By Antonio‌ ‌Ray‌ ‌Harvey‌ | California‌ ‌Black‌ ‌Media‌

Last month, Lawrence Lucas, founder of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Minority Employees Coalition (USDA-CME), testified before the California task force to study and develop proposals for reparation for African Americans.

Lucas said racism is the main reason there are just over 400 black farmers in California.

“The income of black farmers has been drastically reduced and the amount of wealth that has been taken from black farmers is enormous,” Lucas said. “What you would call reparations, we call it justice. That is why you must do what you have to do in California to right the wrongs suffered by black people. “

Lucas isn’t alone in worrying about the accumulating evidence that documents a long history of racial discrimination in American agriculture.

The United States Department of Agriculture recently established the Equity Commission (EC) to study racial discrimination and government policies that have weakened black farmers, depleted their wealth, and nearly wiped out their presence for over 100 years.

EC will advise the Secretary of Agriculture in identifying USDA programs, policies, systems, structures and practices that have created barriers to inclusion or perpetuated racial, economic, health and social disparities.

The USDA-CME was founded in 1994 to fight discrimination within the USDA, which Lucas referred to as “the last plantation” during his testimony. The coalition is also focusing its work on the historic loss of black-owned land and how government policies have deprived African Americans of generational wealth.

The EC is expected to issue a preliminary report and provide “concrete recommendations” within the next 12 months, and a final report to be completed within two years.

“The Equity Commission is taking important steps to remove the barriers historically underserved communities have faced in accessing USDA programs and services,” US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a statement released on September 24.

Lucas said that despite USDA’s efforts to tackle decades-old discriminatory practices, he doesn’t see it “getting any better” for black farmers. Non-black agricultural producers are fighting in court, Lucas said.

“You have white farmers, who own most of the land and get all the benefits of the land; they are the ones who are now taking cases to courts across the country. They say it is discriminatory to alleviate the debt of black farmers, ”Lucas said.

CME’s greatest achievement is its involvement in securing debt relief for black farmers under the American Rescue Plan (ARP). The ARP package included a multibillion dollar fund for socially disadvantaged farmers across the United States.

The coalition worked alongside U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) to create the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which will bring even more help to socially disadvantaged farmers.

Of California’s roughly 70,000 farms, more than 90% are owned or managed by whites and less than 1% are owned or managed by blacks, according to the 2017 federal census of agriculture.

The 2012 census indicated that California had 722 black farmers. By 2017, that number had grown to 429. Nationally, there are 45,508 black farmers or 1.3% of all farmers according to the 2017 agricultural census. Their holdings account for 0.5% of the agricultural land in the country. country.

In contrast, about 14% of all American farmers in 1920 were black, according to the agricultural census for that year. At the time, there were 925,708 black farmers. Almost all of them were grown in the Deep South states. Lucas accuses the USDA of the depletion of black farmland over the past century.

However, the USDA says it is reversing harmful policies and taking remedial action for programs that have affected the progress, financial stability and productive livelihoods of black farmers.

“We take seriously our efforts to end discrimination in all areas of the department and to improve access to services for key stakeholders,” USDA Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh said in a statement. .

In March, the US Congress passed a $ 4 billion debt relief program for farmers of color to fight past discrimination in USDA programs.

The debt relief program was adopted under the ARP. It includes funding to repay USDA loans held by 16,000 Black, Native American, Alaskan Native, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Hispanic and Latino farmers.

Claiming discrimination, a group of white farmers have filed a dozen lawsuits against the program, including a class action lawsuit. Preliminary injunctions from three courts temporarily prevented the program from issuing funds from the program.

According to Khubaka Michael Harris of the California Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (CBFAA), “Debt relief was written in a way to help black people, but it’s not just for black people. That is why it is before the courts. It was written where any farmer can say, “Hey, I was also affected by COVID.” So, are you going to say that this money is just for blacks? Now lawmakers must come back to write in a language that targets underserved communities. “

Based in Sacramento, the CBFAA advocates for socially disadvantaged black California farmers and farmers of color nationwide.

Lucas said it is actions such as lawsuits that “rob black farmers of their dignity,” “the right to cultivate,” and deny black farmers the “right to the same programs and services that white farmers get in this country. “.

In California, agriculture is classified under the term “agricultural activity”.

The State defines it as “the harvest of any agricultural product, including timber, viticulture, beekeeping or horticulture, the breeding of livestock, fur animals, fish or poultry, and all practices carried out by a farmer or on a farm are also agricultural activities.

“This also applies to licensed cannabis producers,” said Harris. “If you grow cannabis, you are a farmer in this condition.”

Assembly Bill (AB) 3121, titled “The Task Force to Study and Develop Redress Proposals for African Americans,” was a law created to investigate the history of the slavery in the United States, the extent of California’s involvement in slavery, segregation, and the denial of black citizens of their constitutional rights.

The nine-member task force is expected to hear more testimony from black farmers in California, including producers in the Central Valley.

“I see what all of you are doing in California, this is what needs to be done in this country,” Lucas said during his testimony. “It is the courage of your governor and the courage of the members of this reparations committee to undertake this arduous task of speaking to others about their pain and suffering. Black farmers are suffering.