RAFI-USA’s work has always focused on a back and forth conversation between our work directly with farmers and agricultural communities and our national level policy advocacy with congressional offices and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). We believe that for farmers and agricultural communities to be truly supported by national level programs and services, they must be a part of our policy development and advocacy strategy. One way RAFI-USA supports farmer-informed policymaking is through farmer fly-ins with members of Congress, agricultural committee staff, or USDA agency staff. Over the month of March, RAFI-USA held a virtual farmer fly-in with seven farmers across the Southeast. Together we met with six congressional offices, including Sen. Raphael G. Warnock’s, [D-GA] office, a new member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Rep. David Scott, [D-GA-13], the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Our coalition partner, National Family Farm Coalition, also joined RAFI-USA for two of the virtual meetings with NC congressmen.
Although the farmers came from a wide variety of farming backgrounds, there was a unified theme across the congressional conversations: urge the USDA to address serious issues of discrimination and lack of accountability towards farmers, particularly farmers of color. This request for greater accountability also extended to a call to reinstate the intended power of the Packers and Stockyards Act. As a part of the conversations, the farmers shared stories of their difficult, and sometimes devastating, relationships with USDA. Discrimination and lack of accountability within agencies like the Farm Service Agency (FSA) can seem like vague concepts with a hard-to-pinpoint cause. But during the farmer fly-in calls, members of Congress and their staff members were able to put a face to this problem and hear directly how it occurs and what the consequences are for those impacted including loan default, bankruptcy, land loss, or complete inability to access credit that should be available to them.
In addition to sharing their personal stories, farmers also voiced recommendations for what Congress can do to help. Suggestions included:
- Establish a civil rights oversight board independent of USDA.
- Create an independent borrower rights oversight board tasked with reviewing client case history for instances of discrimination and disparity of servicing.
- Commission a report of the past five years of loan applications’ time to funding, broken down by race, gender, and race/gender intersection.
- Provide oversight to ensure FSA follows its existing guidelines that foreclosures must be halted for farmers with discrimination complaints.
- Urge Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to require that a discrimination review of a loan officers’ portfolio be part of their annual review.
- If a farmer received a loan in good faith from the agency, errors should not disqualify the loan or cause after the fact loan de-obligation.
- Urge Secretary Vilsack to re-establish the Packers and Stockyards Division as a stand-alone agency with administrative enforcement authority over live poultry dealers.
And although recent legislation like the BIPOC farmer debt relief included in the American Rescue Plan takes a necessary first step towards addressing those harmed by discrimination within USDA, farmers also acknowledged that it is not a single solution and more support is needed.
Our March congressional meetings are the beginning of longer conversations with congressional offices about how they can support farmers in their district. We also hope that the farmers who participated in the fly-in are able to establish their own relationships with congressional offices and agriculture committee staff. We thank the seven participating farmers for their time in preparing and joining the calls over the past month. We also thank them for their sincerity in advocating for change within the USDA so future farmers do not need to face the same discrimination or lack of accountability.
Seven farmers participate in the Fly-Ins from NC, GA, VA, and MS; some of whom have lost farmland, gone through bankruptcy, and filed discrimination cases due to the actions and lack of accountability of the Farm Service Agency.
The Offices Visited
Rep. Rick W. Allen, R-GA 12th District
Rep. Dan Bishop, R-NC 9th District
Rep. Ted Budd, R-NC 13th District
Rep. David Price, D-NC 4th District
Rep. David Scott, D-GA 13th District
Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, D-GA