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USDA Offers Loan Repayment For Farmers, Targets Racial Disparity

Dr. Jewel Bronaugh USDA Deputy Secretary
USDA Deputy Secretary Dr. Jewel Bronaugh speaks to a group of farmers of color at Virginia State University. Dr. Bronaugh, a Petersburg native, used to head the agricultural research center at the university. (Patrick Larsen / VPM News)

U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Dr. Jewel Bronaugh met with farmers of color at Virginia State University, where she used to head the agricultural research center, to talk about loan forgiveness for farmers of color with funds from the American Rescue Plan.

The program sets aside an estimated $5 billion to pay off Farm Service Agency loans, which are made to farmers who don’t have the means or credit to get them elsewhere. The funds will impact about 16,000 farmers of color and will start going out in June.

The American Rescue Plan funds specifically apply to “socially disadvantaged” producers. That’s a federal classification including Black, American Indian, Hispanic, Alaskan Native and Asian American or Pacific Islander farmers.

Less than two percent of American farmers are Black, according to 2017 USDA data. 

Dr. Bronaugh said a big reason that number is so low is historic discrimination at the agency - not just from individuals.

“But there are cumulative effects of systemic racism that have been in USDA’s policies, regulations and programs,” Bronaugh said.

She followed that paying back federal loans for farmers of color is just the start of repairing economic inequities from generations of racism.

The farmers in attendance agreed. Most said they want to see more programs that help Black farmers purchase and preserve their land.

Renard Turner was one of those farmers. He co-owns Vanguard Ranch in Louisa County.

“For those Black farmers who are successful and producing goods and services, the question still is who’s going to buy them? And will they be purchased consistently at a fair market price? Because without all of those three factors in place, you’re still where you began,” Turner said.

He pointed out that Black farmers own less land now than they did in 1935. True equity, Turner says, means drastically changing statistics like that.

“[The payments are] encouraging, but there are still pieces of the puzzle that are not on the board,” Turner said.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.