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Booker and Warnock Bills Advance Justice for BIPOC Farmers

For Immediate Release:
Media Contact: Beth Hauptle, [email protected], 919.903.2525

[Pittsboro, NC – February 12, 2021] The Rural Advancement Foundation International – USA (RAFI-USA) is pleased to see the introduction of two bills this week which would begin to deliver long-awaited justice for Black, Indigenous, and farmers of color. RAFI-USA supports debt relief for farmers, particularly for farmers of color who have experienced decades of discrimination from U.S. Department of Agriculture. These bills are an important start and lay the foundation for future work.

The Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, introduced by Senator Reverend Warnock and co-sponsored by Senators Booker, Luján, and Stabenow, would deliver $4 billion of direct debt forgiveness to farmers of color — a group that continues to face discrimination. The bill also contains $1 billion for activities at USDA to root out systemic racism and provide more support for BIPOC farmers. USDA has indicated its support for the bill.

The Justice for Black Farmers Act, reintroduced in the 117th Congress by Senator Booker and co-sponsored by Senators Warren, Gillibrand, Smith, Warnock, and Leahy, would expand Black-owned farmland via a land grant program, establish an independent civil rights review board for USDA, and make important reforms for credit and livestock industry policy.

Benny Bunting, RAFI-USA’s Lead Farmer Advocate, has spent decades helping hundreds of farmers navigate financial crisis. “We have heard so many stories over the years from farmers of color who have experienced discrimination,” Bunting says. “Sometimes it’s a local agent who declines to tell a farmer about helpful programs which they are offering to white farmers in the area; sometimes it’s an operating loan which is held up administratively until the farmer’s season is ruined. Sometimes it is intentionally predatory lending. We see the harm caused by these practices as well as the missed opportunities they represent for farmers of color. The remedies included in these bills are appropriate, justified, and long overdue.”

Tahz Walker is the Senior Program Manager of RAFI-USA’s Farmers of Color Network, which among other activities, provides small grants to farmers of color via its Infrastructure Fund. “We founded the Network in 2017, and it has expanded incredibly quickly since then,” Walker says. “It’s a problem that we still wind up needing to fund a lot of the same projects which USDA programs could or should fund because farmers of color have not been able to access those resources through USDA agencies, or do not trust that they won’t themselves become victims of predatory lending. They are looking for a safer and more accessible alternative. They’re also looking for alternative markets because they are not wanting to take on a lot of debt.”

Debt is a pressing issue for many small farms. Caught between retail input purchases and wholesale market outlets, commodity prices which make it difficult or impossible to make a profit, and years of USDA policy which drove farms to get big or get out, small farmers often wind up collateralizing their land and homes in order to continue farming. Last year, RAFI-USA supported legislation to provide one-time loan forgiveness of up to $250,000 for direct USDA operating, ownership, and emergency loans to any farmer with an average adjusted gross income of $300,000 or less over the previous five years. We continue to support debt forgiveness for small farmers. 

While USDA will never be able to undo the land and farms lost, and the opportunities denied to farmers of color, these bills are an important beginning to repair some of the damage which has been done and to move in the direction of justice, as well as to build a foundation for future debt relief legislation for small farmers. RAFI-USA supports the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act as well as the Justice for Black Farmers Act, and we encourage members of Congress to likewise support these important steps towards justice for farmers of color.

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