Congress Passes Farm Bill That Will Help Black Farmers And HBCUs

A major component of the farm bill focuses on the ability of farmers to pass their farms down to relatives and heirs and makes it easier for those heirs to apply for USDA resources.
Donna M. Owens Dec, 19, 2018

African-American lawmakers in Congress played key roles in the passage of an $867 billion farm bill expected to become law soon. The measure includes programs and protections for Black farmers, veterans who farm, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and vulnerable individuals and families who rely on government assistance for food and meals.

H.R. 2—the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (aka the farm bill)—cleared the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives last week, and President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bipartisan bill into law as early as this week.

On Monday, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and other CBC members hosted a conference call with reporters to discuss the legislation and their role in fighting for some of its key provisions. Reps. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) and Alma Adams (D-N.C.)—two of seven African-American legislators who sit on the House Committee on Agriculture—and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) were among those on the line.

The CBC is a longtime “advocate for Black farmers, [for] ending food insecurity, for enlightening and improving HBCUs,” and more, Lee noted. “No other voice is as sound and as vibrant.”

Black farmers, who collectively have filed and won multibillion-dollar lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in recent decades for discriminatory practices, have new protections in the farm bill. One involves the ability to pass their farms down to relatives and heirs.

Some estimates show that 60 percent of land owned by African Americans in the U.S. is heirs’ property, which, according to the USDA, is “land that has been passed down informally from generation-to-generation. In most cases, it involves landowners who died without a will.” In order to access USDA loans for crops and other needs, farmers must have a designated farm number, which requires documentation verifying ownership of the land. Because there is often no transfer of title with heirs’ property, many Black and other farmers of color are left without access to vital resources. The 2018 farm bill will now allow heir-property farmers to apply for USDA programs.

“This is a significant win,” said Fudge, who introduced the Fair Access for Farmers and Ranchers Act of 2018 in the House; Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.) introduced a companion measure in the Senate.

The farm bill will also provide a major boost to the nation’s HBCUs—specifically, 19 Black land-grant universities, such as North Carolina A&T, which date back to the 1890s. These public institutions will get funding, which the CBC said some states have been “unfairly denying them for years.” The bill does away with a decades-old provision mandating that these HBCUs could only carry over 20 percent of federal funding that wasn’t used in a calendar year; the rule didn’t apply to predominantly white land-grant universities.

The bill brings $40 million in mandatory funding and another $40 million in discretionary funding for new scholarships at each of the nation’s land-grant universities. This means that each school will receive at least $2 million in new funding for scholarships to attract students over the next five years.

Fellow CBC member Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) and Adams, an educator who founded the Congressional Bipartisan HBCU Caucus, are among those who championed the provision. “We know farmers are aging out, and we’re trying to get younger folks interested in the field,” Adams said.

The measure also includes $10 million a year to establish Centers of Excellence—research facilities on at least three HBCU campuses (the sites will be selected by the secretary of agriculture) with specific focuses, such as working to bolster food security. Richmond said he hoped that it would help alleviate so-called food deserts (a lack of fresh fruit and produce) that exist in many urban and rural communities nationwide.

Moreover, the farm bill gives seniors, families with children, and others who are struggling financially access to meals and healthy food via government-funded nutrition programs. SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), was a sticking point in congressional negotiations; Democrats accused Republicans of attempting to dismantle nutrition by imposing work requirements on recipients.

The final farm bill, which has bipartisan support, does not require such rules.

Rep. Dwight Evans (D-Pa.), another CBC member on the Agriculture Committee, spoke recently on the House floor and told colleagues that he was glad the farm bill maintained SNAP and “does not weigh down” people with strict work requirements.

“No child should have to go to bed hungry, and no parent should have to make the choice between putting food on the table or keeping the lights on,” Evans said.

“This bill is a starting point,” he added in a statement provided to ESSENCE. “We still have work to do, and I look forward to working to build an even stronger and more robust food policy that strengthens the neighborhoods in our nation and around our globe.”

Other major elements of the farm bill include legalizing the farming of industrial hemp (but not legalizing marijuana); creating an Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production at the USDA, aimed at encouraging urban farming, indoor farming and other innovative practices; instituting data collection and reporting on trends in farmland ownership and operation; and protecting the civil rights office at the USDA from reorganization and political interference.