Keep It Rural

By Bryce Oates – Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Socially Disadvantaged Farmer Debt Relief Meets the Rightwing Courts. And the Slowness of Bureaucracy.

In the context of a national political moment where Republican-controlled states are passing laws to whitewash history because something called “critical race theory” apparently isn’t fair and balanced enough for racists according to Fox News, the financial future of many thousands of farmers is on the line. And in addition to the finances, the ability of the federal government to carry out policies and budgets intended to right historical wrongs and repair discrimination of the past might be on the legal chopping block.

I’m talking here, of course, about a ruling in the Wisconsin Federal Court last week that applied a restraining order to USDA to prevent carrying out a provision in the American Rescue Plan Act that would have cancelled several billion dollars in debt from “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers. Debt forgiveness for socially disadvantaged farmers was included in the Covid-19 stimulus package. The Biden USDA had not acted quickly enough to carry the program to fruition and implementation is now stalled pending further court decisions.

USDA defines “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers” as Black, Hispanic or Latinx, Native American, Native Alaskan or Hawaiian, Asian or Pacific Islander farmers. These are racial groups with a clearly documented history of discrimination against them, including at the institutional level of federal government programs. The farm policy reporter Chris Clayton (at DTN-Farm Progress) analyzed the outstanding loans eligible for cancellation in this program, finding that Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas had the highest volumes of loans to socially disadvantaged farmers:

Many groups who have long organized for funding and policies that support socially disadvantaged farmers—such as the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, Intertribal Agriculture Council and Rural Coalition, National Family Farm Coalition, Family Farm Action Alliance and many others—are now taking a stand against the temporary restraining order ruling, stating:

“The underlying case, and related cases, reflect a flagrant attempt to overturn an act of Congress and the over 30 years of history of a definition that acknowledges and enables USDA to meet the urgent and particular needs of socially disadvantaged producers. During this pandemic, our producers have been unable to access the level of support and service provided to other groups of farmers and ranchers and will be further harmed by this relief being delayed. We see these lawsuits as undemocratic actions designed only to frustrate and defeat the justice long denied to BIPOC farmers and ranchers and their communities. Many of the undersigned have worked for decades to assist tens of thousands of producers who have endured decades of disparate and discriminatory treatment by the USDA with huge barriers to relief–situations that continue today. This includes establishing a definition and provisions providing targeted USDA program resources in credit, conservation, marketing, cooperative development and other services for these socially disadvantaged farmer applicants–all which have been included, without legal challenge, in Farm Bills over the past 30 plus years.”

Whether or not USDA can actually deliver the debt retirement program is very, very critical to the Biden Administration. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who held the post during the eight years of the Obama USDA, and other Democrats have already taken the heat by making this program one of their highest priorities for the Covid-19 recovery package. The stakes are very high, as socially disadvantaged farmers have been promised support and relief many times under Democratic leadership.  The promises, unfortunately, have often been empty.

And some of the Congressional leaders appear to understand how critical that assistance is right away. First term Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA), told NPR that the skepticism Black farmers have about the program is “very understandable.”

Warnock continued: “These folks have been disappointed time and time again… That deep distrust was built over years. It didn’t happen overnight. It’s not going to be resolved overnight. But the best thing we can do right now is to deliver this.”

This is a big one, Keep It Rural readers. The economic future of thousands of socially disadvantaged farmers is on the line, as is the track record of government to be able to live up to its promises.

Rural Reading List

When you find yourself wanting for interesting rural news and information this week, we’ve got some suggestions. We’re highlighting a couple of Daily Yonder vaccination stories, as well as an Iowa-focused anti-critical race theory bill and a New York Times story and chart about the depths of the existing Western drought. Check them out: 

How to Talk about Vaccination in Rural Communities: Health Association Releases New Toolkits for Rural Leaders

This is a solid profile of rural COVID-19 vaccination resources available through the Yonder from the National Rural Health Association.

Business Leaders See Economic and Social Value in Vaccination Efforts

And here’s another rural vaccination communications effort, this one focused on business leaders making the case for the public health imperative.

Can Black Hawk’s Horror Story Be Told in Kim Reynolds’ Iowa?

From the pages of the Carroll Times Herald (Carroll, Iowa), a look at Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds’ views on teaching about white settler colonialism and genocide against Indigenous People. Both-sidesism run amok.

How Severe Is the Western Drought? See For Yourself.

From the resource-rich newsroom at the NYT, this graphic presentation of the historic nature of this year’s drought in the Western U.S. is incredibly disturbing.

One More Thing: The Flat, Flat, Flat Rural Jobs Stats

Daily Yonder die-hards who look to Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing for the monthly rural jobs and unemployment report will be interested in this longer-term rural jobs trend report. Bishop and Cushing take a look at the past decade of rural job creation and losses. And the big takeaway is that nationally, rural jobs are basically flat.

There’s a lot of nuance here, of course. Some rural counties have grown a lot of jobs, particularly large swaths of the Rocky Mountains and Intermountain West. On the other hand, rural job losses are a big problem in the Great Plains, much of the Great Lakes region, the Mississippi River Delta, much of Appalachia and rural New England. Put another way, rural counties in Colorado, Idaho, Oregon and Nevada are growing jobs while rural New York, Vermont, Maine, Texas, Arkansas and Kansas are clearly losing jobs.

As you might guess, the flat trajectory of rural jobs isn’t shared by the nation’s urban and suburban counties. Rural jobs, while holding close to steady in overall numbers, are declining as a proportional share of the nation’s job totals.

This might not be a sunny, positive report that brightens your day, Keep It Rural readers, but it’s important nonetheless. Understanding where jobs are growing, and where they’re not, is key to steering economic development resources around the country. It’s important to know what’s working and what’s not, what’s been tried for economic development and what hasn’t, what industries might be growing and what industries are shedding jobs. And we haven’t even talked about the size of rural people’s job-related paychecks and benefits. That’s a topic for another day, and another Daily Yonder rural economy report.

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