African American farmers have been hurting for generations, and COVID-19 hasn’t done anything but depreciate family bank accounts. For them, this is about survival. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 has an underlooked clause that forgives about $3.7 billion of debt owed by disadvantaged farmers all over the country. Some African American farmers believe that this is the chance of a lifetime to build their farms back up.
President of Memphis-based trade group Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association Thomas Burrell said, “It is a victory for socially disadvantaged farmers. They can forgive their debt, start over and go back to the front of the line. They’re not asking for any more than anyone has received. They’re just asking for their share.”
One farmer living in Shorter Alabama named Demetrius Hooks commented, “Ironically that money is going to dissipate through USDA and not go directly to farmers. So, we don’t know exactly how that’s going to come out.”
Another, John Coleman, said, “Right now, we’re on the bleachers. This will help us get on the playing field.”
A number of farmers aren’t sure the help will get here in time. It’s almost planting season.
One anonymous bankruptcy lawyer who works for Toronjo & Prosser Law (www.t-plaw.com) said, “Some ranchers along the outskirts of Dallas are bleeding money bad right now. We want to help everyone we can, and we point to some of the help provided by the government, but it’s not always enough. Sometimes bankruptcy ends up being the best option. No one wants to hear that.”
The American Rescue Plan also has a mandate that forces special agencies to consider equitable solutions for American minorities in order to lift them out of poverty. In order to benefit from the current debt relief, farmers need to contact their local Farm Services Agency.
Arkansas farmer Jeffery Webb said, “There just isn’t much information out there. I am at the brink of bankruptcy right now. This forgiveness could keep me from going bankrupt.”
But Webb also commented on the typical USDA pressure on the African American community: “We’re so limited on resources — African American farmers are. They can pass a bill like this in Washington and we would never get the full benefits because it’s hard to know what the benefits are and how to find them out. We don’t know where to start.”
That means civil rights activists would do well to approach legislators about finding new ways to easily provide information to those who need it the most. Not everyone has a working computer or internet access out in the country. Farming doesn’t require a screen.
Agriculture researcher Brennan Washington said, “It’s kind of interesting that once again it doesn’t seem like a good job is being done of communicating this to the people it’s actually going to affect. But there will be a period for comments. Especially if you’re in areas where you have Black congressional reps, call them. Because they would have information on what’s going on with this. People who are going to be affected by this, this is the time to let their concerns be known.”