Debt relief for only Black farmers? Not so fast, say white farmers.

To compensate for historic prejudicial lending practices that disadvantaged Black farmers, the U.S. government approved $4 billion in debt relief in March for farmers of color. Now, the money is tied up in lawsuits filed by white farmers who claim the program is unfair.

Steve Helber/AP
Farmer John Boyd Jr. poses for a portrait during a break from bailing hay at his farm in Boydton, Virginia, May 27, 2021. The latest farm census shows that only about 1 in 100 farmers is Black.

There was a time when Black farms prospered.

Just two generations out of slavery, by 1910 Black farmers had amassed more than 16 million acres of land and made up about 14 percent of farmers. The fruit of their labors fed much of America.

Now, they have fewer than 4.7 million acres. Black farms in the United States plummeted from 925,000 to fewer than 36,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest farm census. And only about 1 in 100 farmers is Black.

What happened?

They were able to overcome the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule” to the newly freed slaves – a military order, later rescinded. But again and again over the past century, they faced one obstacle after another because of their race.

Lenders – chief among them, the USDA – often refused to give them money, and often rushed to foreclose. Suppliers and customers undercut them. Laws of inheritance led to the breakup of homesteads.

Now the government wants to make amends by providing billions of dollars in debt forgiveness for farmers of color. But a judge has put the money on hold in the face of lawsuits filed by white farmers claiming that the program is unfair – reverse discrimination.

Today’s Black farmers and the descendants of Black farmers who lost their stakes argue that they are the ones who have been the victims of injustice:

The Virginia farmer who barely was able to keep part of his farm when the USDA threatened to sell it at auction. The Kansas man who lost the land his grandparents once homesteaded. The Arkansas farmer who is holding on by a thread, praying the federal aid will come through in time.

It was racism, says farmer John Wesley Boyd Jr. And it still is.

“I think discrimination is still pervasive. I think that it’s done in a much subtler way,” Mr. Boyd says.

Mr. Boyd was just 18 years old when he assumed an existing USDA loan when he bought his first farm in the early 1980s. He says walking into his local USDA office was like a return to the Jim Crow era. Black farmers had supervised accounts and could only get appointments with the local lending officer on a single day of the week, a practice that came to be known as Black Wednesday.

Mr. Boyd endured racial slurs. A loan officer once spat tobacco juice on him – he accidentally missed the spit can, the official would claim. Another time, Mr. Boyd saw an official tear up his application and throw it in the trash.

In 1996, USDA took just 30 days to foreclose on some of his Virginia farmland. Then the department moved to auction off the remaining 110 acres.

Mr. Boyd joined other Black farmers at a protest in Washington, tying a mule named 40 Acres to the White House gate. Less than a week later, then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman declared a farm foreclosure moratorium. Mr. Boyd had just enough time to save his farm.

Documents from a USDA internal review show investigators found his operating loan requests were not processed for years, despite explicit instructions from the agency’s state director. It also found that his account was improperly referred to a credit bureau as delinquent when it should have been restructured, deepening his financial difficulties.

These kinds of practices prompted approval of the landmark settlement of the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit filed by Black farmers in 1999. Though USDA paid more than $2.4 billion, state taxes eroded recoveries, debt relief was incomplete, and the settlements did not cure the problems faced by minority farmers.

Government lawyers noted in a court filing that between 2006 and 2016, Black farmers were subject to 13% of USDA foreclosures – despite receiving fewer than 3% of direct loans.

Tucked amid the vast plains of Kansas are the remnants of what was once the bustling Black settlement of Nicodemus. Just a couple of miles outside the town sit the 200 acres that the grandparents of Theodore Bernard Bates once homesteaded.

The Black farmer and his father bought the family homestead in 1970, taking a loan from what was then the Production Credit Association of Stockton, Kansas.

USDA’s farm loan lending agency refused to even give them an application to fill out, said Mr. Bates, one of the original named plaintiffs in the Pigford lawsuit. He received, as he puts it, “not a penny” from that settlement.

Three years before the former president of the Production Credit Association died, he swore in a 2012 affidavit that there was a plan to get Mr. Bates “out of farming.” Elvin D. Keiswetter said that the lender’s board decided it would “rather foreclose, even if they lost money” than take Mr. Bates’ money, regardless if it was paid on the notes.

After they took everything, Mr. Bates says the family was forced to go on food stamps to survive.

The USDA was not responsible for all the misfortunes of Black farmers. Other structural impediments also have taken their toll. One involves family land that is passed on to several surviving kin without a will, known as “heirs’ property.”

The result: a lack of access to money, because lenders are usually reluctant to extend credit without a clear title to the land.

Congress authorized in the 2018 farm bill language that would ease loans to those farmers. But it was not until this year that USDA actually funded a $67 million heirs relending program to resolve land ownership and succession issues.

USDA spokeswoman Kate Waters says the agency is committed to rooting out systemic racism and reducing barriers to accessing services. She says the department plans to launch an Equity Commission later this year to identify problems and fix them.

Congress, meanwhile, approved $4 billion in debt relief for 16,000 farmers of color in March as part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package.

White farmers have filed lawsuits in Florida, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming, Illinois, and Minnesota. A nationwide, preliminary injunction halted the program in June.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who is suing in his personal capacity as a farmer, contends the debt relief is unconstitutional because it excludes white farmers based on their race or ethnicity.

“It is just flat wrong,” Mr. Miller said.

But minority farmers still suffer disproportionately. As of May 31, 11% of white farmers were delinquent on a government farm loan, compared with 37.9% of Black borrowers, 14.6% of Asian borrowers, 17.4% of American Indian borrowers, and 68% of Hispanic borrowers, according to court documents.

For Abraham Carpenter, a 59-year-old Black farmer whose family grows fruits and vegetables near Grady, Arkansas, the injunction means he has to wait and hope for help with about $200,000 in loans.

“I’ve seen some really, really tough times, you know, but I’ve always been able to survive because of God’s blessing and his mercy and his grace....” Mr. Carpenter says. “So I am not going to say I am going to go belly up. I am going to work a little harder and I am going to pray a little harder.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Roxana Hegeman reported from Belle Plaine, Kansas.

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