Farming While Black

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S1: This is a word, a new podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. The massive coronavirus relief law includes billions of dollars in aid for black farmers that has some Republican lawmakers like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham crying foul.

S2: So if you’re in the farming business right now, this bill forgives one hundred and twenty percent of your loan based on your race.

S1: But black farmers say the money is a small step in helping them recover from the covid crisis. And a history of discrimination in America, the future of black farmers. Next on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Politicians often portray the American farm as the home of the country’s best virtues, hard work, perseverance and hope. But in that vision, almost all the farmers are always white folks. The only black farmers, many Americans, even African-Americans, know of the along. The fictional family at the heart of Ava DuVernay is critically acclaimed television series Queen Sugar

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S3: and Ernest Charles Bordelon declare that this is my last will and testament. To my children, I bequeath eight hundred acres equally out of every place in this whole world,

S4: this land bears our name. From it, nurture it, love it.

S1: That was the voice of actor Glenn Thurman, who played Louisiana farmer Ernest Bordelon. The reality of black farmers is that they’re endangered. Decades of discriminatory practices from American banks and government agencies kill most black farms, left a few thousand that remain struggling. But the coronavirus relief law offered them a lifeline and included the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, which provides close to five billion dollars for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assist black farmers who faced systematic discrimination for decades. It was a huge victory for people like John Boyd Jr. He is the founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association and spent years fighting for justice for black farmers. We spoke recently about the aid package, and I began by asking him about his own farm.

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S3: Basically, I’m a fourth generation farmer from Mecklenburg County, Virginia, and my people are defined as river people, so we move from the river basin along the Mecklenburg County, Virginia, North Carolina border line. And I was trained as a farmer, as a tobacco and cotton and peanut farmer as as my daddy and grandfather was. And now today I raise the three major commodities, corn, wheat and soybeans and 100 head of beef cattle on about fourteen hundred acres in Mecklenburg County, Virginia.

S1: Most of us don’t know much about farming. What’s the average black farmer look like in America in twenty twenty one

S3: multi generation a farmer? I do see myself. We’re very a very diverse bunch of farmers, but we raise crops and 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.

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S1: David, your average black farmer in America, is 61 years old. About how many black farmers are left in America and how has that number grown or shrunk in, say, the last 30 years?

S3: I would say forty six forty seven thousand black farmers that make a living farming. And then there’s a host of part time farmers and land owners. The turn of the century, we were one million black farm families strong in the United States, killing about 120 million acres. According to our numbers today, we’re down to about one 1/2 million acres of land that we that we’re still in, primarily in the south eastern corridor of the United States.

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S1: I want to talk a little bit about the relief that just came in this new coronavirus package. So it’s relief targeted at disadvantaged farmers and minority farmers. And it’s five billion channeled through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and George Tenet. Raphael Warnock led the effort to make that happen. Now, Republicans were quick to criticize this bill. And we have a short clip of what South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham had to say about the relief

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S2: in this bill. If you’re a farmer, your loan will be forgiven up to one hundred and twenty percent of your loan, not one hundred percent, but one hundred and twenty percent of your loan if you’re socially disadvantaged, if you’re African-American or some other minority. But if you’re a white person, if you’re a white woman, no forgiveness as reparations.

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S1: I know that you’ve wrestled back and forth with Lindsey Graham before. What’s your response to what Lindsey Graham has to say in that segment? And what’s been your overall opinion of him when it comes to black farmers over the years?

S3: He gets an F and he gets a F minus. I don’t know if he can get any lower than that, but he knows what he’s doing when he 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 face time meetings. And I lobbied Senator Graham both as a 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 he it really bothered him. And that’s the problem with a lot of people, that America, where any time resources go to blacks and Native Americans and Hispanics, it bothers them. But we’re 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 on 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.

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S1: Given your experience of working with black farmers who have been robbed of their land, sometimes chased off their land historically by white men with guns, what do you think of the idea of reparations? Have you ever looked at a House bill 40 and what the impact of reparations might be specifically on black farmers minimum wage?

S3: For a former senator John Conyers for many years introduced it every year. He thought it was merely a study about reparations and it didn’t and didn’t move very far in. And Congress. Reparations for blacks in this country is is long overdue. We should have done that years ago. Hopefully the time is right to. To move that forward with this administration, with President Biden, I believe his administration so far is showing that they are open to doing initiatives and especially bills and things of that nature to address blacks in this country. But even if it is reparations, I mean, 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? It’s my question that 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 where 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 that’s what I want to get to in this country.

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S1: We’re going to go to our first break. When we come back, more on the politics of helping black farmers with activist John Boyd. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. If you’re enjoying a word, please subscribe rate and review, did you know you could be listening to this show as free? All it takes is a slate plus membership. It’s just one dollar for the first month. And it also helps us keep making our podcast sign up now at Slate Dotcom, a word plus. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about the future of black farmers with John Boyd. So, John, how much confidence do you have in 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 how he didn’t do it when he was in this position before?

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S3: Well, I’ll tell you, I had a meeting with now President Biden last February before before I endorsed him publicly. And one of the things that we spoke about was new new blood at USDA and new political people that could come in and get the job done. He said that that would happen. So when they made the announcement that Secretary Vilsack was going back to USDA and others immediately found it problematic for us, I believe is 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 to say, but you watch everything that they do. So we’re going to be watching what Secretary Vilsack does and 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 that if his pick doesn’t perform or not. But we’re at a critical time 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. As is what I’m urging the administration, that’s my message. They have to 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 we’re going to be right on top of this with tooth and nail here.

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S1: Black farmers want a one billion dollar settlement from the USDA over just lifelong discrimination. More than 20 years ago, this was a case. It was Pigford versus Glickman. But then just 10 years later, the government had to step in again because the phones weren’t going to everyone who was entitled to the relief. So you say the 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 twenty twenty to John and the money still hasn’t been distributed. There’s been a rush on black farmland in the fall as the you know, 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 handed out the same checks?

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S3: Well, I believe it’s just a little bit different time, because now I’ve seen in the past 30 years more interest right now and heightened interest of what’s going on with black farmers and farmers of color, even more so than, you know, when we announced the black farmer settlement. So I believe there’s more attention now to what’s going on with black farmers. And, you know, 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 and farmers of color in this country. And we’re not trying to go back there. So we’re trying to go forward. And 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. You know, four years goes by very fast. And if you’re going to do anything and implement any policy changes, you have to get out the box quickly and show people what you know, what you’re made of and what you’re going to do.

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S1: Now that this money has been passed, if this money goes out the way it should, what will the face of black farmers be like? What will the circumstances of black farmers be like in, say, the spring of twenty, twenty three if this money is distributed properly from the covid relief bill?

S3: We’ll try to answer it in two ways, first of all, I would like to see a third party neutral administer the debt relief to black farmers that may or may not happen, but that would be my first pick for USDA to turn over all of the information, all those black farmers who have guaranteed loans, direct loans and all of those things to a third party neutral and a third party neutral executes the four billion dollars and debt relief. That may not happen, but that would be my first pick. And then if all goes well, we get a chance people to regroup. And the way I like to explain that is animals are facing extinction and black farmers are they quickly put laws in place to protect the brown bear black bear body, the rockfish, until their numbers come up. That’s what this is. And if we were to get debt relief, it gives us time to regroup, reorganize, revamp our farming operations without that extreme debt hanging over our heads from the United States Department of Agriculture or their guaranteed loan programs that could be a bank or whoever that is. But that’s that’s that’s what this initiative would do. So it gives us some time to reorganize and help help our numbers come up. Instead of losing land, we will be reorganizing and finding different ways to to reorganize our farming operations. And this isn’t the beginning of the end of the initiative. There’s a larger bill by Senator Booker, the black farmers, a bill that entails the land piece. And the reason we took this piece out of Boca’s bill is because we thought we can move it and the covid corporate relief bill spending bill without a whole lot of this hoopla. But that was wrong. And Lindsey Graham already soldiered on much, much of our damn debt. But if we’re able to get that mechanism done, what Senator Booker, then you begin to address the land issue that you’ve been hearing me speak about for many, many years. So we’re we’re making some progress. And Rome wasn’t built in a day. But I do believe that this is the right time to move it. We have two black members in the Senate, Corrib, Senator Cory Booker and Senator Warner on the Agriculture Committee. Historic in nature. We have a black chairman in the House, Chairman Scott, for the first time in history and I first started lobbying Congress. There were no blacks, no black members of Congress, only on the House Agriculture Committee and not in the Senate. So I believe that we have a president who seems willing to help an African-American vice president, that lawsuit to do the right thing. Now is the time for African Americans, the black community, to get our ask Askey together in the right format and put it to this administration for whatever it is that we’re trying to do. Based on all my years of floating around here, I don’t think I’ve seen more blacks in position. Congressman Sanford Bishop, chairman of the Appropriations Committee in the House, Bobby Scott, chairman of the Education Committee in the House of Representatives. So now is the time to do some things and I’m certainly going to try to do it. And and I need the help of our community to do it. And when you see people like Lindsey Graham taking pot shots, people at me support us, tweet about it, write about it, speak out about it. They said Lindsey Graham Angle apologia is because enough people told them to do it. That’s why we need to demand that he apologize on that. And I need our community to support us.

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S1: You’ve talked about Cory Booker. You’ve talked about members and congressional committees. What’s Tim Scott like? Because Tim Scott is an African-American. He’s a Republican, but he is a senator from South Carolina. He is the junior senator. He works with Lindsey Graham. He’s still in a state with 6000 African-American farmers. Have you found Tim Scott to be any more helpful or is he pretty much just a stepping stool or lap dog for what Lindsey Graham said?

S3: I think it’s one of two statements about black farmers. I need to look at it. But he’s he’s not an advocate there in the Senate. And I believe that he could do more. We got to come out in record numbers like we did in Georgia and begin to vote those persons out and let them sit on the sideline man on a foot stool. And that’s what has to happen. We can do this, especially when you have those. Type of populations like we have and South Carolina. There’s no reason to have a senator like Lindsey Graham who simply don’t want to serve black people in this country. I think this is a new day and we need to treat it that way. And we when we have these special elections, people say, well, my vote don’t count, your vote does count, your vote does count and elections matter because guess what, people? We wouldn’t be getting five billion dollars if the shoe was on on the Republicans foot. If you want to see how America’s one watch agriculture people when you step outside your city 20, 20 minutes outside your city and ride through rural America. That’s what the real country looks like when you see the Trump sign still hanging out on the front yard. You don’t see anybody in science. We’re living in two Americas here, and I think a lot of people just don’t get it. I’ve never seen so much tension, racial tension and in my own community that that I live in between white farmers and black farmers. The tension is so thick you can cut it with a knife. And it’s because of where the former president took us in this country.

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S1: John Boyd is the president and founder of the National Black Farmers Association, John Boyd, thank you so much for spending this time with me today.

S3: Thank you very much for having me.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate Dotcom. This episode was produced by Ayana Angel and Jasmine Ellis. Aisha Solutia is the managing producer of podcasts at Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts late June. Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.