Tom Vilsack
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks at the 2022 Farm Bureau Convention at the Georgia World Congress Center. Credit: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

A plan to provide debt relief to Black farmers championed by Sen. Raphael Warnock remains in limbo, but during a trip to Atlanta Monday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he’s hopeful a solution will come, whether through Congress or the courts.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

“We’re filing briefs, we’re filing motions, we’re doing discovery, we’re moving forward so that if something doesn’t get worked out in Congress, ultimately judges will make decisions and we’ll go from there,” he said.

The farmers are waiting for $4 billion in federal funds meant to make up for decades of discrimination in USDA lending. A federal court judge in Florida put a hold on those grants pending lawsuits from groups who say not providing the funds for white farmers as well is discriminatory.

Vilsack pushed back against those claims in a press gaggle after he delivered a keynote address at the American Farm Bureau’s national convention at the Georgia World Congress Center.

“What people don’t fully appreciate is that acts of adversity that may have occurred years ago have a cumulative impact and effect, which makes it harder for those farmers to benefit fully, completely from USDA programs,” he said. “And so by providing some degree of debt relief, we’re trying to sort of level the playing field, if you will, for those farmers.”

Another solution would be to provide relief for all farmers in need, regardless of race, as part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan. But the future of the president’s spending bill is uncertain after it failed to gain enough traction in the Senate late last year.

“In the meantime, we want to make sure that these farmers understand that there’s not going to be any foreclosure action taken, that we’re going to sort of put everything in abeyance until we get some resolution and clarity either from the courts or from Congress,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack’s keynote was largely industry oriented — he pledged federal support for farmers seeking more climate-friendly operations, vowed to press China on agricultural trade and outlined a plan to relieve pressure on the nation’s supply chain.

“I think over the course of the next year or so we’ll begin to see that supply chain begin to catch up to demand, and hopefully we’ll begin to see a greater stability in prices, and hopefully we’ll be in a position to bring those costs down and continue to maintain good income,” he said.

The president delivered a video address to the crowd a day ahead of his planned in-person visit to Atlanta. During his three-minute remarks, Biden said he will crack down on meatpackers, whose profits eat into ranchers’ takes and raise prices at the butcher’s counter.

“Look, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism, it’s exploitation,” he said. “We’re investing up to $1 billion in American Rescue Plan funds for new and expanded meat and poultry processing. So we’re going to strengthen the rules on packers and stockyards to protect farmers and ranchers. We have a bipartisan group of senators now working on legislation to make cattle markets more transparent because this isn’t about Republicans or Democrats, red states or blue states, it’s about making sure that your contributions are recognized and your challenges are addressed.”

Following his remarks in Atlanta, the secretary took a short jaunt south to East Point to the headquarters of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, a nonprofit that supports Black and other underserved farmers and landowners, where he took part in a roundtable discussion and renewed a pledge to increase the number of minority landowners in the South.

Vilsack previously served as agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama, and his selection by President Biden caused a bit of a stir from some civil rights leaders and Black farmers who say he failed to address racial discrimination and who point in particular to his treatment of USDA staffer Shirley Sherrod of Albany.

Sherrod lost her job in 2010 amid public outcry after a conservative blog site released deceptively edited excerpts from a speech she made that painted her as prejudiced against white farmers.

One of the participants at the roundtable discussion was Amber Bell, who represents the Charles Sherrod Community Development Project, named for Shirley Sherrod’s husband and part of the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education founded by the couple.

Bell described some of the projects the group is working on to help underserved farmers in southwest Georgia, including a regional food hub and training programs to help them prepare for climate change, such as by adopting new irrigation methods.

“I really appreciate the notion of an ecosystem, because really, that’s what we have to develop for historically underserved producers, is an ecosystem that serves them,” Vilsack said to Bell. “You’re trying to, I think, model that, and please give Shirley my deepest regards.”

After the discussion, Bell said the network of about 160 farmers who participate in their projects are very concerned with the fate of the debt relief program.

“It’s huge, and it’s really important in south Georgia because it’s a rural community where there aren’t as many opportunities or jobs in the region,” she said. “So younger people struggle to get back to the land because they don’t have jobs off of the farm, and all too often, farmers of color struggle to build wealth, so there’s no way to live off of the land and feed families off of the land. So if they’re able to relieve the debt, that’s one obstacle that they don’t have to endure in trying to get back to the land or transfer the lands to the next generation.”

Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, agreed. He said he has been working with the USDA for 25 years and seen the gap between Black families who were historically denied benefits and white families who received them.

“And definitely because it was stopped because of this lawsuit, many of them have started really looking forward to that and started planning the operations around that,” he said. “So if this debt relief doesn’t pass, I fear that a lot of Black farmers will go out of business, a lot more will go out of business. If this debt relief is passed, we think it will be one of those tools to help save some of these Black farms, some of these Black landowners.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence.

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business...