The Justice for Black Farmers Act: A Critical BIPOC Review

Image from the author’s keynote from the National Young Farmers Coalition, describing the current model of agriculture in America which the Justice for Black Farmers Act not only fails to challenge, but actually manages to reinforce.

In a nutshell, the Justice for Black Farmers Act is a neo-Homestead Act that would transfer some 32 million acres of land (an area roughly the size of Connecticut) to African Americans in perpetuity, in addition to addressing the endemic racism in the United States Department of Agriculture, funding agricultural research in historically Black colleges, and making a number of long-sought amendments to the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921.

It’s a bill so loaded with oversights, anti-solidarity, and implied acceptance of settler-colonial agricultural ethics that it can’t even be viewed as incremental progress or a step in the right direction. Instead, the bill simply represents a coarse attempt to add Black people to an already broken agricultural system, largely at the expense of Indigenous people, while opening up a bonanza of cash to Black non-profits built into the legislation as power brokers.

Let’s discuss this thing in detail.

This phrase is not intended to flatter; the Homestead Acts were legislation designed to invade the American west and effect the genocidal dispossession of Indigenous people residing on lands that comprise much of today’s corn belt. As detailed in my book about the Homestead Acts:

“…before the conclusion of a war that would draft three quarters of a million men to preserve the Union, the nation would enlist far more to fight in a war of conquest in the great unknown to the west, dangling the carrot of land ownership and independent wealth in front of America’s commonfolk in exchange for them accepting the risk of becoming soldiers in the country’s vanguard, the tip of the spear of an invasion into a mysterious but absolutely populated landscape. The United States government crowdsourced the invasion of the west. The strategy was as brilliant as it was ruthless.

Adopting a chessmen strategy, common people were sent out west en masse to squat on land and see what happened. Territory west of the Mississippi was, to White eyes, a landscape teeming with equal parts unbridled opportunity and hellish uncertainty, full of dangers to stationary White habitation: tornadoes, blizzards, wolves, bears, floods, fire, the Comanche, etc. Landed Americans weren’t keen on subjecting themselves or their progeny to nature’s gauntlet in order to tame it. So while the generous list of people allowed to head west for homestead allotments — free Blacks, non-citizen immigrants, unmarried women — might read like a fit of Lincolnian progressivism, it was in fact a detailed list of the kinds of people America’s powerbrokers considered expendable. They were to become pawns in the country’s opening game against the west, a fitting attribution as the term “pioneer” indeed stems from Old French and English words for “pawn” and “foot soldier.” These cheap, fungible pieces would head west, spring various traps (mostly in the form of Indian conflicts), and then be followed by more powerful pieces on the board — like U.S. cavalry — wherever those conflicts achieved a kind of critical mass. But on the whole this was a cowboys vs. Indians affair, with individual Americans left to do battle on their own with Indigenous nations reeling from cultural collapse that arrived well ahead of the homesteaders.”

The Justice for Black Farmers Act models itself directly on the Homestead Acts, all the way down to the maximum land grant allotment of 160 acres (identical to the size of the homestead allotments) and its glaring willingness to steamroll Indigenous people in the process of giving away stolen land. The bill sets up a situation in which justice for Black farmers is achieved by creating a one-to-one injustice for Indigenous farmers anywhere the two are found in close proximity to each other.

In my area, for example, Black farmers will have a multi-billion dollar well of federal funds to deploy in the purchase of Piscataway, Monacan, Pamunkey, Chickahominy, and other tribal lands in communities where those Indigenous people are still present. The bill glosses over this reality by describing the African American history of land dispossession as “unique” — which it decidedly is not when we’re comparing it to Indigenous history. The bill goes a step further in giving the Federal government right of first refusal to purchase the land back from a Black farmer if it were to come up for sale for any reason, with that land eligible only to be transferred to another Black farmer under another land grant.

This joyous boon for African Americans comes directly at the expense of Indigenous people, who will find themselves precluded from rematriating their homelands even if they could afford to do so, and even if a Black farmer granted land under the program wanted to transfer the land to an Indigenous person. The bill literally puts Indian land out of Indian reach forever, in a design coarse enough to feel like an act of deliberate hostility.

The term “qualified entity” is used over and over again in the bill to describe non-profit organizations that appear to be the overwhelming long-term winners in this bill. Black farmers looking to receive a land grant or otherwise benefit from the program are directed to non-profits that themselves receive grants to guide those farmers through the process, officially making these non-profits the arbiters of access to the programs.

Non-profits also receive $10 billion to provide farmer education and technical assistance, file for land grants on behalf of Black farmers, search for land that may be eligible to be purchased under a land grant, serve on the USDA’s new “Equity Commission,” support Black farmers in starting up farm operations on granted land, and “provide other assistance including legal advocacy, succession planning, and support for the development of farmer cooperatives.”

The centering of non-profits is this way is both bizarre and distasteful. Ag non-profits are largely founded and staffed by people who created them because they weren’t able to make their farms commercially viable; the idea that these people are going to teach farmers to make their own businesses work defies all logic — unless of course the point is to have Black farmers participate in the current agricultural paradigm where profitability isn’t really necessary, their farms are treated like feudal birthrights rather than businesses or community assets, and extracting value from the farm is less about feeding people and more about knowing what levers of Federal programs to pull and when. That’s a very specialized kind of expertise that non-profits excel at hoarding; Black farmers would benefit from NGO services paid for by the federal government as they follow White farmers into becoming wards of the state and an economic/environmental albatross for the public, while non-profits pocket billions of dollars showing them the way.

The bill is very much enamored with the centrality of the settler-colonial “family farming” model and is consequently architected to support it. This is done in some minor ways:

  • Land grants are placed in easements that preclude any kind of development except for a primary residence and farmworker housing (this is, quite by definition, plantation agriculture)
  • Non-profits are given grants to help farmers with succession planning, centering the notion that farms should be passed from parents to children (the feudal origins of plantation agriculture)
  • The bill “investigates” corporate farms and their impact on absorbing farmland

But it also supports the incumbent, extractive farming model in one big way: its proposed Farmer Conservation Corps.

The FCC is, in a sentence, a pool of farm labor paid (minimum wage plus housing and travel) by the federal government and made available to farms free of charge if they’re grossing under $250K per year. The idea (I suppose) is to incubate new farms with free labor until they grow into larger, million-dollar-a-year enterprises. As a farmer myself, however, I can state with a fair degree of confidence that a farm operating on free and clear land with zero labor costs can operate at $250K per year pretty much in perpetuity. Why grow beyond $250K if, the very next day, you’re going to just find yourself gut-punched by $100K in overhead? Instead of providing New Deal era government pork, why not incentivize farms to behave like communal assets instead of feudal estates so they can build a professional farming class and create broad agrarian prosperity that doesn’t center on capitalistic Jeffersonian yeomanism, complete with slave labor?

Here’s why: even as American health outcomes crater, the corn belt exhausts its soil and places like the California Central Valley exhaust their water, American farmers by and large are doing fine. The USDA ERS puts their median net worth at nearly a million dollars and their median household incomes well above the national average. This is true even as:

  • Half of farms have negative net income — offset by the fact that mechanization and abusive labor practices have made farmownership a largely part-time profession, affording farmers with the time to work full-time jobs whose tax liabilities are reduced by relatively small farm operating losses on land whose value is skyrocketing. To wit…
  • The much lamented $400 billion in farm debt is offset by $3.12 trillion in assets, largely held in land whose value appreciates reliably every year.

This picture is not skewed by the presence of corporate “mega-farms,” this is a picture of family farming in America: millionaires selling mined water and soil in the form of food products into markets they have no familiarity with. The Justice for Black Farmers Act upholds this model and simply endeavors to add Black farmers to it instead of pursuing a much better alternative: treating farms as commonly-held community assets and businesses.

Another image from the NYFC Keynote; a regional food economy comprised of worker owned collectives and agricultural coops operating as a full-stack food value chain, supported by a community/farmer/worker-controlled food system trust that marshals capital, land, and shared services made available to all

What Happens Beyond the Farm Gate?

The bill does disappointingly — but not surprisingly — little about anything in the food system beyond the farm gate, and this is especially true when it comes to marketing. The bill simply re-ups an existing, ineffectual Local Agriculture Market Program from 1946, makes various amendments to the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921, and provides funding to historically Black colleges to “commence research to further the study of market opportunities for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.” There’s nothing to be found about:

  • Collective integration of local food economies and value chains
  • Leveling the playing field between farmers of color and agribusiness (perhaps by directing some of the bills billions of dollars to the seeding of BIPOC processors, aggregators, distributors, and markets)
  • Assistance with the boring legal/regulatory mechanics of running a sovereign food system: audit, insurance, food safety, logistics, etc. — things that the vaunted non-profits in the bill will have no proficiency in because, if they did, they’d be running successful businesses instead of non-profits

Given the bill’s filial relationship with conventional agriculture, it’s hard to imagine this “market development” won’t fall within the traditional boundaries of institutional-led agricultural market development: finding new places to send a surplus that nobody ever asked for — the next ethanol, plant burger, or bioplastic for traditional agribusiness to extract profit from… or the tried and true method of dumping our products in developing countries to beef up our farmers’ balance sheets while we starve local agriculture in Africa.

When you’re modeling a justice bill on an instrument of colonial genocide, the possibilities to do terrible things are pretty much endless.

Final image from the NYFC keynote, expressing how the development of regional food economies could go so far as to help restore the power of representative democracy by fostering rural development.

Chris Newman is the founder of Sylvanaqua Farms, and is a Black and Indigenous (Choptico Piscataway) farmer in Virginia’s Northern Neck working to build an integrated, BIPOC-led, sovereign food economy on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. You can read more about our vision and inspiration for this project here and here

Building a new, accessible, open, and democratic food economy in the Chesapeake Bay region @ Sylvanaqua Farms

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