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Black Texas farmers were finally on track to get federal aid. The state’s agriculture commissioner is helping stop that.

Sid Miller is challenging a debt relief program that the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw as a way to correct historic discrimination. An advocate for Black Texas farmers says the challenge “pushes us back even further.”
Igalious “Ike” Mills distributes clumps of hay around a pasture on his Nacogdoches farm....
Igalious “Ike” Mills distributes clumps of hay around a pasture on his Nacogdoches farm. Nationally, Black farmers have lost more than 12 million acres of farmland over the past century, due to biased government policies and discriminatory business practices. Credit: Meridith Kohut for The Texas Tribune(Meridith Kohut for The Texas Tribune)
Published: Jan. 24, 2022 at 10:08 AM CST
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(Texas Tribune) - Igalious “Ike” Mills grew up working his family’s farm in the Piney Woods town of Nacogdoches. His siblings still keep it running, relying on a lot of the same equipment used by their father and grandfather.

Mills, who is Black, spends much of his energy trying to connect a dwindling number of Black farmers with state and federal programs that can help them keep their operations running. So it was welcome news last year when Congress passed a law intended to help cover the debts of thousands of “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers” and correct the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s historic discrimination, long recognized by the agency itself.

But Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller stepped in. He is among the many white litigants challenging the law, which a federal judge temporarily blocked as court cases play out. And even though Miller filed the suit in April as a private citizen, Mills says his perch as the state’s agriculture commissioner is stoking frustration from farmers of color who already distrust the government.

“They’re disappointed, number one,” said Mills, who is director of the Texas Agriforestry Small Farmers and Ranchers. “And like some of them are saying, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ That pushes us back even further in terms of trying to engage Black landowners to participate in USDA programs.”

Nationally, Black farmers have lost more than 12 million acres of farmland over the past century, according to the Washington Post, due to biased government policies and discriminatory business practices. In 1920, there were over 925,000 Black farmers in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But by 1997, their numbers had fallen to just under 18,500.

Recent data suggest the USDA continues to disproportionately reject Black farmers for loans. According to a CNN analysis, 42% of Black farmers were rejected for direct USDA loans in 2021, more than any other demographic group.

Last March, Congress passed a sweeping debt relief program for farmers of color. The culmination of 20 years of advocacy, the law would have provided $4 billion worth of debt relief for loans many of them had taken on to stay afloat while being passed over for financial programs and assistance their white counterparts had an easier time obtaining. Black farmers made up about a quarter of those targeted in the bill.

As agriculture commissioner, Miller leads an agency tasked with “advocat[ing] for policies at the federal, state, and local level” beneficial to Texas’s agriculture sector and “provid[ing] financial assistance to farmers and ranchers,” among other duties. In a statement to The Texas Tribune, Miller called the debt relief program “facially illegal and constitutionally impermissible.”

“Such a course will lead only to disunity and discord,” Miller said. “Shame on the Biden Administration for authorizing a program it knows was unambiguously illegal, instead of enacting a proper relief bill that complies with the laws and constitution of the United States.”

But advocates of the program saw it as an attempt to make Black farmers whole after years of USDA discrimination.

USDA press secretary Kate Waters told the Tribune that she couldn’t comment on ongoing litigation. She added the agency is establishing an equity commission of about 30 non-USDA employees to help identify how the USDA can eliminate structural barriers to various programs.

“There is a long history of racism at USDA. It’s a lot to unpack,” Waters said. “We’re on the case and we’re here to regain trust.”

But Mills said Miller’s lawsuit is undermining existing efforts to build trust. A federal judge’s halt to the program, thanks in part to Miller’s challenge, paused the USDA’s plans to start paying the loans in June, with eligible farmers and ranchers expected to receive an additional 20% loan to cover the tax burden associated with the relief.

The lawsuit is “like a slap in the face for Black farmers. That just elevates another level of mistrust that we shouldn’t have to deal with,” he said. “They have to understand what we’re trying to develop here. That’s counterproductive.”

History of discrimination, mistrust

A red clay road lined with pine and oak trees leads to Mills’ family farm in Nacogdoches. While much of the equipment his brother uses to keep the farm going is old and needs replacing, the Mills family instead shares equipment with other Black farmers.

Born in 1953, Mills recalls shopping at a white-owned feed store that allowed his family to buy goods on credit until his dad got the money, oftentimes through selling bales of cotton, the farm’s primary export. The store essentially served as the family’s bank, Mills said, because access to financial institutions was “totally unheard of.”

“We had to do what we had to do to survive,” Mills said. It’s a perspective that Black farmers and ranchers share today, Mills added

Mills also remembers milking cows and making butter with a churn as a child. Mills’ family also grew corn and raised cattle, largely for themselves. While the farm was largely self-sustaining, the family also sold cotton in the market, where Mills said buyers offered his dad lower prices than they would white farmers.

“You kind of expected that because of the Jim Crow attitude and how you’d been treated as a Black farmer and rancher,” Mills said.

And by then, Mills said, the American government had long given Black people little reason to trust it. From its earliest days, America used labor from enslaved people to build up its economy — and the generational wealth of white enslavers.

Mills pointed out how federal troops arrived in Galveston on June 19, 1865, to ensure people still being forced into labor knew their enslavement was no longer legal — over two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

“We’ve always been denied access,” Mills said. “Even when they made laws to give former slaves 40 acres and a mule and then they took that back.”

Between 1937 and 1961, Congress changed eligibility for USDA loans from farm tenants, laborers and sharecroppers to family farm owner-operators with farming training or experience. This change, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund wrote in a court filing, made it easier for county committees, which help deliver federal programs at the local level, to deny loans to Black applicants.

The federation is a nonprofit organization that provides resources to limited-resource Black farmers and landowners. It tried to intervene as a party in Miller’s lawsuit against Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. But a judge last month denied that attempt.

The history of discriminatory practices, the federation argues, saddled many Black farmers with substantial debt, driving hundreds of thousands out of agriculture altogether.

Census data show that the number of Black farmers in the United States decreased by 90.6% between 1920 and 1969.

Miller’s motion to block the law for excluding white farmers would only increase existing debts and worsen these trends, the federation wrote in its October motion to intervene. Farmers who made plans and purchases with the understanding they were eligible for the new federal assistance would face “severe, life-changing disadvantage” without the relief, the federation added.

If the law continues to be blocked, the federation said its members will face “irreparable harm.”

“Many Black farmers will lose their land and farming equipment to foreclosures,” the federation wrote.

Previous attempts at redress

The government acknowledged its history of discrimination in two lawsuits settled in 1999 and 2010, which jointly made thousands of Black farmers eligible for over $2 billion collectively.

The first case was known as Pigford I, named after the farmer Timothy Pigford, who filed the case alongside 400 other plaintiffs. It resulted in a settlement worth more than $1 billion. Over 13,000 farmers, able to prove they faced discrimination in USDA loan programs, were eligible for $50,000 payouts.

After the USDA denied thousands of those claims for missing deadlines, the second case came. Pigford II resulted in a $1.25 billion settlement.

But the $2.25 billion total doesn’t begin to account for the economic damages incurred by Black landowners, according to Thomas Mitchell. Nor does the $4 billion in debt relief included for farmers of color in the COVID-19 relief package signed into law this spring.

Mitchell is the co-director of Texas A&M’s Real Estate and Community Development Law program and a member of the Land Loss and Reparations Project, a research team analyzing the impact of land loss on Black wealth. The group’s preliminary analysis suggests the millions of acres lost by Black landowners over the last 100 years, known as “the great dispossession,” has resulted in over $300 billion lost.

“There’s no way that the [American Rescue Plan] represents anything approaching the level that it would take to make farmers whole,” Mitchell said. “It’s a lot more substantial than anything the federal government had done previously to try to remedy this incredible, horrible record of discrimination that’s been ongoing for 100 years.”

Fostering connections

A sweeping 1997 report by the Civil Rights Action Team — a group charged by then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman with developing recommendations to address institutional problems — found that improved department outreach would increase program participation among farmers of color, a failure the agency noted had increased mistrust.

“Underrepresentation of minorities on county committees and on county staffs means minority and female producers hear less about programs and have a more difficult time participating in USDA programs because they lack specific information on available services,” according to the report. “USDA does not place a priority on serving the needs of small and limited-resource farmers and has not supported any coordinated effort to address this problem.”

Today, people like Mills and Clarence Bunch of Prairie View A&M University are working to fill information gaps.

The Agriculture and Natural Resources unit of Prairie View A&M’s Cooperative Extension Program provides knowledge to agricultural producers to help small farmers and ranchers sustain their practices and become profitable. After the American Rescue Plan passed, Bunch helped organize an educational meeting in June between USDA leaders and Texas producers.

Earlier this month, Vilsack met with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives to renew efforts to increase the number of Black and underserved southern landowners.

Similarly, the Texas agriforestry group Mills runs provides outreach to farmers who would benefit from state and federal programs but lack the necessary information to participate.

Mills is focused on getting socially disadvantaged farmers access to the kind of capital denied by slaveholders in the 19th century and then again through discriminatory loan practices in the 20th century.

“You can’t get things to put back into your farm unless you have capital,” Mills said. “The people who’re getting hurt is the ones that got the small operation and can’t get access to capital, trying to make it and trying to survive on their land.”

Black farming’s present and future

Brandon Smith, 43, has been ranching his entire life, a practice that goes back at least four generations in his family.

He learned to ranch from his grandfather, who once owned 100 acres. By the time his grandparents died, the land had been reduced to 12 acres, he said, because they could not secure loans from the USDA.

Smith’s experience was detailed in the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund’s unsuccessful motion to intervene in Miller’s lawsuits.

“It’s common knowledge that white ranchers have access to credit that Black ranchers don’t have,” he said in a declaration submitted to the court. “That’s the way it’s always been.”

The debt relief program “was a lifesaver for my sons and me,” Smith said in the declaration. But the holdup, he said, has left them vulnerable to further land loss.

With the continuous land loss, Mills said many Black farmers and ranchers worry about future Black farmers’ prospects.

“You got to make it better for the next generations coming in,” Mills said. “We got to do something to help preserve that.”

Miller v. Vilsack

To successfully uphold the new law, Chase Cooper said the defendants need to outline how USDA practices caused Black and other socially disadvantaged farmers to financially suffer. Cooper — a partner with Winston & Strawn, who submitted the federation’s motion to join the suit — said the organization is better poised to fulfill that task than the USDA.

“Frankly, one should not expect the USDA to give the most robust portrayal of discrimination within itself,” Cooper said. “It’s very important for the people who stand to gain or lose from this litigation to be directly heard and to be a part of the lawsuit.”

While U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor denied their motion in December, Cooper said the group is appealing that decision. O’Connor’s past rulings against a key Obamacare provision and transgender children’s right to use the bathroom of their identity have made his court a favorite among Texas conservatives.

Some big conservative names have gotten behind Miller’s lawsuit. The effort has been sponsored by America First Legal, a group founded by Stephen Miller and other Trump-era officials as a conservative version of the ACLU.

With the courts blocking the relief, the Biden administration sought to pass a new program through the Build Back Better Act. The proposed changes would grant debt relief eligibility based on economic insecurity rather than race. But Reuters reported in December that such changes would exclude thousands of the program’s originally intended recipients.

The lawsuit has overshadowed the work done by community-based organizations to provide assistance, Mills said, which hurts existing trust-building efforts. But when it comes to ensuring the health of Black agriculture and building trust, Mills said a big piece of that puzzle will be sustained commitment from government officials.

“People, they’ve seen a lot of talk,” Mills said. “They’re going to have to see some results.”

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