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Black farmers say $5B in aid ‘step in the right direction’

President Biden’s American Rescue Plan allocates $5B to Black farmers, other farmers of color. Zeeland farmer says they’ve been neglected for over a century.
Posted at 8:06 PM, Apr 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-27 20:36:18-04

ZEELAND, Mich. — Right now Bruce Michael Wilson is growing garlic, yellow and red onions, bunching onions, eggplant, bell peppers, hot peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, kale, cabbage, parsley, broccoli, bok choy and collards.

“You can get 200 varieties of 40 different vegetables,” Wilson said during an interview with FOX 17 in late March. “That’s what we grow here on this farm. I mean, just about any vegetable you can think of--we grow it here on this farm.”

Wilson owns Groundswell Community Farm off of 64th Avenue in Zeeland. He said it’s one of 12 Black-owned farms in the state and one of three farms that's USDA-certified organic.

He grew up on a 160-acre farm 35 minutes south of Groundswell, he said. That’s where his passion for farming began.

“I used to milk cows for neighboring farmers; up to 120 cows a day, twice a day. That’s a feat in and of itself,” Wilson said. “Farming I believe has been in my DNA, down from my ancestors. I have a whole lineage of farming background from my dad, who was a sharecropper in Mississippi. A lot of my family owned farms.”

Farming was a generational business for many Black families, he said. Now, many of the ones remaining will collectively receive $5,000,000,000 from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan.

“For me personally and for Black farmers and farmers of color around the country, this is a big deal,” said National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd during a Zoom interview with FOX 17 in mid-April. “It’s also a step in the right direction from the Biden presidency.”

Boyd said specifically the $5 billion will go to Black, Hispanic and Indigenous farmers, anyone who fits the USDA’s definition of "socially-disadvantaged." Most of the money will go to debt relief.

Boyd said the measure is long overdue, especially for Black farmers.

“Turn of the century, we owned 20 million acres in land and we were tilling 40 million acres. So, that means 20 million acres were sharecroppers,” Boyd said about the state of Black farmers during the early 1900s. “We were representing 1,000,000 Black farm families at the turn of the century. Today we’re down to about 50,000 Black farmers that make a living from farming, which means we’re basically facing extinction.”

READ MORE: Black farmers remember the agricultural accomplishments of their ancestors

Boyd said the reason for the reduction is due to years of systemic racism and racial discrimination, from the highest national offices to local offices.

He said Black farmers were deterred from getting loans and in some cases were told there was no money at all.

“We were referred to with racial epithets and [subject to] unfair lending practices where it took 387 days on average to process a Black farmer’s loan request and less than 30 days for a white farmer’s loan request,” Boyd recalled. “These kinds of startling statistics is what made our numbers dwindle.”

So, for the last 30 years, Boyd has been "ringing the bells," calling attention to the growing problem. He said he’s met with every president and secretary of agriculture, Democrat and Republican, since former President Jimmy Carter.

He added that his organization has had two settlements with the USDA over the past few years, one in 1999 and the other in 2010. Both measures, he said, included debt relief, but it didn’t transpire to the farmers.

However, he feels new energy with this latest measure.

“President Biden said if it doesn’t work out to reach back out to him. So, I’m reaching out to a President Biden as we speak,” Boyd said. “I just had to reach out to the White House before I got on this call with you to let them know that NBFA is not in support of the funding relief mechanism going back through local offices that we found to be discriminatory in the first place. But, this is a big deal.”

Wilson agreed that the $5 billion was significant. However, he called it bittersweet because some of the farmers who needed it most were no longer around.

“I worry about how long is this going to be effective. Is somebody else going to come in and take it away and say, ‘No more,’ like a lot of things that happen with people of color,” Wilson said. “So, that’s what I’m kind of concerned about. But I hope that it has some staying power that we can keep this up and keep ramping it up.”

Both Wilson and Boyd credit Democratic Senators Cory Booker (NJ), Debbie Stabenow (MI), Raphael Warnock (GA), and Ben Ray Lujan (NM) for spearheading the effort to get Black farmers the money. They’re also working on the Justice for Black Farmers Act that will give aid to new farmers entering the field and fund agricultural education programs at historically Black colleges and universities.

Wilson believes helping young people become passionate about farming is the key to keeping the industry afloat.

“This pandemic is showing people that ‘Hey, we are viable. We’re worthwhile,’” Wilson said. “We are kind of that umbilical cord to the nation because without us and without our supply line the nation doesn’t survive.”

READ MORE: Kalamazoo Farmers Market getting $4.2M in renovations

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