Black Farmers Raise Concerns Over Biden’s Pick to Head Agriculture Department
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Black Farmers Raise Concerns Over Biden’s Pick to Head Agriculture Department

Tom Vilsack, Who Ran USDA in Obama Years, Blamed for Shortchanging Minority Borrowers


Sarah Okeson

Sarah Okeson

Tom Vilsack, President Joe Biden’s pick to head our Agriculture department, sailed through his confirmation hearing before a Senate committee, but Black farmers are troubled. Vilsack has a questionable record under Barack Obama overseeing the agency known as the “last plantation” due to its racist policies.

Black farmers got less in USDA loans under Vilsack when Obama was president than it did under President George W. Bush. In 2015, less than 0.2% of the agency’s $5.7 billion in small loans, or about $11 million, went to Black farmers. The agency was more than six times as likely to foreclose on a Black farmer than a white one from 2006 to 2016.

USDA policies contributed to Black farmers losing about 90% of the land they owned between 1910 and 1997.

“Your campaign was pulled out of the ashes by Black people and you seek to confirm a man who has a track record of assassinating the hopes and dreams of Black farmers,” Tennessee rancher Corey Lea told Biden.

USDA policies contributed to Black farmers losing about 90% of the land they owned between 1910 and 1997 while white farmers lost only about 2%. The number of black farmers declined by 98% between 1920 and 1997.

“The USDA is one of the most racist and sexist organizations in the federal government,” said Lawrence Lucas, the president emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees.

ACTION BOX/What You Can Do About It

Tell your senators what you think about Tom Vilsack’s nomination to run the USDA again.

Contact the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees online.


Farmers like Charles McDonald of Manning, S.C., suffered. McDonald, who inherited land from his father in 1973, was assigned a low crop yield for the corn he raised despite consistently winning awards from farm organizations for productivity.

USDA calculations when McDonald applied for loans didn’t include his actual crop yields, and he was turned down. A creditor brought foreclosure proceedings against him. McDonald turned over his land to a credit association, sold his farm equipment and filed for bankruptcy in 1986.

Black farmers like McDonald in Clarendon County, where Harry Briggs filed one of the lawsuits consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education, were assigned crop yields about half that of white farmers. Merchants refused to sell seed to Briggs.

“They destroy a lot of Black families,” McDonald testified during his discrimination case.

Questions about discrimination against minority farmers barely came up during Vilsack’s confirmation hearing. The former Iowa governor is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate.

“I don’t think anyone has enough votes to stop him,” said Webster Davis, the son of a Missouri hog farmer and the secretary of the Missouri chapter of the NAACP.

About 14,000 discrimination cases, many brought by farmers, were pending against the USDA when Vilsack took over, Lucas said. Most of those weren’t resolved.

The Counter, a journalism nonprofit that covers U.S. agriculture and food, investigated Vilsack’s record under Obama and found out that the agency cherry-picked data to falsely show a renaissance for black farmers.

A class-action lawsuit that was supposed to help Black farmers, Pigford  v. Glickman, led to $50,000 payments for 13,000 Black farmers, not enough to buy a tractor.

Trump’s Agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, paid commodity farmers and ranchers $28 billion for losses during Trump’s trade wars, but the majority of farmers that he helped were white. An additional $14 billion went to farmers under the second Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

In November, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced the Justice for Black Farmers Act to address decades of discrimination by the USDA. The act would fund at least 20,000 land grants a year to Black farmers and establish an independent civil rights oversight board at the USDA.

“He has an opportunity,” Davis said. “He needs to help us compete against large corporations.”

Featured image: USDA photo

February 10, 2021