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USDA, Prairie View A&M leaders discuss debt relief plan for farmers of color
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USDA, Prairie View A&M leaders discuss debt relief plan for farmers of color

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In March, Congress designated $4 billion in debt relief to about 17,000 socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers and producers in an effort to address inequities caused by discrimination.

Though a federal judge temporarily halted the program pending a permanent ruling, USDA officials met Tuesday with local producers and Prairie View A&M leaders to raise awareness and answer questions about the funds.

The provision, the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, is part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021; if ultimately allowed to proceed, it would cover up to 120% of outstanding debt for Latino, Black, Native American and Asian American farmers and ranchers. Another $1 billion is designated for the USDA to use for grants, scholarships and other programs for farmers of color.

“The American Rescue Plan Act seeks to address the cumulative effects of discrimination among socially disadvantaged producers with a program of debt relief and long-term racial equity work,” the USDA website reads. “For much of the history of the USDA, socially disadvantaged producers have faced discrimination — sometimes overt and sometimes through deeply embedded rules and policies — that have prevented them from achieving as much as their counterparts who do not face these documented acts of discrimination.”

On Tuesday afternoon, more than 80 people, including numerous Prairie View A&M faculty members and stakeholders and dozens of Texas producers, gathered at the Fletcher Williams Farm in Prairie View for a three-hour presentation and discussion about the debt relief program.

A Wisconsin-based federal judge issued a temporary restraining order halting the USDA from making debt relief payments after a lawsuit was brought forth on behalf of 12 white farmers who stated that the program is itself racially discriminatory.

A USDA spokesperson told Reuters on Tuesday that the department cannot appeal the temporary order as it awaits a broader ruling, but that it “will continue to forcefully defend its ability to carry out this act of Congress and deliver debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers.”

Dewayne Goldmon, USDA senior adviser for racial equity to the Secretary of Agriculture, said following Tuesday’s event that farm subsidies have disproportionately gone to white producers, and the debt relief is an effort to mitigate such discrimination.

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“The overarching issue is the fact that agriculture is a profession in which, when done correctly, each generation builds on the successes of the prior generations,” Goldmon said. “They inherit a certain amount of resources and get to upgrade, reinvest and acquire land and equipment – but if you’ve been discriminated against and denied access, the flip side is also true: Each successive generation suffers from the discrimination offered to their forebears.”

A 2018 Tufts University analysis found that the USDA long discriminated against producers of color through loan denial and payment delay. That report stated that in 1920, 14% of farm owners were Black; in 2012, Black farmers owned 1% of U.S. farm land.

During the Prairie View event, area producers asked Goldmon and his USDA colleague Lisa Ramirez questions about the funds, and also offered a range of reflections about the effects of race, discrimination and the COVID-19 pandemic on farming and ranching.

Kim Ratcliff, who is president of 100 Ranchers, Inc. and a member of the USDA’s Advisory Committee on Minority Farmers, told The Eagle on Tuesday that the debt relief program can serve as something of a “restart button” for farmers of color.

“A lot of it is historical. You’ve really got to go back almost to the Civil War, where we were not at the table,” Ratcliff said. “It’s just recently that we’ve had a seat at the table to explain what’s going on in our farms and why we’re losing our farms.”

Ratcliff said 100 Ranchers is an organization working to serve underserved farmers and promote profitable generational farming. She said barriers to successful generational farming include a lack of access to capital, technology and other societal trends. Ratcliff said private institutions ought to use the USDA program as a model in terms of addressing inequities.

Horace D. Hodge, Prairie View A&M’s USDA liaison, served as the Tuesday event’s emcee. He said after the forum that Prairie View supports the initiative and is assisting with reaching producers and informing them of the program.

“The mission of Prairie View A&M is to work with those who are underserved and with producers who have limited resources. The outreach piece of this is very important, and that’s why we had to take this to the community,” Hodge said. “This gives them a restart. It alleviates the financial stress that is embedded in the systemic racism of the USDA, and it also gives producers hope that they can hold on to their land and reduce land loss of people of color.”

For more information on the debt relief program, visit farmers.gov/americanrescueplan.

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