The $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package included targeted support for a small group with a tough history: Black farmers. A provision based on the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, introduced by Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock in February, gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture close to $5 billion to assist Black farmers who’ve faced systemic discrimination for decades. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, John Boyd Jr. This was a huge victory for people like him. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason Johnson: Most of us don’t know much about farming. What’s the average Black farmer look like in America in 2021?
John Boyd Jr.: Multigenerational farmer, like you see myself. … We are a very, very diverse bunch of farmers, but we raise crops on smaller and smaller acreage. So the average size of a Black-owned farm is 50 acres, and also the average age of a Black farmer is 61 years of age.
I want to talk a little bit about the relief that just came in this new coronavirus package. It’s relief targeted at disadvantaged farmers and minority farmers, and it’s $5 billion channeled through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock led the effort to make that happen. Now, Republicans were quick to criticize this bill, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. He said, “In this bill, if you’re a farmer, your loan will be forgiven up to 120 percent of your loan. Not 100 percent but 120 percent of your loan, if you’re socially disadvantaged—if you’re African American, some other minority. But if you’re a white person, if you’re a white woman, no forgiveness as reparations.”
I know that you’ve wrestled back-and-forth with Lindsey Graham before. What’s your response to what Lindsey Graham has to say, and what’s been your overall opinion of him when it comes to Black farmers over the years?
He gets an F-minus. I don’t know if he can get any lower than that. But he knows what he’s doing when he comes out and make these notorious type of statements, like inflammatory, race, catchy statements to the press. And I’ve had meetings with him, FaceTime meetings, and lobbied Sen. Graham, both when he served in the House of Representatives as a congressman and as a U.S. senator, and he’s never done anything on the Black farmers issue. He said at the beginning of his statement it really bothered him. And that’s the problem with a lot of people in America, where any time resources go to Blacks and Native Americans and Hispanics, it bothers them.
But we’re a part of the American fabric here, too. And especially the issue with Black farmers and what we went through in this country as slaves and sharecroppers and surviving the Jim Crow era. He wasn’t concerned then. I find his comments deplorable, and the other 49 members who voted against this measure to pull it out of the spending bill deplorable. And we can do better. We can do better in the United States.
Given your experience of working with Black farmers who have been robbed of their land, sometimes chased off their land historically by white men and women with guns, what do you think of the idea of reparations? Have you ever looked at House Bill 40 and what the impact of reparations might be specifically on Black farmers?
H.R. 40, John Conyers for many years introduced it every year. H.R. 40 was merely a study about reparations, and it didn’t move very far in Congress. Reparations for Blacks in this country is long overdue. We should have done that years ago. Hopefully the timing is right to move that forward with this administration, with President Biden, who I believe his administration so far has shown that they’re open to doing initiatives, especially bills and things of that nature, to address Blacks in this country.
But even if it is reparations, what do you call it when billions of dollars for the past 40 years, I can think of, went to all white farmers in this country? What do you call it? is my question to people like Lindsey Graham. I need to be treated with dignity and respect. Judge me for the character that I am and the life that I live in my community. I live a good life. I treat people with dignity and respect. I treat everybody that worked for me with dignity and respect, and that’s the way I want to be treated when I walk into the United States Department of Agriculture. That’s what I want to get to in this country. When do we start getting that kind of treatment?
So, John, how much confidence do you have in Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture to actually distribute these funds properly and make sure that the concerns of Black farmers are actually addressed, seeing as he didn’t do it when he was in this position before?
Well, I’ll tell you, I had a meeting with now-President Biden last February, before I endorsed him publicly. And one of the things that we spoke about was new blood at USDA and new political people that could come in and get the job done. So he said that that would happen. So when they made the announcement that Secretary Vilsack was going back to USDA, I and others immediately found it problematic for us. I believe it’s the wrong time in history, and I still do, for Secretary Vilsack. I don’t think this is the right time in history to have him there. But he’s there. And my daddy taught me as a young man, “Don’t watch what they say, but you watch everything that they do.” So we are going to be watching what Secretary Vilsack does and his actions. And the last conversation we had with the president, he said, if he doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do, then to let him know.
So I plan on letting the president know if his pick doesn’t perform or not. But we are at a critical time where this bill is passed and we need to hear more details about implementation on how the farmers are going to receive the debt relief and how the outreach will be set up. That’s what I’m urging the administration, that’s my message. They have to implement this, and they have to do it with swift action, and to make sure that those Black and other farmers of color that are eligible to receive this debt relief actually receive it. And we’re going to be right on top of this, you know, tooth and nail here.
Black farmers won a $1 billion settlement from the USDA over lifelong discrimination more than 20 years ago. This was Pigford v. Glickman. But then just 10 years later, the government had to step in again because the funds weren’t going to everyone who was entitled to the relief. So you say that Vilsack might be part of the problem. I agree with you he might be part of the problem.
Let’s say we’re jumping to 2022, and the money still hasn’t been distributed. There’s been a rush on Black farmland in the fall as we sort of come out of COVID, but Black people are still suffering. What kind of pressure can we apply? What does pressure look like on a secretary of agriculture? We know how to scream at members of Congress. We know how to scream at President Biden. How do we put pressure on the secretary of agriculture if he’s not doing his job and handing out the stimulus checks?
Well, I believe it’s just a little bit different time, because I’ve seen in the past 30 years more interest right now, heightened interest, on what’s going on with Black farmers and farmers of color—even more so than when we announced the Black farmers settlement. So I believe there is more attention now to what is going on with Black farmers, and I’m hopeful that this administration would do what it needs to do, because the past four years have been hell for Black farmers and farmers of color in this country, and we’re not trying to go back there. We’re trying to go forward. That’s why I came right out the box quickly and pushed for this measure, and let’s get some delivered goods out the box quick. Four years goes by very fast. And if you are going to do anything and implement any policy and changes, you have to get out the box quickly and show people what you’re made of and what you’re going to do.