Billions in COVID Relief Has Gone to Farmers. Just Not Black or Family-Owned Farms in Appalachia.

Ballew Estates is a family owned farm in Madison County, Kentucky, that has been in operation for five generations. Photo: Provided

Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought

Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning

Names in heat, in elements classical

Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer. 

Foxglove. Summer seemed to bloom against the will

Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter

On this planet than when our dead fathers

Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s Breath. 

Men like me and my brothers filmed what we

Planted for proof we existed before

Too late, sped the video to see blossoms

Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems

Where the world ends, everything cut down.

John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.

The Tradition, Jericho Brown

It’s been seven years since the second round of settlements promised to Black farmers in a two-part class action federal lawsuit filed against the United States Department of Agriculture was approved by a federal judge.

Originally filed by Timothy Pigford and 400 other Black farmers in 1997, the Pigford lawsuit claimed that the USDA engaged in years of systemic racial discrimination in the allocation of federal loans and disaster relief funding. Black farmers stated in the lawsuit that the USDA subjected them to longer wait times for loan approvals compared to their white counterparts, were given loans with unfair terms, or were denied loans altogether. They also stated that the USDA failed to follow-up on or investigate claims of racial discrimination filed by Black farmers.

The courts handed down settlement of the initial lawsuit in 1999. Part two of the lawsuit, referred to as Pigford II, allowed farmers who missed the claim deadline for the original case to file discrimination claims, and in 2010, a subsequent settlement of $1.25 billion was announced.

At the time, Tom Vilsack, then-Secretary of the USDA, stated in a press release, “USDA has made it a top priority to ensure all farmers are treated fairly and equally. We have worked hard to address the USDA’s checkered past so we can get to the business of helping farmers succeed. The agreement reached today [2010] is an important milestone in putting discriminatory claims behind us for good and in achieving finality for this group of farmers with longstanding grievances.”

Fast forward to 2020, in the midst of unprecedented economic devastation wrought by COVID-19, and operators of small family farms in Appalachia and across the country, including Black farmers, find themselves once again left out of federal aid and COVID disaster relief programs, despite suffering huge setbacks and critical loss of income as a result of the pandemic.

“One of the things that we found farms were struggling with was that the loss of income really was not addressed at all by the federal programs that were available,” says Laurie White, Central Kentucky food coordinator for the Kentucky Community Farm Alliance.

The Community Farm Alliance helps foster relationships between rural and urban citizens to create an agricultural ecosystem in Kentucky where family-scale farming can prosper and grow. They also “envision a food and fiber system that provides nutritious food for Kentuckians in a manner that is socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable.” White has worked with CFA since 2018, and part of her work this year has included helping connect operators of small diversified farms with additional funding through CFA initiatives.

Photo: Provided

“It’s a very common strategy for small diversified farms to have on-farm events to supplement their farming income,” she says. “And almost all of our farms cancelled their on-farm events for this year. That was something that just wasn’t part of the model of federal aid that was available to farms, though it is a very common source of income for small, diversified farms.”

One of the primary forms of federal aid introduced as part of COVID relief was the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, or CFAP, established to provide equitable financial assistance to farmers and producers of agricultural commodities to offset losses incurred as a result of the outbreak. According to  data from the Environmental Working Group and published by Successful Farming, however, “the largest one percent of farms in the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program received one-fifth of the disbursements, or nearly $1.1 billion of the $5 billion paid during June, the first month of CFAP.”

Environmental Working Group Senior Analyst Anne Schechinger reported in September that “the largest and wealthiest U.S. farm agribusinesses received the biggest share of almost $33 billion in payments from two subsidy programs — one created by the Trump administration to respond to the president’s trade war and the other by Congress in response to the coronavirus pandemic.”

The EWG analyzed Department of Agriculture records obtained using the Freedom of Information Act for CFAP payments made through June 30 and found that the largest farm operations received an average payment of $352,432, while the smallest 80 percent of farms received an average payment of $4,677

The USDA announced a second round of funding approved by the federal government, called CFAP 2, on September 17, with an expanded list of specialty crops that qualified for aid.

“The [first] CFAP direct payments through Farm Service Agency — the payment schedule for those was based on wholesale prices for farmers who are producing acres and acres and acres of monoculture crops,” White says. “It’s, like, a penny per pound for potatoes. And for farmers who are selling through farmers markets or through a CSA, they sell potatoes for at least $1 per pound in Kentucky, sometimes $2 or $3 dollars per pound if they’re organic.” 

“So it made no sense for them to go through the paperwork to apply for pennies on the dollar of what their actual losses were,” White explains. “And to have to apply, to have to account for a diversity of crops — if there was only small amounts of each crop, it often wasn’t worth it to apply.”

As for the Payroll Protection Plan, which was enacted by Congress in June to help owners of small businesses pay employees for up to eight weeks…

“For farms that have employees, not contract labor, but actual employees, it was potentially helpful,” says White. “But lots of Kentucky farms don’t have any employees. In that case, they could file as self-employed or sole proprietor to be able to pay themselves, but they would have to have their tax records show what their income has been. And most farms operate at a loss. So for most small farms, it was something that was totally not helpful.”

Another hurdle? Many small scale farmers typically don’t have the time to sit down and navigate the tedious process of applying for federal aid programs, says White. Many don’t have the literal bandwidth either, as lack of high-speed internet service in many rural areas prohibits access to online information about what aid is available, and to application forms and newsletters and emails alerts from the government or local agricultural organizations.

“That’s been true with federal programs all along,” says White. “They’ve always been easier to access for farms that are well-resourced and have staff to do these things — paperwork and applications and even to follow what programs are out there. I think I recorded the other day that in the month of April, I spent 16 hours participating in webinars on various COVID response programs and activities. Most farmers just don’t have time to stay on top of all of that stuff.”

Black farmers like Samantha Foxx, owner of Mother’s Finest Urban Farm in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, just outside of the Appalachian region, say they feel disillusioned with programs and application processes that exist within a system that for decades has discriminated against Black agrarians. They feel dissuaded from even applying at all.

“I did not consider seeking government assistance [for COVID relief] because, in the past, it has been a waste of time, as we have been denied each and every time we have taken the time to apply,” says Foxx. “Even though we were in the middle of a pandemic and had to do a lot of shifting in how we run our business and serve our community, I still felt that government assistance was something that was not tailored to be of assistance to farmers of color. Even with it being such a low percentage of Black farmers in comparison to white farmers, it still felt like it was not made to help with funding for the few Black farmers in North Carolina. Each and every time, the reason for denial was ‘competitive.’”

Reports for the first round of CFAP payments did not include demographic data, and numbers vary, so it’s still unclear the percentage of farmers of color who received CFAP funding compared to white.

What is known, however, is that, according to a USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture, Black farmers account for just 1.4 percent of the U.S.’s 3.4 million food producers. The census also notes that “their [Black-operated] farms were smaller and the value of their agricultural sales was less than one percent of the U.S. total.” So too, says the census, “57 percent of Black-operated farms had sales and government payments of less than $5,000 per year; seven percent had sales and payments of $50,000 or more, compared with 27 percent of all farms.”

Data published by the Kentucky CFA paints a similar picture. They note that Black farms average 31 percent less in their average value of products sold than white-operated farms. Black farm products are valued at approximately $10 million, compared to a white farm product valuation of $5 billion. And just 0.5 percent of 76,000 farms in Kentucky are operated by a Black farmer.

These numbers are born of a history of agricultural oppression that has also seen Black landowners lose 12 million acres of farmland in the South alone over the past century, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. The EJI also reports a dispossession of 98 percent of Black agricultural landowners in the United States.

Today, work is being done on a local level to combat this inequity — motivated not only by a need to serve small farmers, but also because organizations are eager to show solidarity with the Black community in the wake of racial unrest as a result of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. One such effort is the CFA Kentucky Black Farmer Fund.

Ashley Smith and Trevor Claiborn founded Black Soil: Our Better Nature in August 2017. Photo: Provided

In partnership with the organization Black Soil: Our Better Nature, the Kentucky Black Farmer Fund — a kind of off-shoot of the CFA Central Appalachian Family Farm Fund — was established as a way to get critical disaster relief funds, provided primarily by Farm Aid, directly into the hands of Black farmers. The KBFF website states, “COVID-19 has created opportunities and challenges for all small family-scale farmers. For Black farmers, these new demands are piled onto existing challenges, because of these systemic historical inequities…. Historically, Black farmers have been systematically discriminated against in the United States. The same opportunities granted to white farmers have been denied to Black farmers; Black farmers have been less likely to receive loans and federal and state grants.”

The KBFF awards a one-time payment of up to $750 to Black-operated family-scale farms.

KBFF partner organization, Black Soil, was founded by Ashley Smith and partner Trevor Claiborn to empower Black farmers, connecting them with community-based resources and helping get their products to market.

“If Mother Nature can’t see who put the seed in the ground, then why are there such disparities in agriculture?” Smith asks. “Being unable to shake that question three years ago, Black Soil: Our Better Nature was founded. It was founded with the mission to reconnect Black Kentuckians to their heritage and legacy in agriculture.”

Black Soil does this by hosting farm tours and on-farm events where attendees can meet, connect and network with Black farmers, growers and producers. They also help bring Black farm products to the market, connecting farmers with small businesses, restaurants, and farmers markets in an effort to get Black products into the Kentucky supply chain. Black Soil operates a farm share program using products sourced from Black-operated farms — all this with the goal of creating a greater market share for Black farmers.

While Smith is proud of the work she’s able to do through Black Soil, she is also frustrated, she says, at an agricultural system that for centuries has exploited Black labor and systematically oppressed Black farmers — a system that she and her community have been railing against for years that she says it feels like other people are only now waking up to.

“The fact that a man was choked to death, suffocated to death — we watched for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — all of sudden people want to start having conversations, when we at Black Soil have been having conversations for three years, and nobody gave a damn,” she says. 

“We got dismissed, pushed to the side, laughed at, ridiculed. We’ve known, since day one, that there is an extreme racialized wealth disparity in agriculture. And we’re talking about the fact that the blood in the soil is Black ancestrally,” she said, noting that the hemp and the tobacco that white farmers embrace now were once referred to derogatively with racial slurs. “But now, because of systematic expulsion, they want to pride themselves on this morality of hard work, when all of it is an appropriation of the work that’s gone unattributed.”

Need More Acres Farms hosts a Farm School for Kids, which provided interactive and exploratory play on their farmland in eastern Kentucky. Photo: Provided

Says Smith, “I’ve got Black farmers who tell me, ‘Me and my wife, they introduced us at the stockyard and as soon as we went up there, the price of my cattle went down.’ Or, ‘When I go to the auction with my goats, people try to undersell, underbid me 50 to 80 percent of what the actual value of my animal is.’ And this is 2019, 2020, post-George Floyd. So we got a lot of work to be done.”

That’s why, Smith says, Black Soil and other Black-led agrarian organizations like it are leveraging the conversation of this moment. And why it was important to her to partner with CFA to build the Kentucky Black Farmer Fund.

“We’ve got to make real financial investment. A one-time gift of up to $750 is great. But long-term, that’s not sustainable. We need to be really thinking about radical disruption of distributing funds and helping provide support measures. [Black farmers] are here to get the past due balance, first and foremost. And then, it’s how do we move forward with equity and liberation.”

In its first round of funding, the Black Farmer Fund was able to award 43 farms a total of $31,900. Black farmers who were awarded funds used the money to purchase equipment, build on-site storage for farm products and purchase technology. Some used the funds to purchase personal protective equipment that could help them stay safe as they went out into the community to sell their products or make fresh food deliveries.

“I know a flower farmer that used the funding to be able to extend the growing season for her flowers,” says Michelle Howell, a member of CFA and co-owner of Need More Acres Farm. “Other farmers have used it for distribution or marketing materials, supplies that they needed in response to COVID-19, expanding their operation.”

Michelle Howell is the co-owner of Need More Acres Farm in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Photo: Provided

Beyond helping them keep farming operations afloat, it’s the hope of the KBFF that this initial award also opens the door for other funding opportunities in the future, says Howell.

“A lot of the funding that you’ll see out there for agriculture is funding that’s a ‘once you qualify and get it, you always get it.’ So sometimes there’s that hurdle, getting it for the first time. [The KBFF] allows us to get a small pot of money to that farmer really quickly with the flexibility of them getting to use it on what they need. But we also at the time are working on helping them get bigger and larger resources down the road.”

Said one applicant, “COVID-19 affected my community by having empty shelves of [sic] the nearest grocery store. We are already in a food insecure community, and then the strain on the supply chain put an even deeper strain on the food insecure community. [Farm] production needed to be increased to help my community that was in need.”

Another applicant offered thanks after receiving funding: “Thank y’all so much. The check came yesterday and it was right on time. I usually pay $20 to $30 for a roll of hay. I don’t know why, because it’s not a drought and [sic] grass is plentiful, but farmers that are selling hay have doubled the prices, even tripled on some. I buy 150 rolls every year an [sic] I was worried a little, but every little bit helps an [sic] I bought 80 rolls yesterday an [sic] feel like I will get through this pandemic.”

The Kentucky Black Farmer Fund is doing real good in its community, but it is a disaster relief program, meaning that aid is tied to COVID. Both White and Smith hope to extend the program even after COVID, but it’s not a guarantee. And $750, one time, can only go so far.

“The ultimate vision is to move this fund beyond COVID-19,” says Smith. “Because again, the systematic expulsion is one that future hundreds of generations after us are still going to be grappling with. Black farmers are going extinct in this state and no one is blinking an eye. That is a problem…So we’re bringing the conversation all the way full circle. We’re talking about, ‘What does your institution look like?’ ‘Who are you sourcing your products from?’ ‘How are you empowering small scale farmers?’ And then, the economic inclusion — that’s the Kentucky Black Farmer Fund piece.”

When you’re talking about COVID-19, she says “you’re also talking again about the roots — coming up out of the roots of slavery — health disparities, food insecurity, lack of access, housing, proper and full employment. It all comes back to the narrative in which we historically interpret agriculture.”

And changing that narrative, updating it to elevate Black farmers and create real and true equality within agriculture, is tireless work.  And it’s important for Smith and the community she serves to make room for the joy in it — joy she says Black farmers experience in a “variety of ways.”  

“From expansion of farm operations into urban markets, to seeing new consumers excited about products, Black farmers are taking the reins of their success,” she says. “Joy is also realized through sold out markets, recharged days off and seeing children graduate and complete programs that their farming paid for in full.”

Beth Ward is a Georgia-based writer and editor whose writing has appeared in/on West Virginia Public Radio, The Bitter Southerner, Atlanta Magazine, 90.1 WABE, The Rumpus, Pigeon Pages Literary Journal and elsewhere.

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