By Alli D.
Decades of racist practices at the USDA have robbed black Louisianans of their farmland, and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry could help undo this injustice. Ag Commissioner candidate Marguerite Green wants to make sure that they do.
Agriculture is big business in Louisiana. The state’s forests and fields are one of our main industries, supporting hundreds of communities and thousands of families.
While farming can be a lucrative business, it has been at the expense of black farmers, whose land has been stolen from them through corrupt institutional practices, discrimination, intimidation, and collusion. As Vann Newkirk documented recently for The Atlantic, Wall Street firms like TIAA are buying up farmland in the Mississippi Delta, pushing black farmers off their families’ lands. In total, black farmers in the US have lost 12 million acres in the last century. This crisis of land loss is acute in Louisiana.
Angie and June Provost, sugarcane farmers from New Iberia, have been profiled in The Guardian, outlining how racist practices by the USDA and sabotage from neighbors and the local mill forced the family off their land.
June Provost was raised as a sugarcane farmer and at one point held 4,500 acres in Iberia Parish. But as the Guardian profile outlines, “he endured years of discrimination in the form of coercive contracts, fraud, below-market crop loans, vandalism, and retaliation for speaking out about the mistreatment of black farmers – until he was finally forced out of business in 2015.” The Provosts are working to rebuild their farm as well as tell the story of these discriminatory practices that affect black farmers across the country.
These practices, such as requiring excessive collateral or underfunding crop loans for black farmers, are not unique to Louisiana. Many of them were outlined in the Pigford vs. Glickman class action lawsuit brought by black farmers against the USDA, alleging decades of discriminatory practices. The Pigford settlement has paid nearly $1 billion to over 13,300 farmers since 1999. Each one of those farmers had to prove a claim of discrimination and damages. However, even this billion-dollar settlement amount was not enough to cover all the claims. In 2010, Congress appropriated another $1.2 billion to pay the claims of another 10,000 farmers.
The Pigford settlement shows that these practices have not gone away within USDA. Black farmers have gone from 14% of US farmers in 1920 to less than 2% in 2012. Black farms represent just 0.4% of all crop acreage and generate just a fraction of the income per farm as white farmers.
While the discriminatory practices are rooted in USDA and federal policy, the Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry has an important role to play in promoting and encouraging black farmers. Angie Provost says that the Ag Commissioner can unite agricultural schools and communities, and pay special attention to black farmers. “We’re not interested in bureaucrats who seek photo ops, when the time is politically expedient; rather, we need representatives who take real care in showing up for National Black Grower field days as much those sponsored by the American Sugar Cane League,” she says.
Marguerite Green, candidate for Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry, agrees. “We need to hear directly from people what the challenges they’re facing are, and we need to make publicly stated plans to address them. I would set a departmental culture of advancing and celebrating black land and black farmers the way we’ve traditionally shown up for white farmers, like field days, research support, and co-sponsored legislation.”
While the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) has an Office of Minority and Veteran Affairs, it isn’t clear what the function of the office is. Green says that she would improve this office. “Instead of merely linking under-resourced farmers to USDA programs through a poorly constructed website, I would have the LDAF assist in pursuing federal funding to support our black farmers. I would require the office to go out into communities and seek out black farmers,” she says.
And though LDAF does not oversee crop loans, Green notes the importance of paying attention to predatory agricultural lending. She says that LDAF should stand with those farmers in support to get their property back through the legal system. “While promises like ‘we’ll listen to problems’ and ‘we’ll pursue funding’ aren’t detailed, there’s something important to be said about the fact that we don’t create space for black farmers to have a voice to the LDAF. That’s where we have to start. I want LDAF to be a partner in the fight for black land, not a roadblock or onlooker.”
Agricultural land ownership and dispossession can be overlooked by those living in urban areas, but this Saturday’s election offers voters a chance to take steps to support equity in farming in Louisiana.