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Black farmers say debt relief program is too little, too late

Efforts to help Black farmers victimized by racist governmental policies were bolstered by the most recent Biden administration plan.
Black farmers say debt relief program is too little, too late
Posted at 8:23 PM, Feb 23, 2024

After decades of discrimination at the hands of banks and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Black farmers are hoping the Biden administration's recovery and relief programs are not too late.

Walking around what's left of the land largely sold off from her Arkansas farm, 76-year-old Everlyn Bryant wistfully reminisced.

"It was totally different," she said.

Bryant and her late husband Joe started from humble beginnings to build a farm in the small town of Allport. By 2009, they had 2,500 acres for rice and soybeans — but a drought began to upend everything.

"Everybody had two bad years. No rain, bad crops," Bryant said.

And their lifelong dream began to turn for the worse.

"For some reason, they wanted to foreclose. And that's when I say, my husband got upset but when you farmed all your life and worked hard, and now someone is going to take your land and sell it, and he said, 'No, they'll never sell my land. I'll sell it myself,'" Bryant said. 

She said on multiple occasions she and her husband applied for multiple extensions on their Farm Service Agency loans in 2009 and were given inadequate explanations as to why their requests were denied. Joe's health declined from the stress.

"My husband got upset that he had to sell. And then other people were coming at him wanting to buy it. White farmers. And he was so stressed out. He gave up."

Joe had seven strokes and three heart attacks, and he said he was done. Joe passed away in 2021. 

Bryant and many other Black farmers say systematic discrimination forced them into compromising financial positions. The federal government admitted as much in historic discrimination lawsuits that were supposed to help in the late 1990s.

But Bryant's lawyer says many farmers like the Bryants didn't get relief in time. 

"I think personally that they're waiting for them to die, you know, whether it's in the court system with a continuance or, you know, just down the line with forcing the acceleration of a loan and then eventually foreclosing," said agricultural policy expert and attorney Jillian Hishaw.

The Bryant family sold most of their land to pay their debts.

Bryant hoped the Biden administration's recent attempts to help Black farmers wipe out debts would extend to her, but says her family never got adequate notice that she could apply for relief or get a hearing to address discriminatory conduct they may have faced from the Farm Service Agency.

SEE MORE: Black Family Celebrates Owning Their Land For More Than 150 Years

"Back in the '90s and 2000s, you had certain people in place at the Farm Service Agency offices," said Black farmer Abraham Carpenter. "Most of them were the older Whites, who didn't really favor Blacks too much," Carpenter said.

Carpenter lives in the same part of Arkansas as Bryant, and told Scripps News how common it was to hear local FSA workers use racial slurs.

He didn't lose land, but he's also filed discrimination lawsuits and is trying to help fellow Black farmers.

"Because you're talking about destroying business, destroying credit. You're talking about destroying lives," Carpenter said.

At the turn of the 20th century, Black farmers owned 14% of the nation's crop land. They accounted for around 1 in 10 farmers. By 2023, that number was closer to 1 in 100.

"Every year in the Black community in particular, we lose about 30,000 acres per year in Black land-ownership. And then the loss of the last century is equivalent to over $300 billion," said Hishaw.

Hishaw says efforts to help debt-related land-loss have faltered. Black farmers are disproportionately rejected or ignored for loans, and relief. Still, Hishaw says the federal government and big banks continue taking land from farmers of color.

The attorney adds conservative groups run by former Trump administration officials like Stephen Miller filed reverse-discrimination lawsuits that also delayed justice for Black farmers seeking redress from decades of racist practices in money-lending.

The Inflation Reduction Act is the latest attempt to help. It includes more than $3 billion to help financially distressed Black farmers. A USDA spokesperson told Scripps News it would review "individual requests from borrowers" who "missed payments" or were having "cash-flow issues."

The program is supposed to work for people like Cory Lea, who says his loan from USDA was serviced by a company that eventually became First Bank of Nashville. He says the bank unfairly foreclosed on his land in 2008 when he fell on hard times.

"As part of the guaranteed loan, they were supposed to get permission from the USDA to foreclose. Well, they concealed the information for 13 years, and I finally received it," Lea said.

Lea lost his lawsuit against the bank to get his ranch back, but is appealing. First Bank said it doesn't comment on ongoing litigation. 

These farmers go on looking for what they hope is financial justice.

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