Black farmers in America are wary of substantive change and further discrimination under the proposed new Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“President Joe Biden’s nomination of Tom Vilsack to lead the Agriculture Department received a chilly reaction from many Black farmers who contend he didn’t do enough to help them the last time he had the job,” according to Roxana Hegeman of The Associated Press.
“Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who served eight years as agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama, has been trying to assure minority farming groups and the senators who will vote on his confirmation that he will work to ‘root out generations of systemic racism’ in the agency,” Hegeman reported. Many, however, doubt how much the potential incoming head of agriculture might be able to accomplish.
Numerous Black farmers have complained about Vilsack’s previous work in the Obama administration, citing “a backlog of discrimination complaints” and an overall lack of hiring and promotion to high-level positions for minority staff. Although he did create the department’s first Minority Farmers Advisory Committee, much of the work he set out to accomplish remained incomplete by the end of his first appointment.
“Vilsack’s department did a lot of paperwork but didn’t save a single Black farm,” Lloyd Wright, a Black farmer who also worked at the USDA during Vilsack’s first appointment, told Hegeman.
Compounding problems with the agriculture department, many Black farmers also say they are routinely — and unfairly — denied farm loans and other government assistance, further exacerbating the systemic racism built into the country’s agriculture system.
John Boyd Jr., a Virginia farmer and president of the National Black Farmers Association told Hegeman he has spoken to Vilsack several times already and said he told him “he had to do better this time.”
“We have already seen what Vilsack is going to do,” added Rod Bradshaw, a Black farmer who raises grain and cattle on 2,000 acres in Kansas. “We don’t have a prayer if he gets in there.”
During his recent Senate confirmation hearing, knowing the critiques his appointment was facing, Vilsack proposed creating an “equity commission or task force” to examine all current USDA programs to root out instances of inherent racism.
“The reality is there are inherent legacy barriers and practices that have prevented Black farmers and other producers from getting access to programs, and I will do everything I can to remove those barriers,” Vilsack told Hegeman via email.
If approved by the Senate, Vilsack definitely has his work cut out for him. According to Hegeman, “At the beginning of Obama’s first term, the USDA made 557 direct farm loans to Black farmers, representing less than 2.4% of all direct loans. By 2015, that number had risen to 945 loans, with nearly 3.4% of direct loans going to Black farmers.” However, during the Trump administration, those numbers plummeted by nearly 50%, with just “460 loans, or about 1.8% of direct farm loans” granted to Black farmers in 2020.
In addition to his proposed task force, Vilsack has promised to increase appointments to local agricultural advisory boards (the groups most often responsible for loan decisions) as well as supporting legislation introduced by the White House “that is designed to provide $4 billion in immediate farm loan debt relief for minority farmers and help them respond to the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.”
But there’s still worry among many that even that won’t be enough. In an interview with AP, Arkansas farmer Abraham Carpenter laid out what all Black farmers are ultimately looking for under the new administration.
“We have been treated wrong for so long,” he said, “we just want to be treated fairly now.”
D.I. Fast Facts
Approximate number of Black farmers counted in the last U.S. Census. (Data from the 2020 U.S. Census is not yet available)