What is the Justice for Black Farmers Act and What Will it Do?

Written by Jacopo DeMarinis, with contributions from Andrew White 

During the majority of America’s growth periods, Black Americans were given leftovers, broken promises, and even broken bodies. This has been as true of American land-use policies as anything else, and the Justice for Black Farmers Act (JBFA) was written with this in mind. This bill aims to make Black people the focus of the US government’s economic generosity, rather than the target of its oppression. In this article, we explain the context behind the JBFA, some of its main goals, and how it aims to achieve them. 

The Justice for Black Farmers Act is not the first time that the United States government has proposed (and implemented) land transfers (Philpott 2020). One of the most important land transfers in US history is the Homestead Act of 1862, which transferred 270 million acres of land from Native American communities to smallholders, enhancing agricultural production and enabling these farmers to build wealth for generations to come (Philpott 2020). The beneficiaries of this land transfer were overwhelmingly male, white landowners despite the fact that women and Black citizens were eligible for land. Another land transfer effort was the Southern Homestead Act of 1866, which aimed to provide freed slaves with 46 million acres of public land seized from Confederate territory. The effort largely failed to transfer land to Black Americans, however.

After President Johnson decided to pardon former Confederates, these landowners were able to reclaim their land. As a result, around 77% of beneficiaries of the Southern Homestead Act were white (Mitchell 2010). Despite the failure of this land transfer, Black farmers were a sizable group in the agricultural sector and constituted one out of every seven farmers in the United States by 1920, or around 925,000 farmers. However, this number decreased to 35,470 by 2017 (Abbott 2020). In the 1999 Pigford lawsuit, Black farmers sued the USDA and its county committees for discriminatory lending and farm payment policies and won, suggesting that USDA policies have played a role in Black farmers’ departure from farming (Mitchell 2010). And history shows us that, not only have Black farmers not received as much financial support from the USDA as other groups of farmers, but they have not benefited from generous land transfers like the Southern Homestead Act. 

It is in this context that Senator Booker has introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which would apportion $8 billion annually from 2021 to 2030 for the USDA to buy land at “a price no greater than fair market value” from “willing sellers” and transfer that land to prospective and current Black farmers, especially those with a “family history of land dispossession” (S. 300 2021). The land transfer would be carried out by the Equitable Land Access Service, and each land grant would not exceed 160 acres (S. 300 2021). Furthermore, the Act calls for establishing a $1 billion annual grant program that would assist Black Americans in identifying eligible land to be bought and provide them with the financial resources necessary to cover capital and operating costs associated with farming (S. 300 2021). The Act would also establish a Farm Conservation Corps program to provide new farmers with apprenticeship opportunities and the skills necessary to undertake a career in agriculture, as well as enhance funding for HBCUs and ag extension programs that target socially disadvantaged farmers (Philpott 2020). Finally, the Act would set up a “National Socially Disadvantaged Farmer and Rancher Bank” to enhance Black and other minority farmers’ access to credit, and create ‘civil rights oversight boards’ to address discriminatory policies in the USDA (S. 300 2021). 

Contact us at capa.uiuc@gmail.com if you want to view more information regarding the Justice for Black Farmers Act and/or meet with us to discuss ways you can make a difference in this campaign.

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