ROWESVILLE – The country’s top agriculture official visited a family farm in Orangeburg County as the federal government begins rolling out a new debt cancellation program to help socially disadvantaged black and minority farmers .
As part of the $ 1.9 trillion economic aid plan passed by Congress in March, lawmakers approved a $ 4 billion initiative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make relief payments of debt for about 13,000 loans granted by the agency to minority farmers.
At the invitation of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack came to Rowesville on May 24 to meet with black farmers in the community and update them on the program, which is expected to begin. to make payments in early June.
The initiative has been rejected by some white farmers who argue it is reverse discrimination, as well as by banks, who fear it will reduce their profits due to lost interest payments. .
US Senator Lindsey Graham, RS.C., criticized the program as “fixes” that have nothing to do with COVID-19. The comments drew a sharp rebuke from Clyburn, who said Graham should learn more about the financial discrimination black farmers faced in their common home state.
In response to the banks, Vilsack noted that the program would also fund prepayment penalties to pay them off for losses they might incur with the early repayment of the loan, and he said it would also eliminate the risk that the loans would fail. are not reimbursed.
Regarding complaints from white farmers, Vilsack pointed out that they were getting much more substantial help from the first coronavirus relief packages, which was part of the reason the initiative targeting disadvantaged farmers was added. to the last bill.
“It addresses the disparity between white farmers, who received a huge amount of money during the COVID relief situation, and socially disadvantaged producers, who received, relatively, very, very little,” Vilsack said. “So it’s really designed to start the process of closing that gap.”
Clyburn added that the payments don’t come just because farmers are black, but because of the historical discrimination they have faced in seeking loans, either by being turned down or by receiving higher interest rates. higher than their white counterparts.
Black farmers have lost millions of acres of land across the country over the past century and thousands have abandoned the business, reducing their proportion of the industry from about 14 percent in 1920 to 1.3 percent in 2017, according to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture. .
“It’s to right a wrong,” Clyburn said. “I have learned from history that the greatness of this country is not that we are more enlightened than any other nation but because we have always known how to right our faults. We are here today to try to demonstrate why this country is so big: to fix a mistake. “
Nathaniel Rhodes, whose family owns the farm Vilsack and Clyburn have visited since the early 1900s, said he knows many other black farmers in his area who have resigned over the years due to difficulties in get the loans they needed to buy expensive equipment, fill in for poor crop yields, and keep their businesses afloat.
“It would help,” said Rhodes, 69, of the debt relief program. “I could get other things I need for the farm, like grain storage and irrigation.”
State Representative Russell Ott, a white farmer from neighboring Calhoun County, said he understands why the program is controversial, but noted that it is not uncommon for agricultural initiatives to benefit certain types. farmers depending, for example, on the crops they grow.
“I think agriculture is stronger when agriculture is a diverse industry,” said Ott, D-St. Mathieu. “It greatly contributes to that diversity because I think black farmers are essential to the sustainability of what we do, but they’ve had to deal with a lot of things over the past 60 or 70 years that everyone else does. a not a. “
The program still has limitations that could leave some farmers out in the cold. At this time, payments can only apply to loans made directly by the USDA Farm Service Agency or bank loans that have been guaranteed by the USDA.
But Vilsack said he hopes the agency will be able to use other resources to provide more assistance to farmers who cannot benefit from this particular program in the coming months.
Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.