Speaking last November about his plans to address the economic crisis, then president-elect Barack Obama called out subsidy payments to “millionaire farmers” as a waste the federal budget could do without. He was reacting, in part, to a new report from the Government Accountability Office documenting tens of millions of dollars of payments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to almost three thousand multimillionaires who derive most of their income from activities other than farming.
For those who follow farm policy, there was nothing surprising about the report. For years, the GAO and major media outlets have documented wasteful farm subsidies to ineligible rich people, dead people and people who don’t even farm. Less well documented is the other side of the story: that crop subsidy programs systematically fail to support small farms, and this disproportionately impacts farmers of color.
The U.S. government spends billions each year subsidizing farm operations. Yet Black farmers receive only one-third to one-sixth of the benefits that other farmers receive, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington D.C.-based research organization that has partnered with the National Black Farmers Association on several reports.
Looking at farmers of color more broadly, the Southern Rural Development Initiative found that less than 1 percent of agriculture subsidy payments between 2001 and 2003 went to Blacks, Native Americans and Asian Americans. (Because the available data comes from the Census Bureau, whose definition of “nonwhite” excludes many Latinos, the researchers were unable to include Latino farmers within its people of color analysis.) Even in counties where people of color are the majority, researchers estimate that at a minimum, almost 95 percent of agriculture subsidies “are going to farms with white operators.”
Federal crop subsidies go to commodity crops like corn, cotton and rice that require large farms, and most large farms in the U.S. are white-owned. So even when USDA dollars move to counties where people of color are the majority, they largely end up in the hands of the white landowning minority. The report by the Southern Rural Development Initiative put it bluntly: “USDA perpetuates the legacy of the Deep South’s anachronistic, inequitable economy through its agricultural subsidy programs.”
Bush-era USDA spokespeople maintained that disparities in subsidies payments are not a matter of race but simply of “large farms and small farms.” Yet a history of systemic racism in the U.S., including at the USDA, means that farmers of color disproportionately own small farms where they raise livestock or grow fruits and vegetables—crops that are ineligible for USDA subsidies.
USDA crop payments are based not only on the type of crop but also on historical acreage and per-acre yields. Given the long and documented history of discriminatory lending practices and foreclosures against farmers of color by the USDA, Black farmers today have fewer land holdings to make them eligible for the subsidies.
Because of that history, farmers of color also mistrust the USDA and are often disinclined to apply for the types of support they do qualify for. Scott Mexic, who during the Bush Administration performed outreach to “socially disadvantaged” farmers for the agency, promoted USDA programs created to help small-scale farmers of color, including technical assistance programs to help them form co-ops and increase sales in local markets. But he faced an uphill battle, having to earn trust in communities long mistreated by the agency.
Although farmers of color have much to offer in a world that increasingly sees small-scale, biodiverse farming as essential to food security and environmental sustainability, they are locked out of major USDA funding streams. There is “too much money in the hands of the wrong people, and the people that really need the assistance are not receiving anything,” says John Boyd of the National Black Farmers Association.
Boyd’s group and even the USDA itself supported restructuring the subsidies program in the most recent Farm Bill to reduce payments to the wealthy, but the bill that Congress passed was heavily influenced by agribusiness—the entrenched corporations that now control most of the U.S. food supply—and fell short of both groups’ proposals.
“There’s a place for supporting agriculture” that can benefit communities, says Jason Gray, policy and research director at the Southern Rural Development Initiative. “[Policymakers need to] ask: is the decision we’re making here going to result in more local capacity to…create a future? In the rural South, you cannot ask that question without having an honest discussion about the legacy of race.”
Although Gray thinks “the allocation of USDA resources in rural America is one of the best examples of systematic racism that can be found today in America,” he and other advocates for farmers of color see the potential for change. The new Farm Bill offers several hard-won provisions aimed to help “socially disadvantaged” farmers, and organizers have hope for systemic change under new USDA leadership in the Obama administration. In fact, Obama’s proposed 2010 budget, released in February, would phase out direct payments to farms with more than $500,000 in annual revenue and implement a limit of $250,000 on commodity subsidies.
Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, says he is “very encouraged” by Obama’s—and new USDA Secretary Vilsack’s—commitments to curbing farm subsidies to the very wealthy. He hopes the new administration will “redirect some of those savings into programs to help small farmers.”
Still, Gray is careful to note that a change in USDA leadership is only part of the needed solution. “The government can only be a partner to efforts happening on the ground,” he says.
Jessica Hoffmann is coeditor and copublisher of make/shift magazine, makeshiftmag.com.