When President-elect Joe Biden picked Tom Vilsack to head the U.S. Department of Agriculture, many Black farmers were outraged.
The former governor of Iowa served as agriculture secretary during the Obama administration. Black farmers said Vilsack did nothing to undo decades of racial injustice and discrimination at the department.
This time around, Vilsack appears to be aware of the political moment. And he's already spoken with Black farmers and promised to promote policy that's fair and equitable.
John Boyd Jr., a farmer from Virginia and president of the National Black Farmers Association, recently spoke with Vilsack. Boyd says he’s concerned about whether the new secretary, depending on if Congress confirms Vilsack, will help Black farmers compete in the industry.
“We need people of color and people of color who care. I think that's vitally important,” he says. “Not just a Black face or a Hispanic face or a woman, we need people who care about these issues because for far too long, [Black farmers have] been left out of the farm subsidy programs, the lending programs, all of these programs that the USDA has to help farmers.”
In 1920, Black farmers owned 14% of farmland in the U.S., compared to 1.6% today. Boyd knows firsthand that racism drove this shift. Producers in his county faced discrimination for years at the hands of a USDA employee in charge of giving Black farmers loans in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, he says.
The person would only meet with Black farmers on Wednesdays and took more than 370 days to process Black farm loans, compared to less than 30 days for white farmers, Boyd says. The employee spat on him, tore up and threw his application in the trash, and slept through the application period, he says. In desperate need of a farm operator, Boyd would wait for the employee to wake up.
“That's the type of discrimination that Black farmers have been experiencing at the hands of the government,” he says. “The very people supposed to give us a hand up was the very same agency that almost put us out of business and drove us into almost an extinction based on the numbers.”
The USDA’s discrimination against Black farmers took away their ability to own land. And as Boyd’s grandfather taught him at age 9, “land is the first step to freedom.”
“The government took away our freedom to farm by not lending us money the way that they do white farmers. So they took away our history and our heritage,” he says. “And when you take away a man's farm, you've broken his spirit.”
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey wants to reintroduce the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which would fund agriculture programs at historically Black colleges and universities as well as create a civil rights oversight board to investigate reports of discrimination in the USDA.
The bill would address the issue of access to land for Black farmers, Boyd says. The government needs to make money readily available to make farming appeal to the next generation, he says. Boyd’s sons haven’t expressed interest in farming because they’ve watched their father struggle to hang on to the family land for so long.
“If [the U.S. wants] the next generation of farmers — Black farmers, that is,” he says, “they have to open up their purse strings and find a way to let us be a part of American farming fabric where we can compete.”
Boyd says he’s worked seven days a week since 1983. Hardworking Black farmers don’t want handouts, he says, but rather equal access to credit at the USDA and banks as well as equipment from companies such as John Deere.
In a recent phone conversation with Biden, Boyd says he advised the president-elect to reinvent the USDA and support Booker’s bill. Biden needs to halt farm foreclosures and announce a plan to resolve a backlog of civil rights complaints from Black farmers, Boyd said on the call.
“I told President-elect Biden that we needed new blood and new leadership at USDA, ” Boyd says. “He needs to appoint people that are sensitive to the needs of Black farmers and not big agriculture. We need people that are sensitive to the needs of Black and other small scale farmers — Native American farmers, women, Hispanics — and make sure that we are part of USDA.”
This segment aired on January 5, 2021.