Fred de Sam Lazaro
Fred de Sam Lazaro
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For decades, Black farmers have been excluded from federal farm programs — a systematic pattern of discrimination that the U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledged decades ago. Yet proposals to compensate farmers for past wrongs have languished in controversy and red tape. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro begins his report in northwest Kansas for our ongoing series, "Race Matters."
For decades, Black farmers have been excluded from federal farm programs, a systematic pattern of discrimination that the U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledged decades ago.
And yet proposals to compensate farmers for past wrongs have languished in controversy and red tape. The most recent include the Biden administration's efforts to earmark such funds in its American Rescue Plan and now Build Back Better.
Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro begins his report in Northwest Kansas, as part of our ongoing series Race Matters.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:
Walking down this dirt road brings Bernard Bates back to the highest and lowest points of his 84 years.
This land behind you goes back generations in your family?
Bernard Bates, Former Farmer:
Yes, mm-hmm. Goes back to slavery.
Karla Bates Adams, Daughter of Bernard Bates: Dad was a good farmer. He was one of the best ones in Graham County.
Dating way back to the '40s, Karla Bates Adams says her father was a prolific producer here in Nicodemus, Kansas, a rare enclave of Black farmers whose ancestors settled here after they were freed from slavery.
So, there was more land, that you owned different chunks of land?
North of the cemetery, there's another 80 acres.
In the early 1980s, amid the historic agricultural recession and crop disasters that hit the Midwest, many farmers fell behind on their loan payments, including Bernard Bates.
Bugs, hail, wind and rain, freeze, and everything for three, four years in a row.
When he approached the U.S. Department of Agriculture for relief, Karla Bates Adams says, not for the first time, he was treated differently.
Karla Bates Adams:
We know that the white farmers were getting the assistance, and the Black farmers were not.
They were getting all kinds of loans.
The Bates then witnessed and even photographed the dismantling of their livelihood in foreclosure.
That must have been very painful to witness.
Tell me about it.
They truly took our livelihood and then left my parents to have to go on food stamps.
Their land was subsequently sold off to white farmers.
The Bates' farmstead is among millions of acres of land that Black farmers have lost over the decades. In the 1920s, 14 percent of all farmers in the United States were African American. That number is down to less than 1.5 percent today.
JohnElla Holmes, Director, Kansas Black Farmers Association:
There are men like Bernard that would still be farming, because that's what he loves and that's what he wanted to do.
Nicodemus resident JohnElla Holmes is a retired professor and director of the Kansas Black Farmers Association.
For decades, she says, they have been excluded from federal agriculture programs, like price subsidies, disaster relief, and especially loans, the financial backbone of American agriculture.
Those loans are just — they're just pivotal.
Equipment is so expensive anymore that one single farmer, especially the small farmers, they can't afford that equipment.
In 1999 and again in 2010, Black farmers were offered limited compensation after a class-action suit. But the settlement was marred by allegations of fraudulent claims on one hand and the exclusion of possibly thousands of legitimate claimants on the other.
Bernard Bates was a plaintiff.
I myself haven't got one dime, not a dime.
The Biden administration has included several billion dollars in loan forgiveness and other relief for distressed and disadvantaged farmers in its Build Back Better plan.
Tom Vilsack, U.S. Agriculture Secretary:
We know for a fact that socially disadvantaged producers were discriminated against by the United States Department of Agriculture. We know this.
Earlier this year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled a similar $4 billion relief plan specifically for minority farmers in the American Rescue Plan.
That triggered several lawsuits on behalf of white farmers, claiming reverse discrimination, and it succeeded in suspending the program, pending the outcome of the litigation.
Jon Stevens, Farmer:
If a Black farmer lived across the road, and this bill went through, I see him get his mortgage paid off, it ticks me off because that was money stolen from me given to him.
Jon Stevens is a fifth-generation farmer in Pine County, Minnesota, and is a well-known advocate of the environmentally friendlier regenerative farming.
Do you think that discrimination exists today against Black farmers?
As a federal system, I would say no. Now, when you go to your local office, sure. And that would go anyway, whether it's white to Black, Black to white. Yes, there's racist people all over this country.
What are these plaintiffs not understanding?
Oh, I think they understand. I think they just don't want to acknowledge the history.
Professor Holmes says that history of discrimination has taken an enormous toll on Black farm families that is still felt today.
We weren't able to pass on wealth. We weren't able to pass on a farm. And so to look at it and say, now, your field is level? No. Bernard Bates' family were — they were denied the opportunity to continue to farm. That didn't level the field.
Jon Stevens says white farmers are as likely today to face rejection at the USDA or at a private lender. He says the key is to persevere.
I don't want to hear your victim story. So what if — what if I discriminated against you on something? Is that going to stop you?
If you're the government, possibly, or you're the banker.
Go to another bank. Postpone it a couple years. If you want to be a farmer, if you want to be anything, just pick your bootstraps up and forget the rest of the world and do what you need to do.
Angela Dawson, Farmer:
Well, I made my own straps and my own boots.
And I'm pulling them up.
Angela Dawson farms just a few miles north of Stevens. Four years ago, she moved here in a career switch back to a family tradition that ended when her grandfather lost his farm.
You have to have at least 1,000, maybe 2,000, 10,000 acres in order to really be a sustainable farmer. And that's something that I definitely didn't have access to.
So she tried to join the booming business of organic farming, whose humanely raised meat commands higher prices and therefore is feasible on a small farm.
But when Dawson, who has a degree in business administration, presented her business plan with her loan application, she says the USDA agent was not convinced.
I was really enthusiastic about the pigs. And she said, "What are you doing here? "
What do you think they were really asking you?
I felt like they were asking me, what makes me think I could do this?
Despite an appeal, her application was rejected in a process that took 18 months, she says. Agriculture Department officials declined to comment specifically on this case.
Dawson found a new passion as lucrative as it is controversial.
This one is a good one.
Hemp. The plant is now legal to grow in all states, its extracts sold for medicinal use.
My decision to go into hemp was driven by economics. For CBD hemp, the average farmer makes about $50,000 per acre.
Dawson's farm is now the home base of a 33-member cooperative of minority-owned farms across the U.S.
This is the brain. This is the brain of the operation.
The co-op guides members growing hemp on how to monitor the crop so it meets licensing standards.
We use regenerative practices, but we also use technology, and we don't want people to get into farming to be poor.
Business has been great, she says, but that raised a red flag at one local bank, which closed her accounts.
The bank said that they thought I could be trafficking.
So, the criminal image that's associated with hemp and Black people is really difficult for me to overcome. So, it's ever after, but we're still working on the happily part.
Is it something that you would like to get back?
Also waiting for happily ever after, the Bates family, hoping, by legal action or reparation, to buy back the land and legacy that they say was unjustly confiscated.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Fred de Sam Lazaro in Nicodemus, Kansas.
Fred's reporting is in partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
Watch the Full Episode
Fred de Sam Lazaro is director of the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, a program that combines international journalism and teaching. He has served with the PBS NewsHour since 1985 and is a regular contributor and substitute anchor for PBS' Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.
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