James “Bill” McGill has been a farmer for 40 of his 76 years. He can’t remember the year his 320-acre farm was put up for sale by the same man from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) he’d gone to for a loan to help him keep it. He can sum up the loss succinctly: “The government took it away. It has always been that way for us.”
His treatment by the USDA over the years, it turns out, has conditioned him to have an easier time raising 60 or so pigs for slaughter on property in Bakersfield, California, he inherited from his parents. “I don’t get attached to hardly nothing any more,” he said. “So much hard luck over the years as a farmer, you learn.”
Most older Black farmers like McGill have stories of being disregarded by the USDA, regardless of the administration, or who holds the title of agriculture secretary. They’re disillusioned to the point that it seems wise not to get too invested in USDA affairs, smart not to hold out hope for change. McGill didn’t even know that Biden had nominated Tom Vilsack, who was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday. “It doesn’t really mean a whole lot,” he said.
A change of some sort would have come if Ohio congresswoman Marcia Fudge, a senior member of the House agriculture committee, was selected, as had been anticipated – she would have been the first Black woman to serve as agriculture secretary (she was instead selected to be secretary of housing and urban development). Vilsack, who has spent the time between his two stints as agriculture secretary in a high-paying job in big ag, is more of the “same ol’, same ol'”, as McGill put it. He served two terms in the same role in the Obama administration. Many of Biden’s cabinet picks have been praised by progressives; Vilsack’s nomination was met with confusion at best, disappointment and anger at worst.
In what could be seen as a response to the backlash, Biden nominated Jewel Bronaugh, currently Virginia agriculture commissioner, as Vilsack’s second-in-command. If confirmed, she would be the first woman of color to serve as deputy secretary of the department.
Black farmers peaked in number in 1920 when there were 949,889; today there are only 48,697; they account for only 1.4% of the country’s 3.4 million farmers (95% of US farmers are white) and own 0.52% of America’s farmland. The acreage they have managed to hold on to is a quarter the size of white farmers’ acreage, on average. All of this is the result of egregious discrimination from the USDA that Black farmers faced for decades.
Vilsack’s first term should have offered some hope – he was appointed by the first Black president, who also oversaw the 2010 $1.25bn settlement of Pigford II, the second part of a 1999 class-action lawsuit that alleged that from 1981 to 1997, USDA officials ignored complaints brought to them by Black farmers, and that they were denied loans and other support because of rampant discrimination.
Instead, a two-year investigation by reporters at the Counter found that during Vilsack’s eight-year tenure under Obama, fewer loans were given to Black farmers than during the Bush administration, and the USDA foreclosed on Black farmers who had discrimination complaints outstanding, despite a 2008 farm bill moratorium on this practice.
Many of those complaints were left unresolved. The report states that from 2006 to 2016, Black farmers were six times as likely to be foreclosed on as white farmers.
This disappointment is compounded by Vilsack’s kneejerk firing in 2010 of Shirley Sherrod, a longtime Black farmer advocate and civil rights activist who was serving as the Georgia state director of rural development for the USDA, when a deceptively edited clip that made her appear racist towards a white farmer was circulated by the rightwing propagandist Andrew Breitbart. Vilsack later apologized and offered her a different high-level USDA role, which she declined.
About an hour east of Oklahoma City in Wewoka, George Roberts farms 500 acres with his two brothers. A third-generation farmer, he was pulling for Fudge. “She could have understood what we were up against, she’s walked in our shoes. Pretty sure Vilsack never has,” he said.
Roberts is familiar with why many Black farmers call the USDA the “last plantation”.
“Because we are still answering to ‘boss’. Can we do this, can we do that? They still have their hand over us, saying: no, you can’t.”
His father tried a few times for USDA loans, but “he didn’t have much luck,” Roberts said. “You get tired of getting slapped in the face. Hate beggin’. The more you beg the worse they treat you.”
Roberts got a USDA loan of about $80,000 in 1982 – “That was rare especially back then. I was one of very few,” he said, referring to the chances of a Black farmer getting a loan. Today, instead of “going through all that red tape” and facing disappointment, he has set up a GoFundMe to hire labor for work he and his brothers, now each in their 60s, can no longer do. Meanwhile, they’ll keep farming one way or another, “because land is something they don’t make any more”, he said.
Older Black farmers who mentored Thelonius Cook when he was just starting to farm in 2015 cautioned him against expecting any government help.
“They told me don’t waste your time. And I get it,” he said of the older generation’s disillusionment. Still, Cook utilized USDA grant programs to help him purchase high tunnels and hoop houses, among other essentials, for his 7.5-acre plot of land in Virginia.
“The younger generation is more willing to seek out what is available. I’ll take my reparations any way I can,” he said. “It’s never going to be enough. Aside from giving us land after so much was taken. That’s the ultimate goal. That’s how we can balance that deficit.”
Karen Washington, who co-founded Rise & Root Farm in Chester, New York, six years ago, also understands the disappointment experienced by previous generations. “Older Black farmers have been hurt,” she said. “They’re throwing their hands up and saying, they’ve never done anything for us in the past, why would the Biden administration change anything?”
But she said it was important to hold Vilsack accountable; she suggested he start by making amends with Sherrod, whose firing Washington said she felt personally betrayed by. “He needs to offer her a position,” she said. “Then, sit down with Black leaders to hammer what they want, not just what they need – which is capital for machinery, land, money to expand their operations,” she said. “Then put the resources and money – I mean millions – behind that.”
In a prepared statement to the Senate agriculture committee, Vilsack wrote he would “take bold action” to address discrimination across USDA agencies and root out systemic racism, but failed to say how, nor was he pressed on it by any member of the committee during his hearing on Tuesday.
Vilsack said in his opening remarks: “It’s a different time, and I’m a different person.” A new set of eyes will be watching for proof.
“The younger generation of Black and brown farmers may have to carry the elders here,” Washington said. “Our numbers may be small, but our voices can be huge.”