Shared from the 2/7/2022 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Black farmers upset debt relief is held up

Meridith Kohut / For the Texas Tribune

Igalious “Ike” Mills, director of the Texas Agriforestry Small Farmers and Ranchers, works on his family’s farm in Nacogdoches.

Igalious “Ike” Mills grew up working on his family’s farm in the Piney Woods town of Nacogdoches. His siblings still keep it running, relying on a lot of the same equipment used by their father and grandfather.

Mills, who is Black, spends much of his energy trying to connect a dwindling number of Black farmers with state and federal programs that can help them keep their operations running. It was welcome news last year when Congress passed a law intended to help cover the debts of thousands of “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers” and correct the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s historic discrimination, long recognized by the agency itself.

But Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller stepped in. He is among the many white litigants challenging the law, which a federal judge temporarily blocked as court cases play out. And though Miller filed the suit in April as a private citizen, Mills says his perch as the state’s agriculture commissioner is stoking frustration from farmers of color who already distrust the government.

“They’re disappointed, No. 1,” said Mills, who is director of the Texas Agriforestry Small Farmers and Ranchers. “And like some of them are saying, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ That pushes us back even further in terms of trying to engage Black landowners to participate in USDA programs.”

Nationally, Black farmers have lost more than 12 million acres of farmland over the past century, according to the Washington Post, because of biased government policies and discriminatory business practices. In 1920, there were over 925,000 Black farmers in the United States, according to the USDA. But by 1997, their numbers had fallen to just under 18,500.

Recent data suggests the USDA continues to disproportionately reject Black farmers for loans. According to a CNN analysis, 42 percent of Black farmers were rejected for direct USDA loans in 2021, more than any other demographic group.

Last March, Congress passed a sweeping debt relief program for farmers of color. The culmination of 20 years of advocacy, the law would have provided $4 billion worth of debt relief for loans many of them had taken on to stay afloat while being passed over for financial programs and assistance their white counterparts had an easier time obtaining. Black farmers made up about a quarter of those targeted in the bill.

As agriculture commissioner, Miller leads an agency tasked with “advocat (ing) for policies at the federal, state and local level” beneficial to Texas’ agriculture sector and “provid(ing) financial assistance to farmers and ranchers,” among other duties. In a statement, Miller called the debt relief program “facially illegal and constitutionally impermissible.”

“Such a course will lead only to disunity and discord,” Miller said. “Shame on the Biden Administration for authorizing a program it knows was unambiguously illegal, instead of enacting a proper relief bill that complies with the laws and constitution of the United States.”

But advocates of the program saw it as an attempt to make Black farmers whole after years of USDA discrimination.

USDA press secretary Kate Waters said she couldn’t comment on ongoing litigation. She added the agency is establishing an equity commission of about 30 non-USDA employees to help identify how the USDA can eliminate structural barriers to various programs.

“There is a long history of racism at USDA. It’s a lot to unpack,” Waters said. “We’re on the case and we’re here to regain trust.”

But Mills said Miller’s lawsuit is undermining existing efforts to build trust. A federal judge’s halt to the program, thanks in part to Miller’s challenge, paused the USDA’s plans to start paying the loans in June, with eligible farmers and ranchers expected to receive an additional 20 percent loan to cover the tax burden associated with the relief.

The lawsuit is “like a slap in the face for Black farmers. That just elevates another level of mistrust that we shouldn’t have to deal with,” Mills said. “They have to understand what we’re trying to develop here. That’s counterproductive.”

History of mistrust

A red clay road lined with pine and oak trees leads to Mills’ family farm in Nacogdoches. While much of the equipment his brother uses to keep the farm going is old and needs replacing, the Mills family instead shares equipment with other Black farmers.

Born in 1953, Mills recalls shopping at a white-owned feed store that allowed his family to buy goods on credit until his dad got the money, oftentimes through selling bales of cotton, the farm’s primary export. The store essentially served as the family’s bank, Mills said, because access to financial institutions was “totally unheard of.”

“We had to do what we had to do to survive,” Mills said. It’s a perspective that Black farmers and ranchers share today, Mills added.

Mills also remembers milking cows and making butter with a churn as a child. His family also grew corn and raised cattle, largely for themselves. While the farm was largely self-sustaining, the family also sold cotton in the market, where Mills said buyers offered his dad lower prices than they would white farmers.

“You kind of expected that because of the Jim Crow attitude and how you’d been treated as a Black farmer and rancher,” Mills said.

And by then, Mills said, the U.S. government had long given Black people little reason to trust it. From its earliest days, America used labor from enslaved people to build up its economy — and the generational wealth of white enslavers.

Mills pointed out how federal troops arrived in Galveston on June 19, 1865, to ensure people still being forced into labor knew their enslavement was no longer legal — over two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

“We’ve always been denied access,” Mills said. “Even when they made laws to give former slaves 40 acres and a mule and then they took that back.”

Between 1937 and 1961, Congress changed eligibility for USDA loans from farm tenants, laborers and sharecroppers to family farm owner-operators with farming training or experience. This change, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/ Land Assistance Fund wrote in a court filing, made it easier for county committees, which help deliver federal programs at the local level, to deny loans to Black applicants.

The federation is a nonprofit organization that provides resources to limited-resource Black farmers and landowners. It tried to intervene as a party in Miller’s lawsuit against Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. But a judge last month denied that attempt.

The history of discriminatory practices, the federation argues, saddled many Black farmers with substantial debt, driving hundreds of thousands out of agriculture altogether.

Miller’s motion to block the law because it excluded white farmers would increase existing debts, the federation wrote in its motion to intervene. Farmers who made plans and purchases with the understanding they were eligible for the new federal assistance would face “severe, life-changing disadvantage” without the relief, the federation added.

If the law continues to be blocked, the federation said, its members will face “irreparable harm.”

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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