USDA policies drove Black farmers out of farming. Three U.S. senators just proposed legislation that seeks to remedy that.

The Justice for Black Farmers Act aims to reverse the long-standing trend of Black land loss while instituting key civil rights reforms at the agency.

On Thursday, Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey announced a first-of-its-kind proposal that would institute civil rights reforms within the Department of Agriculture (USDA), including the issuance of at least 20,000 land grants each year to Black farmers to reverse decades of land loss. If passed, the bill, called the Justice for Black Farmers Act, could play a major role in confronting decades of racially discriminatory practices at USDA.

As Booker explained at a press briefing about food industry consolidation on Thursday afternoon, his proposal “would enact reforms within the USDA to finally end discrimination within the agency, protect the remaining Black farmers from losing their land, provide land grants to create a new generation of Black farmers, and begin to restore the land base that has been lost by Black farmers due to outrageous discrimination over past decades.” The bill’s co-sponsors include Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

As The Counter reported in a 2019 investigation, USDA has a long-documented history of discriminating against Black farmers in both explicit and covert ways—from withholding payments and loans to obscuring persistent racial disparities through the misrepresentation of census data. To that end, Booker’s bill would create an equity commission “to study the legacy of discrimination against Black agricultural producers,” as well as direct the Secretary of Agriculture to correct census misreporting. 

One of the bill’s most significant provisions would attempt to reverse the ongoing trend of land loss among Black farmers. According to a September report from Pew Trust’s Stateline, Black-owned land used for farming has dropped by 85 percent in the past century. The Justice for Black Farmers Act, as currently written, would issue 20,000 land grants of up to 160 acres each to eligible Black individuals every year through the next decade. Other measures include greater credit assistance for farmers and investments in ag education at historically Black colleges and universities.

“Black farmers have been systemically denied access to land, subsidies, loans and other critical tools through government and private discrimination, and the institutional racism that has driven Black land loss is being reinforced through the USDA’s broken policies.”

The bill also takes aim at USDA’s own civil rights office, which has a checkered history of handling lending discrimination complaints. According to The Counter’s 2019 investigation, former employees have alleged that the agency regularly ran out the statute of limitations clock on such complaints, while attempting to foreclose on farmers whose complaints hadn’t yet been resolved. Booker’s proposal would prohibit such practices, while establishing an independent oversight board to assess the office’s adherence to civil rights laws.

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Passage of the Justice for Black Farmers Act is far from guaranteed at the moment, particularly with the partisan tilt of the Senate still undecided. However, the proposal has already been endorsed by numerous progressive food and ag groups, who view it as a timely opportunity to remedy decades of discrimination. The bill’s introduction coincides with months of nationwide protest over historic and ongoing institutional racism.

“Black farmers have been systemically denied access to land, subsidies, loans and other critical tools through government and private discrimination, and the institutional racism that has driven Black land loss is being reinforced through the USDA’s broken policies,” said John Boyd, founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, and Scott Faber, Environmental Working Group’s senior vice president for government affairs in a joint email statement. “By providing new access to land and credit, the Justice for Black Farmers Act will help right these historic wrongs.”

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.