Reggie Stewart Jr tills part of the garden at the Stewart farm in Pembroke Township, Illinois. (Photo by Darrell Hoemann, Investigate Midwest)

This story was originally published by Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Reginald Stewart Sr., 57, began farming as a teenager in Pembroke Township, believed to be an Illinois stop on the Underground Railroad. But, throughout his life, he said, he’s faced hurdles to receiving the federal aid that many of his white counterparts have enjoyed.

As a Black farmer myself, I’ve come to find out that it’s easier to give up, it’s easier to let somebody else do it, it’s easier not to stay focused,” he said, “because we find that there is no representation for us.”

For decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s discriminatory practices and policies have disproportionately disadvantaged Black farmers, according to government reports. Hoping to address the situation, the USDA announced earlier this year debt relief payments to these farmers that were supposed to start in June. But white farmers have sued to stop the money’s distribution.

It’s another in a long line of hurdles for farmers like Stewart. On top of that, the money — part of the American Rescue Plan estimated to be worth about $4 billion — would only benefit a small percentage of Black farmers, said Lloyd Wright, the former USDA director of civil rights. By his estimates, less than 10% of Black farmers would receive debt forgiveness

“Ninety one, ninety two percent of Black farmers, even if this thing had been carried out, would not have gotten relief,” he said. 

Nationwide, there are less than 50,000 Black farmers, making up 1.4% of the country’s 3.4 million producers. The number of Black farmers peaked in 1920, accounting for 14% of producers at the time. In 1982, the percentage of Black farmers dropped to 2%. Of the 70,000 farms in Illinois, only 188 are owned by Black producers, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. 

The USDA’s discrimination has contributed to the decline in Black producers, according to a 1998 report by the department. In 1965, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that the USDA discriminated against Black farmers when providing loans and financial assistance payments. 

Reginald Stewart in front of the garden at the Stewart farm in Pembroke Township, Illinois. (Photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting)

In 1997, the USDA reached a settlement with Black farmers in a class action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman, which accused the agency of racial discrimination. The more than $1 billion settlement resulted in about 16,000 payments, though over 22,000 farmers filed claims. Under Pigford, only 425 farmers received debt forgiveness. 

Last year, nearly all the coronavirus aid the Trump administration provided to farmers went to white farmers, according to the Environmental Working Group.

The American Rescue Plan Act, passed by Congress in March, designates $4 billion for “socially disadvantaged” farmers or ranchers, defined as Black, Hispanic or Latino, Asian, Native Indian or Native Alaskan and Hawaiian or Pacific Islander producers, primarily for debt relief. Section 10005 of the coronavirus aid package orders the USDA to pay up to 120% of loans issued by the Farm Service Agency for qualifying farmers or ranchers. 

The USDA in May called the program “historic.”

“USDA is recommitting itself to gaining the trust and confidence of America’s farmers and ranchers using a new set of tools provided in the American Rescue Plan to increase opportunity, advance equity and address systemic discrimination in USDA programs,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

White farmers across the country, including in Illinois, are challenging the provision in court, arguing the program discriminates against them on the basis of race. A temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction in response to separate lawsuits accusing the Biden administration of racial discrmination have stopped payments from going out. 

A Florida federal judge on June 23 issued a preliminary injunction in response to a lawsuit filed by a white farmer arguing the debt relief program is unconstitutional. 

“The remedy chosen and provided in Section 1005 appears to fall well short of the delicate balance accomplished when a legislative enactment employs race in a narrowly tailored manner to address a specific compelling governmental interest,” U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Morales Howard ruled.

Previously, a Wisconsin federal judge had placed a temporary restraining order on the funds. The USDA told Politico it would “forcefully defend” the program in court in response to the court’s decision. 

Reggie Stewart Jr holds one of the chicken they produce for sale at the Stewart farm in Pembroke Township, Illinois. They also sell eggs at a market in Arthur, Illinois. (Photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting)

“We’re depending on and have a great deal of faith in the Biden administration to put all the resources that are available to fighting this, fighting against that litigation,” said Lawrence Lucas, spokesperson for the Justice for Black Farmers Group, noting that Black producers now depend on the same Justice Department “that fought against Black farmers from getting a settlement” to protect them. 

Lucas, president emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, believes the debt relief payments should have gone out sooner. 

“Black farmers deserve a speedier process in resolving and paying off the loans,” he said. “We don’t feel as though they utilize the resources and information that’s available to them to immediately start paying Black farmers, because they don’t have any problem when they are foreclosing on Black farmers.”

For Lucas, the program, though worth defending, is not enough to address the systemic discriminatory practices and policies within the USDA. He said the Justice for Black Farmers Act, S. 300 (117), introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, in February, has all the tools to make deeper changes in the USDA. The bill includes an independent board to oversee civil rights in the agency and an independent financial institution to lend to Black and other farmers of color. 

“The Justice for Black Farmers Act of 2021 has all the tools and all the bells and whistles, and it is an effort to solve the discrimination that has been going on for decades at USDA,” Lucas said. “However, we do feel also that Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, has the resources and the authority to implement 90% of what the bill is calling for.”

Although Wright, the former USDA official, was “somewhat optimistic” when the program was initially included in the coronavirus aid package, he is not surprised it has been halted by lawsuits. 

“I’ve watched what has happened when we made promises to Black farmers,” said Wright, who worked for the department for over three decades. “Most of the time, it doesn’t work out.”

Stewart, the Pembroke farmer, was not surprised by the news of the lawsuits that have stopped the payments either. As he and other Black farmers wait for a verdict, he asks himself: “Why are things always being stopped for us?” 

Amanda Perez Pintado is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.