In 2021, growers from marginalized groups received funds and government assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but not by the same means—or in the same amount—that many of them had hoped.
A federal judge blocked a massive debt relief program that Congress outlined in the American Rescue Plan Act. However, the agency has provided historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other institutions with grant funding for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) farmers, veterans, immigrants, and refugees.
USDA Grants, Loans, and Assistance
The USDA’s 2021 funded projects included nearly $18.7 million in grants for its Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, also known as the 2501 Program.
According to the USDA, the group of “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers,” sometimes referred to by the agency as “SDFRs,” “includes producers who are one or more of the following: Black/African American, American Indian, Alaskan Native, Hispanic/Latino, Asian American, or Pacific Islander.”
A list of the 2501 grants to institutions such as universities and non-profit associations include descriptions of the recipient projects. These descriptions do not specifically mention hemp; however, they highlight broad agriculture-related education, including workshops and trainings focused on agri-tourism, good agricultural practices, and “agribusiness management literacy trainings.” The institutions receiving the grants, which include HBCUs, aim to work with groups such as BIPOC farmers, veterans, immigrants, and refugees.
Socially disadvantaged producers and members of historically underserved communities are eligible for all USDA programs, a USDA spokeswoman told HG. They are also eligible for specific provisions, such as priority in ranking and funding applications, waived fees, and higher payment rates, under various titles of the 2018 Farm Bill.
The agency doesn’t track the background of producers for all programs, though it does for some, the spokeswoman said. She outlined the following for fiscal year 2021:
- The USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) funded $1.14 billion to socially disadvantaged producers through 6,177 direct and guaranteed farm loans.
- The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program 2 included a $4.7 million investment in new partnerships focusing on outreach to historically underserved producers.
- The USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provided $168.4 million via 4,020 contracts with historically underserved producers as part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
- Through 759 contracts as part of the Conservation Stewardship Program, NRCS provided $37.3 million to historically underserved producers.
In 2022, the spokeswoman said, intermediary lenders will receive $67 million in funding from FSA through a new Heirs’ Property Relending Program. Then, those lenders will re-lend the funds to resolve issues with heir land ownership and succession.
Some HBCUs are receiving funding to evaluate hemp, specifically. Separate from a grant that it received through the 2501 Program, Central State University, an HBCU in Wilberforce, Ohio, earned a $10 million USDA Sustainable Agricultural Systems (SAS) grant this year. The project? To determine the potential of hemp as fish feed.
Project lead Brandy Phipps, Ph.D., a research assistant professor of food, nutrition and health at Central State, told Hemp Grower, “There’ve only been 32 [SAS grants] funded over three funding cycles, so it’s pretty historic that a primarily undergraduate institution, an HBCU, was one of those 32. We’re the only school in Ohio to ever receive it and we’re the only HBCU to ever receive it. We are excited to have been chosen to perform this work.”
Also in 2021, Tuskegee, Ala., HBCU Tuskegee University received a $1.78 million grant in 2021 from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) for a multifaceted project. For part of the project, according to NIFA, grant recipients at the land-grant university will “[e]valuate selected specialty/alternative crops, including hemp for farm production and market feasibility.” They also aim to share “emerging, science-based and site-specific information” about hemp and other crops and agricultural practices across an 18-state region.
Not all USDA funding has gone off without a hitch—just as some were anticipating. Angela Dawson, founder of 40 Acre Co-Op, an organization dedicated to supporting socially disadvantaged farmers, told HG in spring 2021 that she had “cautious optimism” about provisions in the American Rescue Plan that could have assisted those growers.
Then came the ensuing tumult. In a Florida U.S. District Court in June 2021, a judge halted a federal program included in the American Rescue Plan aimed at providing up to 120% of debt relief to socially disadvantaged farmers through the USDA.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard explained in her order granting the preliminary injunction that she made the decision while acknowledging that the USDA has historically discriminated against socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.
“It is undeniable—and notably uncontested by the parties—that USDA has a dark history of past discrimination against minority farmers,” the judge wrote in her order in the case Scott Wynn v. Thomas J. Vilsack and Zach Ducheneaux.
However, in drafting Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan, the judge wrote, the government used limited arguments that don’t pass the legal scrutiny required to prove certain points, such as ongoing discrimination at the USDA and the failure of remedial efforts by the agency to address discrimination. Instead, she wrote, the government opted to offer aid to all socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, contending that other farmers and ranchers weren’t offered equal protection for the debt relief under the Constitution.
“Although the Government argues that Section 1005 is narrowly tailored to reach small farmers or farmers on the brink of foreclosure, it is not,” the judge wrote. “Regardless of farm size, an SDFR receives up to 120% debt relief. And regardless of whether an SDFR is having the most profitable year ever and not remotely in danger of foreclosure, that SDFR receives up to 120% debt relief.
“Yet a small White farmer who is on the brink of foreclosure can do nothing to qualify for debt relief. Race or ethnicity is the sole, inflexible factor that determines the availability of relief proved by the Government under Section 1005.”
The plaintiff in the case, Scott Wynn, is one of several white farmers who have filed lawsuits across the country. Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller filed another suit in his capacity as a farmer, according to the Associated Press. Miller told the news outlet of the debt relief, “It is just flat wrong. Us Republicans and old white guys, we get accused of being racist all the time. But this is racist by the [Biden] administration. It couldn’t be a plainer case of racist.”
William & Mary Law School professor Neal Devins told POLITICO that a legal fight from the Biden administration is unlikely, saying, “Obviously with this cluster of cases… they’re not going to blindly go before a federal court of appeals and run the risk of that kind of defeat, setting the stage for a Supreme Court defeat. Probably better hope that Congress will clean up the statute.”
John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, told POLITICO that he’s urging President Biden to move forward with some form of debt relief.
“It could be a new legislative fix with a new definition, some sort of executive order, but I don’t see the fix coming from the secretary,” Boyd said.
On the Insurance Front
HG recently spoke with one USDA administrator who explained her division’s dedication to supporting socially disadvantaged farmers.
In November 2021, Marcia Bunger, a member of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, was sworn in as the administrator of the USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA). In her previous role as county executive director for USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), Bunger worked with government representatives of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to administer FSA programs. She also served on the South Dakota Advisory Council to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for 15 years.
Part of Bunger’s new role at RMA is to oversee the administering of crop insurance programs to hemp growers. In 2022, Bunger told HG, RMA strives to identify stakeholders in insurance issuance processes, such as approved insurance providers who underwrite crop insurance, and determine how to better serve underserved communities.
“We need to be able to identify where there’s no service, how we get them service, and also to educate members of those underserved communities as to how crop insurance exactly works—because I think I see a gap between traditional and non-traditional farmers and growers, and I think USDA RMA is committed to filling that need,” Bunger said. “I know this is a term used by education, but my priority is to make sure that no one is left behind when it comes to accessing RMA USDA programs.”