A letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was waiting for Virginia tobacco farmer Lester Bonner when he opened his mailbox one morning in June.
The five-page letter said that he will soon have the $50,000 left on the government loan he had taken out to help him purchase his property forgiven.
According to Bonner, 75, “it was going to relieve the biggest load of my life.” That’s been holding me back the whole time, I said.
Black man Bonner received the notice from the USDA more than a year ago, but his loan hasn’t been cancelled yet. He now thinks it can never be removed.
According to a nationwide organisation of Black farmers, many of others in Bonner’s position are likewise pondering if they would ever experience debt relief.
Due to a clause in the Inflation Reduction Act, which President Biden is expected to sign into law, less money will now be available to farmers for debt relief.
Additionally, language that provided money expressly for Black farmers to pay down their USDA loans has been eliminated from the measure.
A $4 billion debt forgiveness programme for farmers of colour was mandated under the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, which was approved alongside the American Rescue Plan last year.
The emergency money constituted the first step in redressing decades of prejudice that some farmers claim they have experienced at the hands of the USDA, in addition to offering assistance to Black producers who have suffered during the epidemic.
However, before any money could reach farmers like Bonner, the loan-forgiveness scheme was eliminated from the inflation measure.
With race no longer a qualification factor, the new Inflation Reduction Act would provide $3.1 billion to “distressed borrowers” and another $2.2 billion to farmers who “experienced prejudice” from the USDA.
Breaking a pledge
According to John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, by eliminating the “farmers of colour” phrase that was previously included in the law, the altered proposal disadvantages Black farmers by making debt-relief financing available to farmers of all races.
Given that there are more White farmers than Black farmers overall, it will probably result in fewer Black farmers receiving forgiveness for USDA loans, said Virginia farmer Boyd.
A year after at least six federal lawsuits were brought by White farmers who argued that the statute was unjust since it prevented them from asking for the debt forgiveness because of their race, changes to agricultural financing have been made. Small farmers in Florida, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming filed the cases that are currently ongoing.
Boyd criticised the financing program’s modifications.
The U.S. government and Black farmers have betrayed a commitment and a contract, he said.
“For us and other Black farmers who have been waiting for this, it’s a significant loss.”
Although it’s unknown whether other applicants who are now eligible for relief would overwhelm black farmers’ applications, it’s possible that they will still be qualified for a significant portion of the assistance offered under the inflation measure. Boyd predicted that it will come down to how the USDA defines the standards.
According to CBS MoneyWatch, the USDA has not yet decided what evidence farmers will need to provide to demonstrate that they have experienced discrimination or are in distress.
A representative for the USDA told CBS MoneyWatch on Friday that the agency “intends to respond swiftly and our teams are already assessing the best pathways ahead and our choices for complying with the wording.”
Farmers of colour have long complained about what they claim to be discriminatory lending practises from the USDA.
According to a 1982 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report, the organization’s lending division “has not prioritised or emphasised the Black farmer dilemma enough.
The USDA “may have hampered Black small-scale farmers’ attempts to maintain a strong presence in agriculture in certain circumstances, “It was ad.
According to a 2019 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, lenders have recently reported finding it difficult to lend money to farmers of colour because they are “more likely to operate smaller, lower-revenue farms, have weaker credit histories, or lack clear title to their agricultural land.”
His tractors have no gasoline.
Black farmers like Bonner and Boyd said they had been struggling to keep their enterprises financially stable throughout the coronavirus outbreak and that they had come to rely on the debt forgiveness.
According to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, black farmers only got 0.1% of the pandemic aid intended for farmers last year.
On his 136-acre farm in Virginia’s Dinwiddie County, some 40 miles south of Richmond, Bonner has had to resort to selling off his pigs since times have been so hard.
According to Bonner, “I’m living on one Social Security check to another.”
And right now, half of my tractors are already broken down, and I can scarcely afford gasoline for them.
In 1989, Bonner and his brother purchased the acreage, and since then, they have paid off the debt to a balance of around $20,000.
Due to a lack of revenue, according to Bonner, he hasn’t made any payments lately.
The USDA letter offering debt relief, according to Bonner, was a lifeline that may have been cut off.
He said, “This is precisely like the 40 acres and a mule.” “Promises are made, but they are never kept.”