African-American farmers make up less than 2 percent of all farmers in the United States. They helm shrinking operations that are less profitable on average than those owned by their white counterparts—and, according to a new report, this decline is the direct result of discriminatory lending practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In an analysis released on Wednesday, the liberal think tank Center for American Progress found that black farmers lost 80 percent of their farmland from 1910 to 2007, often because they lacked access to loans or insurance needed to sustain their businesses.
"[The USDA] has a long and well-documented history of discrimination against black farmers," the authors write. "The unequal administration of government farm support programs, crucial to protecting farmers from an inherently risky enterprise, has had a profound impact on rural communities of color."
As the authors note, black farmers have faced a legacy of discrimination, from white land owners denying them private credit, to the government rejecting their applications for USDA programs. The effects of this discrimination are startlingly apparent over the last century: African-American farmers made up around 14 percent of U.S. farmers in 1910, but just 1.6 percent in 2012. Internal audits and outside research suggest that, even in the last decade, the USDA has failed to address its discriminatory practices.
Here's some context for these new statistics and the history behind them.
Black Farmers Make Less Than White Farmers on Average
According to the Census of Agriculture, which is conducted every five years, there were about 33,400 African-American farmers in the country in 2012, out of a total of 2.1 million farmers (two million of whom are white).
The Center for American Progress found that the average full-time white farmer made $17,190 in farm income in 2017, while the average full-time African-American farmer made $2,408. This is partly because black-owned farms make up a very small proportion of acreage nationwide: 0.4 percent, according to the report. In 2012, most African-American farmers owned operations that were less than 180 acres.
But studies show that these farmers also failed to get the support they needed from the USDA. In a 2018 study of Georgia farmers in "Black Belt" counties, the researchers concluded that African-American farmers "have witnessed their farms and lands disappear at an alarming rate [since] farm programs have not reached them via research, teaching, and Extension from the federal to the local levels."
Black Farmers Have Historically Been Denied Access to Farm Loan Programs
The Farm Service Agency oversees farm loan programs that help farmers purchase land and make renovations, or provide financial incentives for making their operations more sustainable.
There's plenty of evidence that African-American participation in these programs is low. According to three researchers from Tuskegee University, this is because the USDA has not done successful outreach to black farmers. "Underlying the fact that ['socially disadvantaged farmers,' a USDA term that includes African-American farmers] have not participated in USDA programs to the same degree as majority producers, is the fact that, for generations, they have been denied access to these programs," they wrote.
Even when black farmers were made aware of these programs, their applications were systemically denied for decades; the most recent USDA Office of Inspector General audit, examining minority participation in FSA programs in 1997, found that district offices in five states denied direct loans from "socially disadvantaged farmers" at a 16 percent higher rate than others.
The USDA Took Years to Address Black Farmers' Complaints
When farmers file complaints of discrimination against the USDA, they're evaluated by the department's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights. According to the Office of Inspector General, this office has processed an average of almost 1,000 program complaints a year since 2005.
The office says it has improved its process and response time for handling complaints since 2008, but a 2012 audit found the office often took years to address them, sometimes waiting so long that the cases passed the two-year statute of limitations period.
An an Environmental Working Group report found, other delays have impacted black farmers, systematically, for years: After a coalition of black farmers won two racial discrimination lawsuits in the 1990s, black farmers claimed the USDA delayed or failed to pay out the $2.3 billion it owed.