It's been more than a decade since a group of African-American, Latinx, indigenous, and women farmers first sued the United States Department of Agriculture for its discriminatory lending practices in several class action lawsuits.
For years, the department that provides financial support to farmers denied loans to women and people of color at higher rates than their white male counterparts. This discrimination helped ensure that the most profitable producers would be white and male, and nearly drove African-American farmers off their land: Between 1910 and 2007, black farmers lost 80 percent of their farmland, in part because they lacked access to loans or insurance.
According to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, very little has changed. Congress' non-partisan investigative agency found that women and minorities—who already comprise a disproportionately small share of U.S. farmers—have a harder time obtaining loans and credit from private lenders and banks regulated by the USDA, and from the department itself. Often, these loans make the difference in whether a farmer can afford to keep an operation running, or whether beginning farmers—often recent immigrants—can break into the business.
John Boyd, a Virginia farmer and the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, says he was denied a farm operating loan this year for the first time in 17 years, meaning he'll now have trouble farming his 700 acres of grain. "It's tough—it's hard," he says. "Right now I'm farming off credit cards."
Boyd is one of many black farmers who have had this experience, and now there's the data to prove it: From 2015 to 2017, farmers defined by the USDA as "socially disadvantaged"—Native Americans and Alaska Natives, Asian Americans, African Americans, Pacific Islanders, Latinxs, and women—represented 17 percent of primary producers, but only 8 percent of total outstanding farm debt.
Although the USDA provides only a small portion of direct payments, it also oversees loans from commercial banks, which have historically courted white men. "The top 10 percent of large-scale farmers, corporate farmers, they're very clearly white men—they aren't women, they aren't people of color," Boyd says. "That's who's been getting the service. That's who's been getting the loans."
For Boyd, whose organization represents more than 109,000 farmers in 42 states, these findings validate what he's known for decades. "It's new information for a lot of people who have been denying it for so long, especially the top 10 banks," he says.
In 2014, he pushed to include a measure in the farm bill that ultimately required the GAO to conduct this study. Now, he says he hopes lawmakers will listen. "The lack of loans speaks for [itself]," he says. "They're not making loans to African-American farmers, and ... small farmers alike, and Congress needs to take action based on this report."
The report gives several possible reasons for the gender and racial disparity. Minority farmers "are more likely to operate smaller, lower-revenue farms, have weaker credit histories, or lack clear title to their agricultural land, which can make it difficult for them to qualify for loans," the authors write. But advocacy groups also say these farmers experience discrimination in lending, or may be less likely to apply for credit because of the agency's racist history.
While the Farm Credit Administration, which regulates banks that give loans to farmers, requires banks to create plans for outreach to minority farmers, there's little in the way of enforcement: The GAO report notes the agency does not require lenders to meet specific lending goals.
On top of this, researchers say women and minority farmers are underrepresented in the official data. Until 2017, the department's census only counted one primary producer per farm, leaving out many women. A recent investigation found the department misled the public on its diversity efforts as well: Under the Obama administration, the USDA touted its civil rights record while failing to address ongoing discrimination, the New Food Economy found.
As I've previously reported, many female landowners and operators also say they experience sexist backlash from their male tenants, neighbors, and families on their conservation decisions, or say they were denied loans from the Farm Service Agency, which gives farmers access to credit.
"Just because people received payments doesn't mean the discrimination stopped," Michigan Technology University environmental sociologist Angie Carter, who conducted a 2019 study of women landowners alongside the non-profit advocacy group Women, Food and Agriculture Network, writes in an email. "Also, women's ag labor continues to be diminished, undervalued, and not seen as legitimate."
While Boyd hopes Congress will pass legislation requiring banks and the USDA to allocate a certain percentage of loans to minority farmers, he says the Trump administration has shown little interest. Sonny Perdue is the first secretary of agriculture who has not met with his organization to talk about the needs of black farmers since the Carter administration, according to Boyd.
"USDA isn't doing anything to take action to help socially disadvantaged farmers of color, who look like me," he says. "This administration has closed a blind eye and a deaf ear."