Local farmers of color awaiting federal loan forgiveness may not see the government’s promises fulfilled anytime soon. 

Kamal Bell, CEO of Efland-based Sankofa Farms, is one of approximately 230 farmers of color in Durham, Orange, and Wake counties. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in May it would make loan forgiveness payments to minority farmers, Sankofa qualified for the program. 

This initiative was part of the Biden administration’s $4 billion debt relief program, which formed a smaller part of the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package passed in March by Congress. The U.S.D.A. said it would begin making payments in June, forgiving about 13,000 loans it gave out directly and around 3,000 loans made by banks and guaranteed by the agency.  

But last week, a federal judge in Wisconsin handed down a temporary restraining order on the loan forgiveness payments. The order responded to a lawsuit filed on behalf of 12 white farmers or ranchers who alleged that the U.S. “retreated from the principle of equality under the law by enacting a race-based loan-forgiveness program.” 

Bell, who received a $70,000 loan from the U.S.D.A’s Farm Service Agency, says although it would have been nice to receive this aid, his farm will remain afloat without it. He is not so sure about other Black farmers, and he says the outcry from white farmers ignores the historic injustices minority farmers have faced. 

“I think Sankofa is an anomaly with this scenario,” Bell told the INDY. “Not many Black farmers are able to adjust their models. What’s going on is very telling of the racism in America. I don’t think we’ve seen people before, who have been catered to in this capacity, be dissatisfied when the attention is not on them. I don’t understand what more in agriculture they want to cater to them.” 

White farmers’ cries of reverse discrimination were not the only criticisms; there were also complaints from banks and investors. They lobbied the government to pay beyond outstanding loan amounts and prevent profit loss from expected interest payments or the money that would be made from reselling loans. 

But farmers of color, and the organizations that represent them, say a race-based loan forgiveness program cannot bring about racial inequality after centuries of discrimination.  

The U.S.D.A’s debt relief program was set aside for “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers”—Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and other nonwhite workers who have endured Jim Crow-era violence, theft, and racist loan policies.  

This history of violence and discrimination contributed to the decline of minority farm ownership.  In 1920, Black Americans owned about one million farms, The New York Times reported, accounting for around 14 percent of those in the United States.

After a century of racial violence, foreclosures, migration into cities, and farm consolidation, there are just over 35,000 Black-owned farms, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture. This accounts for just 1.7 percent of American farms. 

As Bell puts it, white farmers have only been able to profit by manipulating farmers of color out of the industry. 

“They’ve gotten all the funding all the last 100 years, and the fact that they are still intimidated by other people coming into the industry says a lot about their business models and a lot about the structures that support their farms,” Bell says. “It’s a competition thing. So, in the early 1900s when Black farmers were competing, they were getting lynched or they ran them off the properties. They’ve always tried to do whatever they could to keep the competitive advantage. So that’s all this is, and the fact they haven’t said, ‘You know what’s an alternative so other people can enter the field?’ is a prime example of structural racism. And the fact that this isn’t necessarily about land acquisition.” 

Local farmers of color continue to face discrimination, according to the Rural Advancement Foundation International-U.S.A (RAFI-USA), a Pittsboro-based nonprofit that advocates for farmers and a sustainable, equitable food system. The farmers of color RAFI-USA works with have been prevented from accessing credit, subjected to predatory lending, or given bad service by agencies who are looking for reasons to deny their application, rather than provide support, the organization says. 

“The individual farmers of color we work with were told they could count on this assistance. They are waiting every day to hear news about it,” RAFI-USA said in a statement criticizing the restraining order. “They are undeniably hurt by the restraining order; and for farmers in foreclosure, if an injunction to block payments is granted, they could lose their land — an asset which no retroactive payment can ever replace.” 

Farmers of color also received disproportionately low support from the Trump administration’s COVID-19 bailouts last year, RAFI-USA said. 

Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian American or Pacific Islander farmers received just one percent of the farm-related COVID-19 aid. Almost 4 percent of farms have producers that identify as something other than purely white. 

Bell says he himself has faced discrimination, alleging that an agent from the North Carolina Farm Service Agency tried to lead him toward financial decisions that would end in foreclosure. 

“That process, which should’ve taken only three or four months, ended up taking eight. They denied my loan in the beginning. So, we ended up getting the farm in March,” Bell says. “That’s when everything should have been planted to generate revenue. So, we had to get the land cleared. We had to build infrastructure. And they knew we couldn’t do that in the first year. And then by the time where we got the loan, they asked about where you lived at the time. And I’m like, ‘We’re in the process of purchasing a home.’ So, he tried to get me to tie my home into the farm, when he knew that couldn’t make money in the first year. So, once they get you tied up that way, you enter a foreclosure process and you can’t pay your loan back.” 

Sankofa was able to pay off $10,000 of the FSA loan, and the farm is continuing its efforts to create a sustainable food source for minorities in Durham and Orange counties. Bell says Sankofa was only able to survive its first year because he drove for Lyft and Uber, worked as a teacher, and worked with kids in a youth program while trying to start the farm.  

Sankofa’s success was also possible due to innovative programming. 

The farm’s $200 virtual bee leasing package allows customers to use a hive, get monthly updates on their colony, and receive 5 pounds of honey at harvest season. Customers can also take a  $50 “Bees in the T.R.A.P.” instructional class, a program run by Airbnb and made possible by generous donations—a luxury that Bell says not all minority-owned farms of color can afford.

Correction: The story has been updated to reflect that Kamal Bell is one of about 230 farmers of color in Durham, Orange, and Wake Counties. The INDY does not have data on how many of these farmers applied or qualified for the federal aid program.   

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