Policy Update: Justice for Black Farmers Act Seeks to Provide Opportunity and Remedy Injustice - American Farmland Trust

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Policy Update: Sens. Booker, Warren, and Gillibrand Release Justice for Black Farmers Act

On Monday, Senators Warren (D-MA), Booker (D-NJ), and Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act in the Senate. This 78-page bill (summarized below) seeks to address centuries of discrimination in the agriculture sector against Black farmers and ranchers. The legislation would help existing and aspiring Black farmers access and retain land, support technical education for new farmers, reform USDA’s civil rights process, and more. Although the bill is not expected to become law within the current Congress, portions of it could be discussed for incorporation into subsequent legislation, including the 2023 Farm Bill. AFT applauded the introduction of the bill in a statement released yesterday.

The premise of the bill is that Black farmers have endured centuries of discrimination. This discrimination contributed to the current racial disparity of producers, with less than 2% being Black, down from about 14% in 1910. The legislation names some of the injustices faced by Black producers over the years, including legal complications such as forced partition sales of heirs’ property, USDA’s history of loan discrimination, and the Department’s poor response to civil rights complaints.

Additionally, Black farmers were not included in the 1862 Homestead Act which gave 270 million acres to white farmers. In combination with other similar Acts, this was estimated to have generated trillions of dollars of wealth for those landowners and their descendants, according to this article. The Justice for Black Farmers Act seeks to address this past inequity by creating a modern equivalent. The Act proposes a new USDA agency called the Equitable Land Access Service which would grant parcels of land up to 160 acres to eligible Black individuals at no cost. This land would be purchased by USDA at market value and would be transferred to the farmer via an eligible entity organization. Finally, all parcels would have agricultural conservation easements placed on them, and would be subject to certain conservation requirements. Farmers would also be given zero-interest loans and would be required to complete a training course. The Senators hope that this will encourage more Black individuals to enter the sector, and give them the support necessary to prosper.

In addition to granting land, the bill would create other educational opportunities for aspiring farmers, such as a Farm Conservation Corps to help socially disadvantaged youth prepare for a career in agriculture, and by providing additional funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that have agriculture programs.

In addition, the Act addresses USDA’s history of racial injustice by creating a Civil Rights Oversight Board, tasked with overseeing civil rights complaints and FSA county committees. The Act creates an Equity Commission to study the legacy of discrimination against Black farmers. The Act also makes changes to certain USDA programs, including increased funding for LAMP, CSP, and Conservation Technical Assistance (including dedicated funding for specific “climate stewardship practices”), and priority enrollment for socially disadvantaged farmers in certain programs. The Act also includes various amendments to the Packers and Stockyards Act.

Below is a slightly condensed outline of the key provisions of the bill (also available here):

USDA Civil Rights Reform

  • Independent Civil Rights Oversight Board
    • Establishes an independent board to oversee USDA civil rights complaints
    • Empowers the Board to provide oversight over Farm Service Agency county committees
    • Requires the Secretary to produce an annual report on status and treatment of socially disadvantaged farmers by USDA
  • Equity Commission
    • Creates an Equity Commission to study the legacy of discrimination against Black farmers
  • Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR) reforms
    • Mandates a Civil Rights Ombudsman within OASCR to assist individuals with the complaint process
    • Prohibits foreclosure by USDA against any farmer who files a civil rights complaint
    • Requires OASCR to publish reports on the complaints it receives
  • Data collection and reporting
    • Requires the Secretary to make publicly available annual reports on recipients of USDA assistance, including subsidies, broken down by race, ethnicity, and gender.
    • Requires the ERS to conduct research on the status of minority agricultural producers, including their share of land and assistance, and farmworkers.
    • Requires the Secretary to investigate historical misreporting of Black producers in the census and develop procedures to accurately capture the status of minority farmers.

Black Farmer Land Grants

  • Establishment of Equitable Land Access Service
    • Creates the USDA Equitable Land Access Service to administer the land grants program
  • Provision of land grants
    • USDA shall purchase from willing sellers available agricultural land and convey grants of that land of up to 160 acres to eligible Black individuals at no cost. If a sufficient number of applications are filed, the Secretary shall convey not less than 20,000 land grants to eligible Black individuals each year from 2021 through 2030.
  • Identification of land
    • The Secretary shall refer an eligible Black individual seeking a land grant to a qualified entity that receives a grant to assist the eligible individual in identifying available agricultural land that is suitable for purchase by the Secretary and conveyance to the eligible Black individual
  • Restrictions on conveyed land
    • Restricts the land in perpetuity for agricultural use, but with an allowance for constructing 1 primary residence on the land
    • Gives a 5-year right of reentry for the Secretary if the Secretary determines, after giving notice and a reasonable opportunity for a hearing, that an easement requirement attached to that land has been violated and that violation has not been remedied.
  • Eligibility for assistance
    • Beginning on the date of conveyance of a land grant, an eligible Black individual that receives a land grant shall be eligible for 1) a USDA operating loan with an interest rate of 0% for the first 7 years and with no payments for the first 24 months; and 2) a USDA single family home mortgage
  • Farmer training program
    • As a condition on the receipt of a land grant, an eligible Black individual without prior experience in agriculture shall be required to complete, at no cost, a farmer training program provided by a qualified entity.
    • Farmer training shall be available, at no cost, to any eligible Black individual with prior experience in agriculture and to any other socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher.
  • Grants for qualified entities
    • The Secretary shall establish a program to provide grants to qualified entities to:
      • Support eligible Black individuals in identifying land
      • Support eligible Black individuals in acquiring that land through a land grant
      • Support eligible Black individuals in starting up farm operations on that land
      • Provide eligible Black individuals and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers with farmer training; and
      • Provide other assistance, including legal advocacy, succession planning, and support for development of farmer cooperatives, to Black farmers and ranchers
  • Farm Conservation Corps
    • Establishes a “Farm Conservation Corps” to provide socially disadvantaged young adults with the skills necessary to pursue careers in farming and ranching. Each member will receive up to two years housing, subsistence, clothing, medical attention, transportation, and payment for work performed.
    • Members of the Farm Conservation Corps shall serve as on-farm apprentices, at no cost, to socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers and ranchers, and certified organic farmers and ranchers with annual gross farm income up to $250,000.00.
    • To the maximum extent practicable, the Secretary shall enroll not fewer than 20,000 young adults in the Farm Conservation Corps each year from 2021 through 2030
  • Annual report to Congress
    • The Secretary shall make publicly available reports describing data on land grants

Funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)

  • Funding for historically Black colleges and universities
    • $500M per year for 10 years to HBCUs to commence new courses of study and expand existing courses of study focused on careers in agriculture
  • USDA/1890 National Scholars Program
    • Codifies and authorizes $20 million annually for the USDA 1890 National Scholars Program, to provide scholarships for students to attend 1890 Historically Black Land-Grant Universities and employment with USDA during summers and after graduation

Land Retention and Credit Assistance

  • Protections for land ownership
    • Increases funding for the Relending Program to Resolve Ownership and Succession on Farmland from $5 million to $50 million annually
    • Extends funding for the Reports on Land Access and Farmland Ownership Data Collection program to $10 million annually
  • Access to credit for minority farmers
    • Creates a Socially Disadvantaged Farmer and Rancher Bank to provide financing to Black and other socially disadvantaged farmer and rancher owned financial institutions
  • Additional credit assistance
    • Permanently waives the prohibition on refinancing of other debt with FSA Direct Loans and FSA Farm Ownership Loans
    • Removes the eligibility restriction for new FSA loans based on past debt write-down or other loss to the agency
    • Increases the FSA Farm Ownership Loan budget authority to $10 billion
    • Provides USDA loan forgiveness to farmers who filed claims under the Pigford Consent Decree
    • Provides FSA loan eligibility for farmers on heirs’ property if they provide USDA with a tenant in common agreement containing certain information
  • Foreclosure moratorium
    • Prohibits USDA from any foreclosure action on a loan secured by a lien on real property that includes a residence and farmland until one year after the COVID-19 emergency declaration is lifted

Department of Agriculture and Agricultural System Reforms

  • Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP)
    • Scales up funding for LAMP by a factor of ten to help small and mid-size farmers provide fresh nutritious food to more Americans
  • Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA)
    • Triples funding for the CTA program to help farmers and ranchers adopt practices to respond to climate change
  • Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
    • Makes “climate stewardship practices” eligible for supplemental funding under CSP
    • Increase mandatory funding for CSP by $2B per year, with new funding dedicated to fund CSP contracts comprised predominantly of conservation activities
  • Rural Energy for America Program (REAP)
    • Increases funding from $50 million to $500 million per year to provide grants and loan guarantees to expand renewable energy production and increase energy efficiency
  • Conservation and renewable energy programs priority
    • Gives priority to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers for conservation technical assistance, CSP, and REAP

Amendments to the Packers and Stockyards Act (PSA)

  • Unlawful practices
    • Prohibits meatpackers from procuring livestock for slaughter through the use of a forward contract unless the contract contains a firm base price and is bid in an open, public manner
    • Prohibits meatpacker ownership of livestock more than 7 days prior to slaughter
    • Eliminates “pro-competitive effects” or “legitimate business justifications” as defenses to claims arising from a meatpackers’ violation of conduct prohibited under the PSA
    • Requires transparency in contract grower compensation
    • Prohibits the use of a tournament or ranking system for paying contract growers for their capital and services, or any payment mechanism that is based primarily on factors outside the control of the grower
    • Prohibits poultry companies, meatpackers, and swine contractors from retaliating against livestock and poultry farmers for talking to their Member of Congress or other federal officials regarding concerns about their contracts or marketing arrangements, for making lawful disclosures related to potential violations of the PSA, or for joining together in producer associations.
    • Makes clear that individual farmers do not always need to show competitive injury in order to pursue a complaint under the PSA
  • Spot market purchases of livestock by packers
    • Requires that 50% of a covered packer’s daily slaughtered livestock comes through spot market sales from nonaffiliated producers
  • Investigation of live poultry dealers
    • Provides USDA with necessary administrative authority under the PSA to take enforcement action against unfair and deceptive company practices in their dealings with contract poultry growers.

 

About the Author
Emily Liss

Federal Policy Associate

eliss@farmland.org

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