On December 5-6, 2013, AU’s School of International Service and Global Environmental Politics Program hosted the Rural Coalition’s annual Winter Forum. Rural Coalition is a grassroots alliance of farmers, farm-workers, indigenous groups, and immigrants working to bring justice and equity to food and farm policy. During this exciting event multiple panels and workshops were held on topics such as popular agricultural research, resources for new farmers, healthcare and wellness, and achieving equity in government programs. Attendees heard from a multitude of farmers, ranchers, government officials, activists, and academics. Throughout the two days a list of action items, issues, strategies, and participant action research topics stemming from these discussions was compiled to both inform Rural Coalition planning and strategizing, and create a resource for students, faculty and others to critically engage with farm bill policy through research.
What stood out for me, and I know for many others, was the intense yet respectful dialogue between Rural Coalition members, primarily people of color, and federal government officials regarding fair administration of farm programs. This marked the Forum as not just an educational forum, or a strategy meeting, but a social and political event where small and minority farmers spoke directly to those in power of the injustices they have suffered at the hands of the government. As one American University student in attendance remarked, “I was at a Farm Bill event and a civil rights rally broke out.”
These conversations taking place in 2013 follow a long and sordid history of discriminatory treatment of African-American farmers in the United States dating back to the early post-Civil War years. The United States Department of Agriculture has been involved in a series of lawsuits over discriminatory practices in its administration of a variety of loan and crop insurance programs. Under Pigford I and Pigford II over $2 billion has been paid out or appropriated by Congress to compensate tens of thousands African-American farmers who, from 1969-1996, were unfairly denied financial assistance available to farmers through USDA programs. The Pigford settlements were intended to put an end to these discriminatory practices.
However, at the Winter Forum we heard compelling testimony quite to the contrary. In one exchange Ryan Presley, an African-American farmer from South Carolina said his loans from the Farm Services Agency (FSA) were disbursed too late, past spring planting time. He applied earlier than other, white farmers, and received his loan disbursements considerably later. The question is how could this still be happening with Obama in the White House and Pigford in the courts. Well, as Mr. Presley explained,
“Change needs to happen at the local level. The same people that were discriminating in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s are still there today, even if the people in Washington, D.C. have changed.”
Panelist Chris Beyerhelm, USDA Deputy Administrator of Farm Loan Programs, responded forcefully by saying that the USDA has implemented an accountability program for its loan officers posted in agricultural areas throughout the country. He asserted that most loan officers provided good customer service and that “we’re in a budget constrained environment, and we cannot afford to have marginal employees. They’re not going to survive if they’re not doing their jobs.“
There were similar exchanges at the Winter Forum over fair distribution of crop insurance payments, with charges made that African-American farmers were required to provide much more documentation of losses than white farmers, and, even then payments were often denied for legitimate losses. What made these charges all the more impactful is that government representatives were at the head of the room, listening carefully to the charges, pledging their willingness to follow up with anyone in the room facing problems with USDA programs, AND showing appreciation for the work done by Rural Coalition members to support expanded government investment in helping farmers access land that is in very short supply. The government is here to help farmers of all types, with $20 billion in farm loans disbursed by FSA since 2009, but unfortunately some people on the payroll are not getting the message.
Forum attendees came up with several action items and research topics meant to better assess the scope of discrimination in farm bill programs, and hold those responsible accountable. This includes analyzing Farm Services Agency data on when, where, and to whom loans are made, down to the County level, auditing specific offices regarding number of applications and approvals in comparison to other offices, finding out what happens to officials who have been identified as repeat offenders, and sharing histories of disenfranchisement due to agricultural policy inequities. This kind of popular agricultural research can broaden the perspectives of those in the trenches, while providing academics and students the opportunity to put knowledge directly in service of democracy. Moreover, looking at farm programs through a social justice lens expands our notion of sustainable agriculture to include the land and all peoples that work the land and provide sustenance to us all.