Stand up for the facts!

Misinformation isn't going away just because it's a new year. Support trusted, factual information with a tax deductible contribution to PolitiFact.

More Info

I would like to contribute

Rod Bradshaw, a Black farmer in Kansas, Jan. 13, 2021, is concerned that systemic discrimination by government agencies, farm lenders and the courts have reduced the numbers of U.S. Black farmers from about a million in 1920 to fewer than 50,000. (AP) Rod Bradshaw, a Black farmer in Kansas, Jan. 13, 2021, is concerned that systemic discrimination by government agencies, farm lenders and the courts have reduced the numbers of U.S. Black farmers from about a million in 1920 to fewer than 50,000. (AP)

Rod Bradshaw, a Black farmer in Kansas, Jan. 13, 2021, is concerned that systemic discrimination by government agencies, farm lenders and the courts have reduced the numbers of U.S. Black farmers from about a million in 1920 to fewer than 50,000. (AP)

Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde February 22, 2021

Sen. Cory Booker is right about legacy of USDA bias against Black farmers

If Your Time is short

  • Booker’s claim is supported by findings in USDA reports, legal settlements between the department and Black farmers and expert opinion.

  • In 1920, there were about 925,700 Black farmers. In 2017, that number was down to 45,500.

  • Bias in the implementation of New Deal policies and other farm assistance programs meant Black farmers were continually denied opportunities to expand and modernize their farms.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., is pushing for a new bill that would provide Black farmers debt relief and access to a land grant program, arguing they have historically endured discrimination from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Overtly discriminatory and unjust federal policy has robbed Black families in the United States of the ability to build and pass on intergenerational wealth," Booker said in a Feb. 9 statement. "When it comes to farming and agriculture, we know that there is a direct connection between discriminatory policies within the USDA and the enormous land loss we have seen among Black farmers over the past century."

There’s been a sharp decline in the number of Black farmers in that period. In 1920, there were about 925,700 Black farmers; in 2017, there were slightly more than 45,500, a roughly 95% drop. Black-operated farms accounted for 4.7 million acres of farmland in 2017, or 0.5% of the U.S. total, said a USDA census conducted every five years.

The number of white farmers has declined since 1920, but not nearly as much: about 5.5 million white farm operators in 1920, compared with 3.2 million in 2017.

Is Booker correct about discriminatory USDA policies leading to land loss among Black farmers? Yes, he is, according to an expert we interviewed, along with U.S. government reports, legal settlements, statements from the agriculture secretary and scholarly research over the years. (Booker’s office provided several documents supporting his claim.)

The discriminatory policies go back decades, including with the way New Deal farm programs were administered in the Jim Crow-era South, said Ronald Rainey, an economics professor at the University of Arkansas.

"Black farmers faced discrimination in terms of getting equitable benefits and treatment from the USDA offices and the county committees who controlled and disbursed funds," Rainey said.

For white farmers, the government programs that began in the 1930s subsidized the evolution of agriculture, creating larger farms, increased mechanization and more efficient labor with fewer workers, Rainey said. But Black farmers were "systematically hindered" from growing and modernizing their farms, he said.

"The result of institutional racism and lack of protections from authorities caused a higher percentage of Black farmers to lose their farms or be forced out," Rainey said.

Federal reports flag discrimination against Black farmers

A 1965 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that Black farmers received inferior treatment from USDA agencies compared with white farmers. In the South, where most Black farmers operated, federally assisted state extension services were "administered through a separate structure and generally on a discriminatory basis," the report said.

It said that a large percentage of white farmers in the South, aided by federal loans and technical advice, diversified their crops and applied modern farming practices. That helped them raise their incomes, expand their farms, improve their housing and advance their education. But about a quarter of a million Black farmers "stand as a glaring exception to this picture of progress."

Among the issues raised in the report: Black farmers got smaller loans and far less guidance than white farmers in the same economic class. White borrowers got most of their loans for capital investments, such as farm improvements or enlargement, while Black farmers’ loans were primarily for living expenses and annual operating costs.

A 1997 report from the USDA inspector general said that the discrimination complaint process at the Farm Service Agency lacked "integrity, direction, and accountability." A civil rights task force in 1997 also recommended 92 changes to address racial bias at the USDA.

A 2002 USDA report also said that for many years, USDA services "were not equally available to assist Black farmers with credit programs for purchasing land from neighboring Black farmers or from estate sales."

Featured Fact-check

"Consequently, many Black farmers have struggled to stay in business without equal opportunity to increase the scale of their farming operations," the report said.

Pigford settlements

Black farmers brought a class action lawsuit against the USDA in 1997, Pigford v. Glickman, alleging racial discrimination and failure to address complaints filed since 1983. Farmers also said they lost their land due to a pattern of discrimination at the USDA.

In 1999, a federal judge approved a settlement providing relief to farmers who could demonstrate discrimination. The settlement cost the federal government about $1.06 billion in cash relief, estimated tax payments and debt relief to prevailing claimants, said a Congressional Research Service report.

In approving the settlement, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman said that for decades, the USDA and county commissioners responsible for handling loans had discriminated against Black farmers.

"Historical discrimination cannot be undone. But the consent decree represents a significant first step," the judge wrote.

A 2008 farm law included a provision allowing farmers who were left out of the Pigford settlement to file a new suit. In 2010, a second settlement, known as Pigford II, allowed up to $1.25 billion to Black farmers who demonstrated they had experienced racial discrimination in USDA farm loan programs.

"We have worked hard to address USDA’s checkered past so we can get to the business of helping farmers succeed," then-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a February 2010 statement.

(Vilsack has been nominated by President Joe Biden to return as agriculture secretary.)

In a statement to PolitiFact, the USDA said the department was committed to making sure its programs are "conducted in a nondiscriminatory manner."

"There is a lot more that needs to be done and accomplished at USDA to make programming equitable and to root out decades of systemic discrimination that disproportionately affects Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and other farmers of color," the spokesperson said, adding that the Biden administration would appoint more diverse leadership and create an equity commission "to take action to remedy policies and practices that contribute to discrimination."

More recent Black farm land loss is linked to heirs’ property issues, Rainey said. He said this happens when a farmer dies without a will and the farm is spling among multiple heirs, resulting in fractional ownership.

A distrust of the legal system has contributed to farms being transferred from one generation to the other without a will, said a post from the Heirs’ Property Retention Coalition, formed in 2006 to help low-income African Americans deal with issues related to heirs’ property.

Our ruling

Booker said, "there is a direct connection between discriminatory policies within the USDA and the enormous land loss we have seen among Black farmers over the past century."

Booker’s claim is supported by findings in USDA reports, legal settlements between the department and Black farmers and expert opinion.

Booker’s claim is accurate. We rate it True.

Our Sources

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s website, statement, Feb. 9, 2021

Email interview, Sen. Cory Booker’s press office, Feb. 16, 2021

Email interview, Ronald Rainey, an economics professor at the University of Arkansas, Feb. 16, 2021

Email interview, USDA press office, Feb. 18, 2021

USDA.gov, Black Farmers in America, 1865-2000The Pursuit of IndependentFarming and the Role ofCooperatives, October 2002

USDA.gov, Heirs’ Property and Land Fractionation:Fostering Stable Ownership to  Prevent Land Loss and Abandonment, September 2019

USDA.gov, 2017 Census of Agriculture; Black Producers

USDA.gov, History of USDA's Farm Service Agency

Justice.gov, Department of Justice and USDA Announce Historic Settlement in Lawsuit by Black Farmers Claiming Discrimination by USDA, Feb. 18, 2010 (Google’s cache of the page)

Congressional Research Service, The Pigford Cases: USDA Settlement of Discrimination Suits by Black Farmers, May 29, 2013

Heirs' Property Retention Coalition, What is Heirs Property?

Casetext.com, Pigford v. Glickman, April 14, 1999

Civil Rights at the United States Department of Agriculture A Report by the Civil  Rights Action Team, February 1997

1965 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

Journal of African American Studies, Black Farmers in the USA and Michigan: Longevity, Empowerment, and Food Sovereignty, 2018

 

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Miriam Valverde

Sen. Cory Booker is right about legacy of USDA bias against Black farmers

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up