Excerpted From: Kyle Ridgeway, Broken Promises: The Continuing Decline of Black Farm Owners and Operators in America, 27 U.C. Davis Social Justice Law Review 50 (Winter, 2023) (143 Footnotes) (Full Document)


KyleRidgewaySince the industrialization of farming in the United States there has been a continuous decline in the number of independent farm owners in America. In the modern era, a myriad of factors affects this diverse group of Americans: climate change, burdensome debts, and the corporatization of modern farming. This stark reality is even worse for America's Black farmers. After hitting its peak in the 1920s, the rate of Black farm ownership has steadily declined over the past hundred years. Black farmers once made up fourteen percent of America's farm owners; today, Black farmers comprise less than two percent.

There has been much scholarship focused on the decline of Black farm ownership and operation (generally, these two groups will be referred to jointly as “farmers” within this paper). The history of this decline, the root problems underlying it, and the lack of clear solutions have all been well-addressed. However, despite this extensive scholarship and public interest, the decline of Black farm ownership persists. The strains on Black farmers have worsened in the wake of the Trump Administration's trade wars and the ongoing global pandemic.

The decline of Black farm ownership in America is fundamentally connected to America's history of racist treatment towards Black landowners. A class-action lawsuit in 1999, Pigford v. Glickman, resulted in a $1.25 billion settlement to Black farmers for race-based discrimination in lending by the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”). After decades of discriminatory practices, many hoped that this case would rectify the woes of America's Black farmers. But despite Pigford's substantial settlement, Black farm ownership continues to decline. For many farmers, the payment that they received from the settlement in Pigford was insufficient to offset the losses they incurred during the years spent waiting for a resolution.

The failure of Pigford to provide effective relief to America's Black farmers shows that there is a need for a more robust and proactive solution to this problem. Addressing the decline that has persisted in the wake of the Pigford settlement was a major campaign goal of now-President Joe Biden during the 2020 election. However, despite the inclusion of a significant financial provision within the American Rescue Plan Act (“ARPA”) to allow for the debt cancellation for farmers subjected to historical discrimination, there has been no such relief to date. President Biden's failure to deliver this major campaign promise--and a central piece of the ARPA--is due in part to a number of lawsuits filed on behalf of white farmers who claim they should be allowed access to the same benefit.

Part I of this Article provides an overview of the current state of the decline of Black farm ownership in America and possible resolutions. Part II will briefly discuss the historical factors that led to the decline of Black farm ownership rates. Part III will discuss the impact of the groundbreaking class-action settlement of Pigford v. Glickman. Part IV will analyze Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan Act and subsequent lawsuits that enjoined the debt cancellation promised by the federal government. Finally, Part V will raise possible alternative remedies to put an end to the decline of Black farm owners and operators.

[. . .]

The modern decline of Black farm ownership is a federal government problem requiring a federal solution. Pigford was too narrow, and courts appear to believe that Section 1005 of the American Rescue Plan Act is too broad. Perhaps there is a solution that will be wide enough to truly remedy the issues at hand, while also narrowly tailored enough to withstand equal protection challenges within the courts. The crisis of the decline of Black farmers in America differs from other examples of the systemic racism that Black Americans have faced because its narrow scope is distinctly measurable and traceable, and thus readily redressable. Debt cancellation for Black farmers who were discriminated against by the USDA is not an amorphous idea of reparations for the very real sins of America's past--it is concrete justice for individual farmers who were harmed by policies of the federal government. Absent such a solution, there will only be more broken promises to the Black farmers of America.

Kyle Ridgeway, third-year law student at the Stetson University College of Law, Editor-in-Chief of the Stetson Business Law Review, and Research Editor for the Journal of Aging Law and Policy.