Part 1 in a series of narratives sharing the stories of resilience in the face of systemic and institutional inequities.
For those of you who have followed RAFI-USA for a while, you’ve likely seen this picture on our website or in a newsletter. This is Benny Bunting, RAFI-USA’s Lead Farmer Advocate (right), with farmer Ryan Pressley and his father, Johnny Pressley, of Augusta, GA. Ryan is one of the many hundreds of farmers supported through our Farm Advocacy program.
2020 brought about a resurgence in conversation and action around racial discrimination in every sector of life in the U.S., including agriculture. We see the statistics about the decline of Black farmers in the U.S. (since 1910, Black farmers have lost 90% of their farmland; Black farmers currently account for only 1.3% of all farmers), but we may not understand how that decline actually occurred and continues to occur. There are of course various contributing factors. Ryan’s story illustrates the main one — that farmers of color, even when running their business the way most farmers do, can face discriminatory obstacle after obstacle that makes success and longevity for their farms difficult to attain.
Farming runs in Ryan’s family
Following WWII, Ryan’s grandparents returned to his grandmother’s 100-acre family farm and purchased an additional 100 surrounding acres outside Columbia, SC. They became one of the first Black peach farmers in the state. Ryan spent weekends at the farm learning how to grow row crops, raise cattle, and tend vegetables. In 2006, Ryan took over all farming operations. And by 2008 he was ready to buy a second property and expand into grass-fed cattle.
With full and clear ownership of the family farm and equipment, Ryan was in a good position to take on the inherent risk of any business expansion. Risk is very real for farmers who may need to take on hundreds of thousands (sometimes millions) of dollars of debt to finance a new operation and then still contend with extreme weather or volatile market conditions.
That’s why RAFI-USA’s Farm Advocacy program exists; it provides expertise and guidance to farmers to save or strengthen their farms when those risks result in a financial crisis. After more than three decades of experience in this field, the team at RAFI-USA knows that it’s not just weather and market conditions that can leave farmers vulnerable. Misinformation, bad servicing, lack of accountability, or outright discrimination from agricultural financial institutions and agencies have the power to sink even the most robust farming operation. We see it happen, over and over again.
The first case of discrimination
After finding a suitable second property for sale in January of 2008, Ryan went to his local agricultural lending business, AgSouth Farm Credit, to present his business plan and apply for a loan. The loan officer informed him that there were no similar grass-fed operations nearby so he would need a few weeks to go visit farms out West to determine operational feasibility. On the way home, Ryan and his father passed a farm that had the exact kind of fencing set-up that he envisioned for the second property.
They stopped and talked with the farmer. It turned out the farmer did indeed have the same kind of grass-fed operation Ryan had just presented. Moreso, he was the previous beef specialist at the nearby agricultural university, had taught the agricultural loan officer Ryan just met with, and even talked with that loan officer as recently as a few weeks ago.
“So at the time I was just confused why the loan officer was saying he needed to visit farms on the other side of the Mississippi when he knew about this other farm that was doing exactly the same thing I wanted to do.” Even when Ryan called the loan officer back with this question, the loan officer reasserted that he needed to travel out West and hung up.
Soon after this, Ryan received a call from his real estate agent. “He told me ‘It’s the damnedest thing. The property is closing on the farm you wanted. It’s really rushed. I’ve never seen anything like this.”’ Ryan came to learn that, even though no one had bid on the farm besides him in the last five years, a new owner outbid him by $10,000 and was implementing a grass-fed cattle operation identical to the plan Ryan presented. Here begins the story of Ryan’s setbacks with AgSouth Farm Credit and the wider agricultural financing system.
In June of that year Ryan found a 250-acre sod farm that was well suited for his needs. Eager to avoid a similar situation, Ryan paid a deposit so the farmer would take down the listing. Then Ryan returned to the same agricultural loan officer to drop off his farm ownership loan application. The next morning Ryan received a call from the loan officer notifying him that his application was denied. He said Ryan had not demonstrated adequate farming experience and financial responsibility. Ryan’s first reaction was, “How can that be?” He was currently farming and had been for many years. He was managing assets five or six times the value of the loan, well above the asset-to-loan ratio lenders look for. “I had experienced this twice with the agricultural lender so far and I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it felt like discrimination.”
Fortunately, Ryan contacted someone involved in the farm credit system who said he’d take a look at the case. An hour later Ryan’s contact called him back and said, “we have to meet.” They met. The farm credit contact explained that there was no record of Ryan’s loan ever being processed in the agricultural lender’s computer system. His application had effectively been moved to the trash.
Because properly processed loans include timestamps, Ryan filed an appeal asking for an internal review of the loan determination. AgSouth Farm Credit fought the appeal process throughout 2008. “It got to the point where they said unless we came with a lawyer and a subpoena they weren’t going to show us anything. I showed up with my lawyer for the next meeting . After that their attitude shifted.” By December, Ryan was approved for a $995,000 guaranteed loan to purchase the property, buy equipment, and begin farming operations. Ryan had leveraged his family’s farm to take out the loan.
By early 2009, Ryan was ready to start producing sod and diversify into vegetables and melons at the new farm. He went into his local USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) office to find out whether he qualified for the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program. An FSA officer told him to plant his crops and return afterward to sign up for the program. He did as he was instructed but when he returned a few months later he was told that he had missed the deadline.
Later that summer, extreme heat resulted in crop failure for Ryan’s watermelons and cantaloupes. With neither the projected produce income nor crop insurance support Ryan was not going to be able to make his loan payments. He was at risk of losing the farms. He reached out to RAFI-USA’s Lead Farmer Advocate, Benny Bunting. “Benny said, ‘come up here to my office and we’ll talk about it.’ We sat down at 8:00 a.m. and we were there til almost 8:00 p.m. going over everything. He was so helpful.”
After reviewing Ryan’s situation, Benny explained his options and Ryan decided to appeal. Near the end of 2009, Benny joined Ryan for his state hearing. “It was in that state hearing that Benny witnessed how bad the discriminatory practices were in South Carolina. He was hot as hell about it — but he said ‘don’t worry, we’re going to NAD.’”
NAD (USDA National Appeals Division) conducts impartial administrative appeals hearings and reviews of adverse program decisions made by officers, employees, or committees of USDA agencies. With Benny’s support, Ryan won his NAD hearing which proved that the Agency had taken improper actions and supplied Ryan with incorrect information, causing him to fail to meet the requirements for crop insurance. Thinking back on his experience working with a farmer advocate, Ryan said, “I was mind blown by all the resources available to help me. I would have lost my farm in 2009 without RAFI-USA.”
The consequences of repeat discrimination
What Ryan first thought of as unfair treatment became a clear pattern of discrinimation from the very businesses and agencies created to support farmers’ success. And the consequence of discrimination — whether from bad servicing, misinfomation, or delaying payments — can push farmers into financial crisis, putting their farm, home, and assets at risk.
Dealing with AgSouth Farm Credit and FSA was so problematic that Ryan, with RAFI-USA’s help, had to go directly to the state FSA Director to get further operating loans approved. In total, RAFI-USA supported Ryan through 14 individual farm advocacy cases. As Benny describes it, “all along they were looking for reasons to deny him loans and programs, not reasons to support him.”
Because of the constant obstacles and delays, Ryan did end up losing the 250-acre farm and the family farm in 2014.
What happened to Ryan has been happening to generations of farmers of color. But this is not the end of Ryan’s farming story. Ryan and his father continue to farm today in South Carolina and Georgia where they grow tomatoes, lima beans, and peas. Ryan is expanding into new marketplaces and getting back up to the level of production he had in 2014. And through his own experience, Ryan is now able to help other farmers.
“Without Benny and RAFI-USA, I wouldn’t have been able to survive so long. But now I understand the process for how to approach a hearing, ask for a denial letter, and know my rights. And other farmers will call me now asking for advice.”
When farmers fail to receive fair treatment, RAFI-USA’s Farm Advocacy services are here to help farmers understand their options and move forward. As Benny describes it, “What we do is sit down with farmers and discuss the available strategies for how they want to move forward — such as appealing an adverse decision or deciding to get out of farming altogether. But it’s always the farmer’s and their family’s decision on what is best for them. Once they’re able to make a decision from an informed position, we support them in that path forward.”
Ryan has this advice for farmers who may be struggling themselves. “The biggest thing is to not allow your circumstance to hinder you from constantly pushing forward and trying. Get on the computer and understand the regulations. And never stop asking for help. Because you’re going to come across someone who knows someone. There’s always hope and help right around the corner.”
RAFI-USA’s Farm Advocacy program has worked with hundreds of farmers over the years and is proud to have saved millions of dollars worth of farmers’ assets and made families whole. You can be a part of helping farmers like Ryan. Please donate to RAFI-USA today to make sure we can continue to help farmers like Ryan!
**If you are a farmer struggling with finances, call the RAFI-USA hotline at 866.586.6746 or visit our website at www.rafiusa.org/programs/farm_advocacy/