Justice for Black Farmers
President Joe Biden: (APPLAUSE) Good afternoon. Thank you Kamala.
Trymaine Lee: It was a moment long in the making, and it came in the most unexpected way.
Biden: I promised the American people that help was on the way, but today with the American Rescue Plan now signed into law, we've delivered on that promise.
Lee: Tucked inside of the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill signed by President Biden on March 11th is a $5 billion aid and debt relief carveout aimed at helping Black and disadvantaged farmers. At a press conference a few days ago, a coalition of Black farmers applauded the legislation.
Archival Recording, Female Voice: Debt cancellation for our legacy farmers is a necessary step in the long journey to achieve restorative land justice for Black farmers in this country.
Lee: By force and by choice, Black people have long, deep connections to American farmland. After the fall of slavery, owning a piece of land that could be worked and farmed symbolized freedom. For generations, Black farmers accumulated tens of millions of acres of land.
They fed their families and countless others with crops like sugarcane, corn and beans, all nurtured in time-honored tradition. But there's a flip side. Over the course of the last century, Black farmers have lost or had stolen millions of acres of valuable land.
Archival Recording, Female Voice: Currently, Black farmers comprise 2% of all U.S. farmers, and European Americans own over 98% of the farmland.
Lee: In the past, Black farmers had land taken from them through white violence and unscrupulous business practices where they struggled to compete with their better resourced white counterparts. But for many of today's Black farmers, the biggest threat to their survival hasn't been the in-your-face kind of racism that their grandfathers may have faced. It's the United States Department of Agriculture, and the stubborn, systemic racism they say has kept them from getting the same access to government farm aid and assistance that white farmers have long taken advantage of.
John Boyd: You can't farm without money. It takes money to buy seeds. It takes money to buy lime and fertilizer and paid labor and machinery breakdowns, all of these things.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, long-awaited aid could finally reach thousands of Black farmers, but if past is prologue, will Black farmers get their due or be left in the mud?
Boyd: Debt relief and outreach is somethin' I've been asking Congress for for 30 years.
Lee: John Boyd is the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, and the man looks the part. He's got this thick beard and rocks a black Stetson hat. He's been lobbying on behalf of Black farmers for nearly four decades.
Boyd: Ever since then, I've met with every agriculture secretary, Republican and Democrat. And I want the listeners to know that Black farmers suffered under the hands of Republicans, and we suffered under the hands of Democrats.
Lee: The past few weeks, he's been talking to Tom Vilsack, President Biden's newly appointed agriculture secretary. Secretary Vilsack served in the same post under President Obama.
Boyd: And I told him that "You can't be the same Secretary Vilsack you was in the Obama years, and you're gonna have to take a more aggressive approach to take on the discriminating culture at USDA."
Lee: Congress did take an aggressive approach, passing the American Rescue Plan and setting aside that $5 billion for disadvantaged farmers.
Boyd: Hispanics, Native Americans and other ethnic groups fit socially disadvantaged farmer.
Lee: About a quarter of this group are Black. The plan is for the federal government to use $4 billion to erase debt for any farmer with an outstanding loan that involved the USDA.
Boyd: Yes, I've read the number 14,000 that would be eligible for the debt relief.
Lee: An additional $1 billion has been set aside for training, technical assistance and legal aid, all aimed at helping farmers of color acquire and maintain their land, and level their footing with white farmers.
Eddie Lewis Iii: I mean, it was tears of joy.
Lee: Eddie Lewis was thrilled with the news.
Lewis Iii: Like, the tears started rolling out, because it was, like, "I can farm again." I'm able to farm, I'm able to let my little boy, show him he can farm now.
Lee: Eddie is a tough man to track down. The first time I called him, he was out in the sugarcane fields, said he couldn't talk. A few days later, the same thing, but we finally got him inside to catch up.
Lewis Iii: Okay, are we good now?
Lee: The eagle has landed.
Lewis Iii: Cool deal, cool deal.
Lee: Eagle has landed. How're you feeling, good brother?
Lewis Iii: Let me get the speaker on. There we go.
Lee: He's actually Eddie Lewis III, a fifth generation sugarcane farmer. His family farm is in Youngsville, Louisiana. That's near Lafayette, about two hours West of New Orleans. To say Eddie is excited about the possibility of relief is an understatement. Do you know if you all qualify yet?
Lewis Iii: I mean, we definitely qualify, man. We're down with the Farm Service Agency. We have guaranteed equipment loans. We've been having debt with the USDA for the last 45 years, 50 years. So we definitely, if anyone's gonna qualify, it's gonna be the Lewis family farm.
Lee: What are some of your earlier memories of being on the farm with your family?
Lewis Iii: Man, I've been working on a farm drivin' a tractor since I was three years old. I could remember my dad or my grandfather runnin' to the (UNINTEL) take control of the wheel, 'cause I was too small to turn those big wheels on the tractor.
Lee: Eddie is now 38. His family farms the land that his ancestors were once sharecroppers on.
Lewis Iii: My family originally started with, like, sweet potatoes and okra, you know, sellin' it on side of the road for profit. And one of the things, our local community had a sugar mill, so we started growin' sugarcane, you know, for the sugar mill. So basically, we started off with one or two acres, and then we got a little bit bigger.
Lee: Over a 50-year period, his grandfather grew the Lewis family farm by purchasing a few acres here and there.
Lewis Iii: As he was leasing land, seven to ten-year leases, he would purchase five, ten acres when he can. And that's how we got up to the 250 acres. When there was profit, when there was things, he invested that into his business, his shops, his land. And that's how we accumulated land.
Lee: The family owns 250 acres, and leases another 2,500.
Lewis Iii: That's all in sugarcane production. We have about 20 head of Black Angus beef, self-sustained with some corn, and we grow some okra, different things to kinda help, you know, with expenses and bills around the farm.
Lee: But when you were young growin' up on that farm, was the idea in your head that, you know, "I will take this over," or were you trying to get away from the farm?
Lewis Iii: Yeah. That was definitely the plan. I didn't even want to go to college. I didn't see anything in there. My father was, like, "Go to school, work at a bank, learn finance," because that's the name of the game with farmin'. You have to be able to manage finance, basically become a financial advisor and a money manager basically.
Lee: Eddie graduated school and started working as a stock broker in 2007, but in 2011, he had the call to come home.
Lewis Iii: My father got a heart attack at the age of 49 in the sugarcane fields, so from there I quit my job, and I've been on the farm full-time managing the 2,500 acre sugarcane farm that we take care of.
Lee: Eddie runs the Lewis family farm alongside his two brothers, and he loves it.
Lewis Iii: Farmin' is almost a form of therapy. Watching something come from nothin', and at the end of the day bein' able to reap what you sow. If you put in the work, and you believe in God and you put God first, you're gonna survive.
Lee: But the 2,500 acres they lease today is only about half of what Eddie's family used to farm. Eddie says losing that land is painful, especially because the reason why feels so unfair.
Lewis Iii: I would say about 90% of the land that we work belongs to white landowners, and my dad was the one that built a lotta those relationships. So basically when my father passed away in 2011, a lotta land I was losing is because the people that my father knew were passing away, the older white people.
And what happened was, there's younger white farmers comin' in. We had 4,500 acres at one time. We're down to 2,500 because the white farmers were able to get into the FSA offices and basically make a loan for the properties that you're farmin'. So yeah, that's how we lost all the land.
Lee: The FSA is the Farm Service Agency. It's the branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that administers government loans to farmers. When it comes to leasing property, Eddie's lost land to white farmers who've had an easier time getting loans.
Farming requires a lot of money. To lease or buy land, to purchase seeds and livestock, to modernize your equipment. So borrowing money to make money is a normal part of the process. But borrowing money as a Black farmer, (LAUGH) as a Black person in America period is really tough.
Well, the Black sugarcane farmers or Black farmers in general, we don't have the money to go down to the bank, much less the FSA, because the FSA is not gonna let us qualify or pass through the application process to be able to get those funds to buy the equipment to take care of that amount of land. The more land you have, the more equipment that you need, and vice versa.
Lee: Eddie gave me an example, one of many.
Lewis Iii: I remember one time two years ago I went into the Farm Service Agency with me and my brothers to fill out an application and apply for assistance, apply for help basically.
Lee: The white farmers Eddie was competing with kept managing to get their money before he could. So Eddie asked the loan managers for some help speeding up the process.
Lewis Iii: He basically told me, "Look, I'm not helping you with your application. You're lucky I'm lettin' you fill it out." And the FSA has that money, and they have the programs, and they're givin' it to the opposition, which is someone that doesn't look like me. The only reason I was able to overcome it is because I was a banker. I know money, I know credit, I know leverage, I know collateral. And my grandfather was a hell of a farmer, and I paid attention a little bit and caught on.
Lee: It's a cycle. If you can't secure your money as quickly as white people, you lose your land, and any past debt will just accumulate and become harder to pay off. How much debt are y'all in?
Lewis Iii: $600,000.
Lee: $600,000. Some of that debt is inherited from his father, a bit more from his grandfather. The scale of Eddie's problems also has a lot to do with the size of the farm. Farming sugarcane requires a lot of land. That means more equipment, more labor, more money. What they owe today is on top of what the family has already paid back to the USDA over many years.
Lewis Iii: My family's probably paid over $10 to $15 million worth-- as a form of payments to the government already.
Lee: Without help, the farm is at risk of foreclosing within a year.
Lewis Iii: And I'm probably gonna be one of the last Black sugarcane farmers if I can't sustain my family farm and let my little boy farm. 'Cause right now, we're losin' so much land to where I have to tell him, "Look, that degree you're gettin', you may have to go work somewhere else." You know, but I want to take that degree and put it to work on my farm. But the amount of land that we're losin', it's not gonna be possible.
Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). This past year's been tough in terms of COVID. How has the pandemic impacted just your farming business?
Lewis Iii: To be completely honest, COVID has kinda, like, been a blessing. I mean, because all of this woulda never happened.
Biden: And the bill says one more thing, which I think is really important. It changes the paradigm. For the first time in a long time, this bill puts working people in this nation first. It's not hyperbole, (APPLAUSE) it's a fact.
Lee: Included in Biden's COVID stimulus package is a promise of debt cancellation we talked about earlier. Eddie believes this new federal relief could change everything.
Lewis Iii: So the debt cancellation of $600,000 is definitely gonna help me and my family be able to sustain the land and be able to buy the equipment necessary to take care of the land, and we can farm for the next five to ten years without any complications.
Lee: If you're able to get some of this debt relief and also participate in some of the grant programs, is there any plan for you and your family to maybe buy some more land? Is that part of the process?
Lewis Iii: I mean, I'm reading the COVID relief bill, and it says that it has funds in there, it's about 160 acres, so that would definitely help keep us in business. All three of us, me and my brothers would need to buy 160 acres a piece to be able to sustain a sugarcane farm to be able to pay for the equipment and things like that.
Lee: Being able to buy land, not just lease it from year to year would be huge. It would mean more security for the Lewis family. Eddie's ready to plan for the future instead of spending so much time and energy focused on crawling out of this hole.
Lewis Iii: I never thought me and my family would see this, and it has given a lotta hope to young African American farmers. I have a lotta family and friends in the community, and our work ethic and our morale is definitely goin' up.
Lee: What do you think when you think about the future and you think about that day where, you know, God willing, that you're able to pass the farm onto your son, the same way you received it from your family? What do you think that day will be like, when you think about passing it on to your son?
Lewis Iii: Man, I can start tellin' my little boys the stories of the farm again. I'm kinda scared to tell him too much. He wants to be a sugarcane farmer, but you have to have thousands of acres.
Lee: Eddie's 11-year-old son, Eddie Lewis IV, watches him on the farm the same way Eddie III watched his father. This debt relief could save Eddie's family and cement that legacy that began generations ago on this very land in Youngsville, Louisiana.
Lewis Iii: It's just that we need to know for sure, and I just hope that they're not givin' us false hope.
Lee: False hope. It's something Black farmers know intimately in this country. So how can the same agency, the USDA, that has played such an outsized role in disadvantaging Black farmers heal the wounds they helped to inflict? After the break, Eddie and John Boyd of the National Black Farmers Association try to answer those questions. Stick with us.
Boyd: Black people and farmin', it goes hand in hand. We're all only two to three generations from somebody's farm.
Lee: John Boyd, who we heard from at the start of the story, runs the National Black Farmers Association, but he also raises cattle and farms corn, wheat and soybeans. And at 55, he's not slowin' down.
Boyd: I work seven days a week, and when I finish your podcast, I'm goin' back outside to get in my tractor.
Lee: Even though he'd rather be outside, John has been pivotal in pushing for legislation inside the halls of power, like this new stimulus money for Black farmers. He's driven in part because he's watched countless friends and relatives fall victim to discriminatory lending practices from the USDA.
Boyd: You're gonna hear some people say, "Well, oh, those folks were just bad farmers." We're the best farmers. We're the best farmers. We were farmin' as slaves and sharecroppin' and Jim Crow. We did the work, people.
Lee: John fights for better treatment, because he's worried about the future for Black farmers.
Boyd: Blacks are losing land in this country at three times greater rate than any other race of people. At the turn of the century, there was over 1 million Black farm families here in the United States tilling about 20 million acres in land. We're down to 4.5 million acres in land, and 47,000 Black farmers that make a livin' farmin'. And our numbers are down dramatically. We're really facing extinction.
Lee: Today 17,000 Black farmers out of 47,000 in total are delinquent on their loans to USDA. That's according to the Black Agrarian Fund, and USDA data show that 90% of Black-owned land has been lost over the last decades.
Boyd: Land ownership is the greatest tool that you can possess. It's the first step closer to freedom. And we desperately need a younger generation to learn the skillset and begin to partner with older Black farmers so that they can learn the art of farming.
Lee: John learned that art from his grandfather in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, close to the border of North Carolina.
Boyd: My grandfather said, "The land never mistreated anybody, that people do." And that he could make just as good a crop as anybody if he had the fair opportunity to do that. Well, when I first got introduced to the United States Department of Agriculture, it was through another Black farmer by the name of Russell Sally. I was 18 years old when I bought my first farm, and I said, "Mr. Sally, where are you getting money from?" And back then it was called the Farmers Home Administration.
Lee: The Farmers Home Administration is the predecessor of the Farm Service Agency where loans are given to farmers through local agents. These agents are crucial in controlling the purse strings.
Boyd: My forefathers said they'd done better when they had Black extension agents. When they took that system away and fully integrated Blacks and other minorities into the full system at USDA, that's when the problems broke out, when whites simply didn't lend Black people any, Black farmers in this instance money.
Lee: After desegregation, getting money from the USDA got a lot harder. John will never forget one of his first meetings with the county extension agent.
Boyd: My application was torn up and thrown in the trash can while I sat there in front of him. He said he wasn't gonna lend me any of his money. And he would refer to Black farmers as "Boy." And he would only see Black farmers on Wednesday. We all would be in the hallway together with the same letter saying, "Wednesday at 9:00 a.m."
And he would leave the door open so he can hear just how poorly he was speakin' to us. And I want to remind the listeners that these gentleman was older Black farmers. They were deacons and preachers and leaders in the community. And one particular year, this county supervisor spat on me tobacco juice on my shirt.
Lee: If they were lucky enough to get access to money, the discrimination continued in other ways.
Boyd: I lost a farm at foreclosure by USDA for $44,000. It was 48 acres. And my neighbor says, "Boyd, how much did you owe?" I said, "I owed $44,000." He said, "Man, that ain't no money. They just wrote off $557,000 for me. They wrote it off."
Lee: You might have guessed it. That neighbor was white. Meanwhile, John and his fellow Black farmers were getting squeezed in every direction, so in 1995, John and five other farmers got together to form the National Black Farmers Association, and the advocacy organization now serves tens of thousands of people. One of the biggest wins for Black farmers came in 1999 in a class action lawsuit called Pigford v. Glickman.
Boyd: We call it the Black farmers case. It was important, because it made the government pay attention.
Lee: The lawsuit against the USDA took aim at alleged racial discrimination in farm loans and assistance. Black farmers could sign onto the class action for instances of biased treatment between 1981 and 1996. Then a settlement known as Pigford II came in 2010.
Boyd: For the first time in history, altogether the government paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.25 billion to roughly 40,000 Black farmers in both of those settlements.
Lee: It was a big moment for Black farmers, and one that John was proud to have led. But even so, he says it didn't go nearly far enough.
Boyd: $50,000 on a farm operation such as what I'm running here is a drop in the bucket. $50,000 won't buy a new tractor and a disc harrow. So it didn't bring back the land. It didn't put us back into business. We couldn't seem to turn the corner quick enough to cut off the trend where we were losing so much land.
And a lot of these farmers were dear and close to me. Linwood Brown, Sylvester Warren, Walchus Long (PH), Sam Bouy (PH), John Moses Bonner. So those two settlements, those two lawsuits made the government stop and pay attention, but it didn't get the government to fix the root of the problem. Right now while I'm sittin' here lookin' at you, there's some Black farmer somewhere in the United States that's gettin' dogged by the government.
Biden: And the devil is in the details of implementing this legislation.
Lee: The Biden administration's rollout of the American Rescue Plan is going to be crucial to address the root of the problem.
Biden: It's one thing to pass the American Rescue Plan, it's gonna be another thing to implement it. It's gonna require fastidious oversight to make sure there's no waste or fraud, and the law does what it's designed to do. And I mean it. We have to get this right.
Lee: President Biden may as well have been talking directly to Eddie Lewis III, the farmer from Louisiana. Eddie's watching closely to see how it'll play out.
Lewis Iii: Only way for this to happen is the debt consolidation all the way up on a national scale.
Lee: For Eddie, a key part of the COVID relief bill needs to involve avoiding the local processes at the USDA that have plagued Black farmers.
Lewis Iii: They have to come down from a national level and say basically, "You walk into the FSA office, you sign a paper, and your debt is released." That is what has to happen. If that doesn't happen, if you have to go through any kinda application process at your local FSA office, it will not happen.
Lee: John Boyd agrees. Local agents should be left out of the process.
Boyd: I would like to see a third party neutral come in and execute the debt relief for Black farmers, that particular portion of the bill. Because I see hesitation and I still see the level of trust between Black farmers and the local county officers at USDA around the country. So I'm hopin' that they won't roll this program out through the same system and format that discriminated against us in the first place through the local county officers.
Lee: And John says he can't help but think of the Black farmers who never got the possibility of relief.
Boyd: Well, I'll tell you somethin'. When the bill passed, my wife asked me how did I feel, and I was overfilled with joy. And then there was the other half that just gave me chill bumps thinkin' about all of the faces that are not here. John Moses Bonner died and never settled his case, you know. So there's haunting instances like that that I think about every day.
Lee: We've been in touch with the USDA. It's clear that they know systemic discrimination and racial disparities have been an issue for decades. Here's part of what they wrote to us about the new stimulus package. It reads, "The American Rescue Plan gives USDA a new set of tools to try to address this gap and to address the systemic challenges that limit access for socially disadvantaged producers." They said the exact details are still being worked out. And that they're hoping to establish a time frame soon. But for Black farmers with a lot of debt, there's a sense of urgency.
Lewis Iii: I would like to see that rolled out, like, yesterday. You know, and it's plantin' season. In the comin' weeks, we're gonna be planting our crops again, some of us. And if I can do it without having that debt hanging over top of my head, I certainly would like to do that.
Boyd: If we can put $1,400 in the deposit in folks' accounts around the country in a couple days, then he can look at who's on the books for Black farmers and Native Americans and Hispanics and wipe away that debt, and get it done in the comin' weeks. It's not that hard, people.
Lee: Unsurprisingly, the aid is facing some criticism. The stimulus package was passed on a party line vote. No Republicans voted for the bill, and some folks in Washington like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are asking why this aid should be part of a coronavirus relief package in the first place. So Lindsey Graham was on Fox News kinda railing about this relief aimed at Black farmers and farmers of color, and he called it reparations.
Lindsey Graham: In this bill, if you're a farmer, your loan will be forgiven, up to 120% of your loan if you're socially disadvantaged, if you're African American, some other minority. But if you're white person, if you're a white woman, no forgiveness. That's reparations. What has that got to do with COVID? These people in the Congress today, the House and the Senate on the Democratic side are outta control liberals. And God help us all.
Lee: What do you make of his disparaging of you guys, but also the idea that this is some sort of reparations? Is it reparations? Is that a bad thing?
Boyd: I'll tell you what. What is it called when white farmers get all of the money? What is that called? And what is it called when you get none of the money? What is that called?
Lee: The USDA doled out billions of dollars as part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program last spring. Almost 97% of that $9.2 billion went to white farmers. On average white farmers received four times as much money as Black farmers. Those numbers are from the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group specializing in agriculture.
Boyd: We want to be included and treated with dignity and respect in all these federal programs, and then Senator Lindsey Graham throws this big old wedge in the middle of Black and white in this country. And I'm not fightin' Black and white. I'm fightin' Black and racism.
Lee: Eddie Lewis on his sugarcane farm in Louisiana agreed with John Boyd.
Lewis Iii: So I wouldn't say it's reparations. I would say it's an investment in the country to be able to help us with $4 billion. And I'm not a person to receive help. I'm very prideful. I work for everything that I have, but this debt cancellation I don't think is a handout, I don't think is a freebie. I'm gonna invest that money back into my farm, back into my business, back into my country, back into my state.
Lee: You talked about farming as a form of therapy, you know, with such positive, there's something positive about it. But with the prospect of possibly losing some of that land and that therapy, what state of mind would that put you in?
Lewis Iii: Man, it burns. It hurts. You know, because you're trying to protect your legacy. We've been doin' this five generations, and it's, like, how did this generation put my family outta business? You know, am I fightin' hard enough? Am I fightin' like my dad? Am I fightin' like my grandfather who started it from nothin'? You know, so it's, like, am I doin' enough, or is it just the modern culture that's comin' down puttin' us out of, you know, shovin' us to the side.
Lee: The future of Eddie's farm is at stake, and if this relief doesn't materialize, it could wind up in worse shape than before.
Boyd: And I mean, it's nice and cute that you're saying you're helpin' Black farmers, which brings us a hell of a lot of attention from our competition. So if you don't make this happen for us right now, you just hurt us more. You know, I hope that this is somethin' positive, somethin' that's gonna go through and help us, because I'm takin' a chance by talkin' to you right now, talkin' about racism, discrimination and things knowin' that 90% of my business is done with white landowners.
And if they want to kick me off their land, they can kick me off their land, and I'm outta business. So me standin' up for agriculture right now means a lot. I'm basically puttin' my fifth generation, my legacy and my family on the line. But that's how much it's in me. That's the blood, sweat and tears. I'll do anything to protect and save my family's legacy and farm.
Lee: We want to hear from you. If you have questions or story ideas, we'd love for you to get in touch. You can tweet me at Trymaine Lee, that's @TrymaineLee, my full name. Or write to us at IntoAmerica@nbcuni.com. That was IntoAmerica@NBC and the letters U-N-I.com.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.