Vilsack said.


Whether the COVID relief provision for Black farmers is allowed to proceed remains to be seen. In the end, it could become yet another in the long list of broken promises to Black farmers by the federal government.

A Call for Transparency

Meanwhile, Rep. Bobby Bush and Sen. Cory Booker introduced the Farm Subsidy Transparency Act. If passed, it could help policy makers track inequity in farm policy. With accurate data, the USDA and private groups could make more effective amends.

The Farm Subsidy Transparency Act, introduced by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), would “direct the Secretary of Agriculture to track the distribution of all farm subsidies by race, gender, and size of the farm operation and to make such information about farm subsidies to the public.”

“We need to have transparency in the affairs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, particularly as it relates to minority loans and minority subsidies,” Rep. Rush, who serves on the House Agriculture Committee and was born on a farm, told Yahoo Finance. “We need to have some bright light shone … we need to know whether or not these funds have been issued evenly.”

If the funds aren’t being fairly distributed, Rush added, “we need to bring that to a screeching halt because this COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen gross inequities in our nation… My bill is meant to remove [and] correct structural inequities that exist in the American farm system and in the Department of Agriculture.”


Happy Juneteenth, America

Today is for celebration, reflection, and hope. Hopefully, the nation’s promises to American Black farmers will be kept.

  1. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Order_No._3
  2. pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/the-truth-behind-40-acres-and-a-mule
  3. cbsnews.com/news/federal-judge-halts-loan-forgiveness-program-for-farmers-of-color/