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‘It’s going to hurt’: Latino farmers' financial woes continue since debt relief was blocked

USDA says they're working with the Department of Justice to determine 'best path forward.'
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Posted at 7:12 PM, Sep 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-23 21:40:48-04

MICHIGAN — Pedro Bautista loves blueberries. He smiles whenever he talks about them.

“I love arandanos,” Bautista said while laughing during an interview in mid-September. “I can eat them all day, all year round.”

He fell in love with blueberries when he first came to Michigan years ago. In the late 1970s, he immigrated from Mexico to Chicago first. Then years later, he moved to Michigan after his brother and sister moved to the Grand Junction area.

“I came to visit and they started talking about blueberries. I didn’t know what blueberries mean or what the blueberries are,” Bautista said. “On one of my trips I saw this farm on sale. I came and looked at it. I think I fall in love with it.”

He said his favorite part of the 91 acres is the view. So, 19 years ago he bought the farm and has since called it Bautista’s Blueberry Farm. He joined a local co-op that ships all over the country. He's enjoyed success until recently.

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“This year is going to be the worst year for me and this farm,” Bautista said. “Since people were getting money from the government, I think they’re getting more than what they make on the job. So, for that reason we didn’t have people to pick the blueberries.”

He said what would’ve been helpful was funds for labor.

Back in March, President Joe Biden designated $5,000,000,000 of the American Rescue Plan for socially disadvantaged farmers, which included Black, Latino, Asian and Indigenous farmers and ranchers.

However, the National Black Farmers Association and other groups said they have not seen a dime of that money.

“I think it would be most helpful if the funds were released so they could use them,” said Rubén Martinez, a professor of sociology at Michigan State University. “You know we have had a terrible time over the last year and a half; everybody has and they haven’t gotten their fair share of the relief money.”

Martinez said the reason they haven’t received anything is because of a few lawsuits filed by white farmers. In early June of this year, a federal judge in Wisconsin granted an injunction that prevented the debt-relief money from being dispersed.

“It’s very clear that we’re living in a moment in which reverse racism is being highlighted by these lawsuits. They’re basically saying, ‘Hey, you’re privileging them but not us,’” Martinez said during a Zoom interview last week. “But you know for decades and decades white farmers have been receiving farm subsidies, and those subsidies have not always reached Latino farmers or minority farmers.”

John Boyd, who runs the NBFA, said in a previous interview with FOX 17 that Black farmers haven’t received aid in over a century, losing out on millions of dollars. He believes it’s contributed to the decline in Black farmers. In the early 1900s there were 1,000,000 of them; now there’s 50,000, he said.

Boyd said they’re near extinction and he believes it’s due to years of racism and discrimination.

“Under President Reagan, they shut down, literally shut down the Civil Rights Office in the USDA,” Martinez recalled. “That doesn’t mean that they eliminated it. They just stopped operating it. So, when minority farmers would file complaints, they would go nowhere. It would just be an abyss. Until they were found out. And then they kind of kicked it up again. So, these kinds of processes are out there.”

Martinez runs the Julian Samora Research Institute, in which he studies the Latino farm industry in Michigan. A study in 2016 showed that 65 percent of farmers said their biggest need is funds for equipment.

“They oftentimes have to work outside of the farm to keep it going. They have family members who work outside the farm. They don’t have access to capital like they should. There’s just a tremendous amount of needs there,” Martinez said. “We need to recognize that the future of this country, our food systems in particular, that Latinos are going to be a critical component of it.”

It’s one of the reasons Martinez applauded Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for writing a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack requesting that funds be expedited to the dairy industry in Michigan.

“I think it’s very critical. You know, the dairy industry in Michigan is the 2nd largest sector of our agricultural industry, and our milkers are mostly Latinos, Latino immigrants,” Martinez said. “Milk is so ubiquitous, so common in our lives; I mean you can find it in almost every breakfast table. If we do not help these farmers, there’s going to be an increase in prices.”

FOX 17 reached out to the USDA and they emailed this statement:

"In the American Rescue Plan, Congress directed USDA to provide debt relief to Socially Disadvantaged Producers with USDA direct and guaranteed farm loans. Recognizing the importance of these provisions and in accordance with Congressional direction, USDA moved swiftly to implement this provision and provide debt relief to more than 19,000 eligible borrowers.”

“At present, USDA is facing litigation in district courts challenging the debt relief. USDA is working with DOJ and the White House to determine the best path forward.”

“USDA remains staunchly committed to doing right by the tens of thousands of producers who have been systematically shut out or poorly served by USDA programs. USDA will do that by leveraging all of the programs, tools and authorities that USDA can leverage – including Section 1006, Pandemic Assistance, the Build Back Better Initiative as well as discretionary authorities.”

Nevertheless, Martinez said it's imperative the funds are released soon.

White farmers are aging out, he said, and by 2030 all baby boomers will be over the age of 60. However, the youngest farmers will be Latino.

So, he recommends the funds be dispersed sooner rather than later so that Bautista and other farmers of color can potentially get some relief and help keep the industry afloat.

“It’s going to hurt,” Bautista chuckled. “Like I said, this year is going to be my worst year in this business. And I don’t know how I’m going to make payments to the next year, and next year is a long way off. And, the bills is still coming.”

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