Delores Amason's family has been farming for generations. Her father, Leroy E. Harvey, was a sharecropper who bought 40 acres of farmland in Tillery, North Carolina, through a New Deal program that offered loans to help small farmers own the land they worked. For decades, the family grew cotton, peanuts, corn and soybeans, and bought more acres as they could.
"We weren't rich by anybody's standards," Amason says, "but it didn't bother us because we worked for ourselves."
Harvey, like most farmers, relied on cyclical operating loans to pay expenses in advance of the income-generating harvest. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (commonly referred to by its acronym, USDA) was tasked with supporting small farmers who had trouble getting credit from other sources. Yet when Harvey was hurt by early freezes in the 1980s, he fell behind on payments to the agency and found himself struggling to get a regular USDA operating loan. He turned to a private bank and was startled to learn that the USDA had ordered them not to approve his loan, saying they were about to foreclose on his land.
Many Black farmers like Harvey have seen their economic situations hurt rather than helped by the USDA. In 1920, at the height of Black farm ownership, one in seven U.S. farms was Black-operated; by 1992, the number had fallen to one in 100. While the USDA is not solely responsible for this (physical violence, flimsy heir-property laws and other factors are also to blame), the department has played a huge role. From discriminatory lending practices to foreclosures, the agency's policies have directly contributed to a massive loss of Black land wealth and the rapid decline of the Black farmer, leading some to call the USDA "the last plantation."
Black farmers are organizing to protest these conditions and to share resources among themselves. As a coalition, they lobbied for changes to the Farm Bill that passed in Congress last year and won a number of important provisions, including halting foreclosures against any farmer who has a discrimination claim pending against the USDA. They are hoping their collective work will finally begin to chip away at the federal agency's long-standing practice of targeting Black farmers.
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