On May 2, 2023, as a part of the Pointing the Farm Bill Towards Racial Justice Summit, RAFI Policy Director Margaret Krome-Lukens participated in a Senate briefing on racial justice in the Farm Bill. Her remarks on the Fair Credit for Farmers Act, and the stories that drove us to fight for this bill, are copied below, edited for brevity.
Good morning everyone! My name is Margaret Krome-Lukens, and I am the Policy Director at RAFI, also known as the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA. RAFI challenges the root causes of unjust food systems, supporting and advocating for economically, racially, and ecologically just farm communities. We are based in North Carolina and work with farmers in the Southeast United States, including the US Caribbean territories, and across the nation. Our programs help farmers fight corporate consolidation, access USDA programs, expand to new markets, connect with faith communities, breed regionally adapted seeds, and navigate financial crisis. Much of that work happens through, or focuses on, our Farmers of Color Network. We combine on–the–ground practical services and policy advocacy to ensure farmers have access to the tools they need to make the right choices for their farms and families as well as for their communities and the environment.
One of our top priorities for this Farm Bill, which I am here to talk to you about today… is called the Fair Credit for Farmers Act. It is based on the belief that all farmers deserve fair treatment at the Farm Service Agency. This has not always been the case; but with this bill, we are seeking a fundamental shift in the dynamic between farmers and FSA, to a relationship where farmers have protections and can be co-equal partners with FSA staff in seeking farm success. With our partners at the National Family Farm Coalition, we have worked with Senator Gillibrand and her staff to write a bill we think is huge progress towards that goal, and we want to thank them for their commitment and time to this cause.
I mentioned previously that all RAFI policy work comes from the work we do directly with farmers, and the Fair Credit for Farmers Act emerges directly from our work in our “Farm Advocacy” program.
The word “advocate” can mean many different things in different contexts. In our Farm Advocacy program, we assist farmers who are in financial crisis with expert, in-depth technical assistance to navigate their financial options and find a way through tough times. This work often involves helping farmers access FSA credit. We help family farms of all types and descriptions, and our lead farm advocate Benny Bunting has helped, and often saved, hundreds of farms over decades of this work.
When Benny sits down at a farmers’ kitchen table or walks into an FSA office with them, he gets a close-up view of the ways that our current laws and regulations—and often, the ways they are implemented by agency staff—can either help or hinder farms. The Fair Credit for Farmers Act emerges from those experiences; and so I want to give you a sense of why this bill matters, by sharing some of those farmers’ stories with you.
In these stories, one of the main themes you will hear is agency staff seeking ways to either deny or delay, farmers from getting the benefits they are seeking. While we also have stories to tell of supportive agency staff, one principle that has emerged in our work is that the places for staff discretion in the process are the places you find discrimination. We believe that farmers’ experiences at the agency – and, by correlation, often their financial situation as well – should not be dependent on the goals of the person sitting in the administrator’s office or the attitude of the person sitting in the county office. We are seeking improvements at FSA that will result in a better and more fair experience for farmers in all future administrations.
I will also note that while we have changed the names of these farmers to protect their privacy, these are their actual stories; they are also only snapshots of longer stories of struggle and endurance, which I, unfortunately, don’t have time to share fully or do justice to today.
Sharla Roberts and her husband are beginning farmers of color raising vegetables, herbs, and eggs on their farm. They applied to FSA for a $30,000 microloan to help supply all the little things it takes to get your product grown, harvested, and to market – hand tools, wheelbarrows, deer fencing, seeds, coolers, wash bins, insurance, LLC fees, and more. They were told that since they weren’t buying a tractor or something big that the agency could take back, that nothing could be considered as collateral, and that they would have to put up their home as collateral. The agent said “they probably wouldn’t want to do that and risk losing their house,” and when Sharla asked for recommendations for other ways to fund start-up, they were advised to pull their application completely and told to just “shoestring it along” or apply for personal credit cards. Over-collateralization is one of the main mechanisms of discrimination, by which the agency can either discourage a farmer from applying in the first place, or put a farmer’s assets – and often home – unnecessarily at risk.
Bill Jenkins was a Black farmer who wanted to start a fish operation on land passed down through his family. He was approved for FSA loans for a little over $100,000. Bill spent half of the loan and began building his facility when his loan got changed to a new office. The new office notified him that his loan was not sufficiently collateralized, and they de-obligated the unspent part of the loan – basically said, never mind – you’re not getting the rest of what you were approved for. The record shows that Bill had done nothing wrong, but at this point, he had spent $50K, and his unfinished facility and equipment couldn’t generate income without being completed with the remainder of the loan he had been approved for. He then found himself in a position where he was supposed to pay back that $50K with money he was never given the opportunity to make. Eventually, the agency accelerated his loan – which is when they say, “Nevermind the original payment timeline, your entire principal is due back now, and if you can’t pay it back, we’ll foreclose on you.”
FSA’s moratorium on adverse actions during the pandemic took Bill’s situation from urgent crisis to prolonged limbo. Luckily, when Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, including Section 22006, with funds for farmers in financial distress, Bill qualified and was a beneficiary of those funds. But that single-event debt relief from Congress is the only reason that Bill did not lose his family land from a circumstance created entirely by agency error and mismanagement. While thankfully Bill is still on his land, he is no longer farming and the time and money he lost in the process have not been replaced, nor is there a way to repair the prolonged stress he had to endure in the ordeal.
A “write-down” is an option for debt forgiveness for FSA borrowers in financial distress, with three qualifications – the farmer has to be in the distress due to circumstances out of their control, they must have acted in good faith, and the write-down must be in the best interest of the agency. This was the case for brothers Anthony and Franklin Nolan, white beginning farmers, when hurricane-driven winds and flooding brought disaster to their vegetable farm, and they agreed to a write-down in mediation, on the assurances of the FSA agent that it wouldn’t impact their future eligibility. Unfortunately, neither they nor the agent realized he did not have the authority to make that commitment: the law forbids FSA from making loans to farmers who have had write-downs.
Skipping several years, a lot of hard work, and more bad luck, last year we helped Franklin’s wife Rose assume responsibility for the farming operation, in large part because Franklin and Anthony were no longer eligible for FSA loans – and we helped her get her first FSA operating loan. This year she went back for her second annual operating loan. After prolonged back and forth and delay with the loan officer, the day Rose went in to close on her loan, she was told that in order to attain the 150% collateralization which many agents believe is the standard minimum, she would have to include her home as collateral. Out of time to do the paperwork needed to present other options to FSA, Rose signed on the dotted line. The Nolans are still on their land and still farming, but now the worries that keep them up at night include the possibility of losing their home if bad luck comes knocking again.
If a farmer feels their FSA loan has been denied erroneously, they can appeal through the National Appeals Division (NAD). Any time a farmer winds up needing to appeal their loan denial, or “adverse decision” to the National Appeals Division, you can basically guarantee that they are going to miss the growing season for which they were applying for the loan. The appeal process usually takes at least 3 ½ months, and often longer. In some cases, the agency intentionally puts the farmer through multiple appeals processes, by coming up with new reasons to deny the farmer that weren’t debated in the original appeal.
Ronnie Ware is a Black beginning farmer who along with his brother and wife, is starting a diversified vegetable operation. His loan application was denied on the basis of eligibility. We joined Ronnie in his appeal hearing and got a favorable decision: the administrative judge said that Ronnie was, in fact, eligible. FSA then issued a second adverse decision based on their opinion that his loan would not cash flow, forcing Ronnie into a second appeal. While we eventually got a different loan approved with Ronnie, he lost an entire season and went through months of delay in a second appeals process which the agency could have just as easily included in their denial the first time around. There is currently no good mechanism to compensate farmers who have lost a season through agency denials or delay tactics.
I wish I had time to tell you more stories – we have many more. The overall point I would like to make is that farmers deserve fairness when they go into an FSA office to apply for a loan, or to restructure existing debt when they’ve hit hard times. With the Fair Credit for Farmers Act, the goal is a shift in the dynamic between farmers and FSA, to a relationship where farmers have protections and can be co-equal partners with FSA staff in seeking farm success.
The Fair Credit for Farmers Act would limit over-collateralization on farm loans and protect farmers’ homes: it stipulates a maximum of 100% collateralization of FSA loans, with farmers’ homes only allowed as the last option for collateral. It also ensures that farmers can get their homes removed as collateral once they have paid down enough of the loan so their homes are no longer at risk. For farmers who are in delinquency, this bill adds protections against FSA taking all of their assets as collateral – the exact provision which put Bill’s entire farm so unfairly in jeopardy.
The Act also restores eligibility for farmers who have had write-downs. Given the circumstances which must be in place to have gotten a write-down in the first place – and given how many farmers we know who wound up in financial distress in the first place from repeated delays, denials, and appeals from the agency – we believe this is a fair way to restore access to credit to farmers who have acted in good faith.
This Act also requires FSA to list all potential reasons for a denial on their initial decision letter to a farmer. If a farmer wins an appeal on the first reason for denial, there is no reason to have to go through another appeal for an issue the agency knew about from the beginning. For farmers with an annual adjusted gross income below $300,000, it also changes the burden of proof in an appeal from the farmer to the agency. Farmers are usually not lawyers or experts on detailed regulations, and shouldn’t have to be to have a fair chance at prevailing in an appeal.
The Act expands the scope of how equitable relief can be used. Given the very real, and sometimes devastating, impact of losing a season through an appeals process, we believe the farmer should be due financial compensation when the farmer was impacted because of agency error.
Without going into too much more detail, this Act also eliminates the current limit on the number of years a farmer can be eligible for an FSA loan; adds debt refinancing as an eligible purpose for an FSA loan; enacts a targeted, two-year interest-free deferral on direct loan payments, and waives guaranteed loan fees for historically underserved farmers and ranchers for two years.
I very much appreciate your time and attention today.