EWG Black Farmer Timeline: Some Great Stuff, but with Major Flaws


The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has created a timeline on the impact of USDA on black farmers. Here:

Jared Hayes, “Timeline: Black farmers and the USDA, 1920 to present,” Environmental Working Group, 2/1/21https://www.ewg.org/research/timeline-black-farmers-and-usda-1920-present.

There is a lot of great information that has been collected in this timeline, including sources of major reports on this relationship. This is a great go-to source for USDA and writing on black farmer issues, for example. Other major reports are included as well.

There are a number of academic problems with the over all narrative here, however, and these problems seem to be shared by virtually every recent writer on black land loss. (I have a paper coming that surveys a number of these recent articles.) The problems in no way mean that there haven’t been major problems of discrimination at USDA, however. That part is well documented. The land loss issue is hugely tragic. What’s missing are important elements of the larger context and the activities of certain earlier periods of history.

Discrimination at USDA

The topic here is said to be, first, “Black Farmers and the USDA,” and secondarily, discrimination at USDA. It’s mainly on the first part, on the topic of USDA’s role other than discrimination, where the problems show up. Here the original farm bill itself is briefly mentioned, but only as being bad for black farmers, which is false. It had both positive and negative impacts.

The project is a collaboration of EWG with the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) and the Black Belt Justice Center (BBJC). While these groups have been active recently, none of them seem to have long term histories of working on the core USDA issues affecting black (and white) farmers, (i.e. market management and credit,) or on black farmer issues generally. One secondary issue that both EWG and NBFA have worked on is farm subsidies. In 2007, for example, eleven years after market management was ended for the major crops, Ken Cook of EWG and John Boyd of NBFA worked with a group called the “Left-Right Coalition,” weighing in on farm subsidy programs while ignoring the absence of the main programs. (“‘Left-Right’ Coalition Opposes Subsidy Lobby Bill: Supports Kind-Flake Fairness Amendment,” I can no longer find it online, but see a similar article here: .https://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=07-P13-00030&segmentID=1. For a corrective see: https://familyfarmjustice.me/2022/07/31/you-cant-fix-sustainability-without-justice/) This was a fake, right-wing, anti-farmer, anti-environment, pro-agribusiness solution that progressive groups were supporting because of the major farm subsidy myths and their lack of knowledge of the major farm programs and their history. They were also ignoring what the evidence clearly suggested was the major cause of black land loss since 1952.

Over the long haul, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives – Land Assistance Fund, (FSC-LAF) with offices in a number of southern states, has been the main organization working on black farmer issues, and they’ve been big supporters of price floors and supply management, and, (like all the major white farm organizations,) opponents of subsidy programs. They have a long history of collaboration with white farmers on the major issues of market management and credit, as well as on issues of discrimination. In a 2007 survey of black farmers across the South, they found that the issue of farm subsidies, so widely misunderstood in the 21st century, was understood by most black farmers within this larger, more accurate context of market management. (https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/ensure-that-farmers-receive-a-fair-living-wage-by-jerry-pennick-heather-gray/) While activities of the NBFA are featured on the timeline, those of the FSC-LAF are not, (or at least they are not specifically identified as participants in the activism shown). 

Over all, a number of items in the timeline feature farm activism, but only for the more recent years. The major events from earlier years that involved the black farm activists of the, like farmer-led presidential debates, (including FSC-LAP’s Ben Burkett asking questions, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4P_u_3tvGyM&list=PL7K_XwGI3jVS4AMDeEdFfHALIOYnoWg53&index=14) and the United Farmer and Rancher Congress of 1986, (where black farmers and organizations took on major leadership roles, ) are not included. There’s also no mention of the Minority Farmers Act of 1990 (“Minority Farmers Act Introduced,” Des Moines, Iowa: PrairieFire Rural Action: Prairie Journal, Summer 1990). For 1997 one item is “Congressional Black Caucus holds first-ever forum on discrimination against Black farmers.” Their involvement was also a big deal in earlier decades, however. (Devorah Lanner, “A Farm Bill by and for Farmers,” The Nation, July 6, 1985, https://www.questia.com/read/1G1-3848389/a-farm-bill-by-and-for-farmers. “Among the co-sponsors … Representative John Conyers Jr., … has pledged the support of all nineteen members of the Congressional Black Caucus.” Cf. Keith Schneider, “Farm Groups Seen Affecting 1986 Elections,” New York Times, 1/5/86, Section 1, p. 16. https://www.nytimes.com/1986/01/05/us/farmer-groups-seen-affecting-1986-elections.html. “Last year, for instance, all 21 members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted to support a measure Senator Harkin introduced to alter national farm policy,” a proposal to restore the parity farm programs criticized earlier in the timeline, and supported by FSC-LAP.) They surely also were involved in the Minority Farmers Act of 1990. Also not mentioned is the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson, (https://familyfarmjustice.me/2022/08/11/jesse-jackson-and-rural-america-together-we-all-win/ and https://familyfarmjustice.me/2022/08/11/jesse-jackson-a-new-direction-in-farm-policy/) who opened his campaign in a farm town, with farm justice advocates as key team leaders and farm advisors, and who is also seen in the farmer led presidential debate linked above. More broadly, the North American Farm Alliance, and later, the National Family Farm Coalition, was a multi-racial organization that worked upon the main black farmer issues, as well as the parity issues. Iowa’s PrairieFire Rural Action was similar, doing a lot of work on racism, bringing churches into black farmer and all farmer issues, and including black farmers from the South on its board. These organizations did lots of work and wrote numerous articles, sometimes by black farmers and other race leaders, on specific black farmer issues, (in addition to their work on the related issues of farm credit and farm price floors). Of course, knowledge of this earlier history would also change the nature of such a timeline.

There are, then, influences in the timeline that come from these limitations and differing backgrounds. One of these is the issue of farm subsidies, the USDA program issue about which there are surely more myths floating around than any other issue. EWG, which manages a “Farm Subsidy Database,” (https://farm.ewg.org,) is a leading presenter of some of the major myths as facts, (or in disguises that lead to this impression). 

One feature of the timeline is to give snapshots of statistics at various points in time. For example, for 1920, the number of black farmers is listed, 14% of all U.S. farmers, with a link to an over all report. They return to this in 1964 when only 5.8% of farmers were black, with a link to Census of Agriculture data for that year. Another report is cited for 1982, with a 2% figure. More census data is cited for 1997, at 0.9%, then a census document is linked for 2002, when the share “rises to 1.3%.”

The focus of the timeline is USDA, of course, and mainly discrimination at USDA. As in most recent writing on the subject, the impression is that the huge reductions in numbers of black farmers have come mainly from discrimination at USDA, (not other areas of discrimination,) in the implementation of programs. 

Farm Program Impacts on Black Farmers

There are also a few references to farm programs. The original farm programs of 1933 are cited as hurting black farmers because supplies were reduced. About three quarters of black farmers were full tenants, and they often had to bear the burden of reductions. No references are made to the farm crisis of the 1920s or the fact that 1933 was also almost the rock bottom of the Great Depression. Later, during the “parity years,” black farm ownership increased by 12%, (1940-50, Census of Ag., white farmers by 13%), the only increase between 1920 and the 1990s, (by which time almost all black farmers had been lost,) but no mention is made of this. It was a time of greatly increased farm prices and incomes from the very farm programs criticized for 1933.

Also missing from the timeline is any reference to the reduction in these core, market management farm programs, which started in the early 1950s, with price floors decreasing, more and more, until 1996, when the programs were ended for everything except sugar crops. There were massive losses of black (and white) farmers over these decades, losses of both tenants and owners, (much greater percentage losses than in the earlier decades, such as the early farm bill years of the Great Depression).

After 1933, the next timeline reference to farm policy is in 1996, in a downloadable report that “Black farmers do not get a fair share of subsidies, disaster payments or loans.” The report is not always conclusive, however. For example, the “program” or “historical” yields of a farm are figured by USDA and then figure into the amount of farm subsidies. The report found that it’s difficult to determine if, or to what extent, black farmers are given unfairly lower yield numbers. Farm subsidies show up again in 2002, with the statistic that “Black farmers receive $21.2 million in farm subsidies; white farmers receive $8.9 billion.” (The linked document from the Census of Agriculture shows total government payments, not just “commodity” subsidies, [the main subsidized crops,] of $18,477,000 for black farmers and $6,485,650,000 for white farmers, plus various kinds of other information.) So black farmers received only 24/100ths of 1% of the subsidies of whites. On the other hand, there were hardly any black farmers in 2002, and the value of their crop sales was only 25/100ths of 1% of the value of crop sales for whites. The black farmer group was also 43% less likely to be classified as doing “Oilseed and grain farming,” but more than 3 times as likely to be classified as doing “Vegetable and melon farming” (NAICS). Vegetables and melons, (measured with no subsidies,) are consistently more profitable than grains and oilseeds, (measured with subsidies). See my data on this here, (https://www.slideshare.net/bradwilson581525/subsidized-crops-vs-vegetables-pt-i) and here, (https://www.slideshare.net/bradwilson581525/subsidized-crops-vs-fruits-pt-2). The amount of discrimination, then is not, then, a 1 to 420 ratio, (as sometimes implied in much of the recent writing,) but something much closer to 1 to 1. Again, a distorted story emerges from the timeline.

Beyond that, however, since the determination of subsidies is tied to farm production and sales, the smaller subsidies per farm for blacks arises in part from the racism of slavery and Jim Crow, which led to their smaller farm sizes on poorer quality land, and then to less advanced production methods, and then to subsidies. (For example, measured as historic yield x acres in the programs x 85% [Congressional reduction] x the particular, shared subsidy rate per unit; such as 120 bushels per acre x 200 acres x 85% x 22¢ per bushel = $4,488 for corn). So slavery and Jim Crow, for example, should be part of the timeline story of USDA benefits.


Note that, (besides the 2 points just above,) the timeline repeatedly switches between the topic of discrimination by USDA and the number of black farmers, the loss of black farmers. This suggests that the loss of black farms was primarily caused by discrimination at USDA. That’s surely not true, as there were a various other major causes, including multi trillion dollar farm bill reductions, (also devastating white farmers,) and other racism than USDA, (i.e. racism at local elevators buying grain, and machinery sales and repair service, and a long history of slavery and then Jim Crow, leading black farmers to mainly be tenants, often share croppers, and with smaller, poorer quality farms). While this emphasis is good for putting pressure on USDA, it points people away from other major problems that led to black land loss and that must be addressed. For one thing, it lets Congress off the hook for reducing farm income by trillions of dollars through farm bill reductions, leading to massive losses of black (and white) farmers. It’s a mistake to ignore these factors while trying to successfully bring black and other minority farmers onto the land today. At present, farming is a mainly place to lose wealth, not to gain wealth, and that’s the opposite of what most minorities need.

In the end, this timeline grabs the bull of black farm loss by only one horn. True solutions will only come when the various myths are successfully debunked, and the remaining dilemmas are competently managed.