The conference call message to Black farmers across the nation was clear: Email or call U.S. Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. with any and all agricultural roadblocks throughout COVID-19. Close to 100 listeners from across the nation dialed in Tuesday, June 2, to voice their pandemic and repeated farming troubles to the chairman of the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies. “As chairman of this subcommittee, I’m committed to assuring Black farmers are supported,” said Congressman Bishop, representing Middle and Southwest Georgia. “I want to make sure you have the technical assistance to become full participants in USDA’s mission of feeding America and the world.”
Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a social change organization founded by civil rights activist Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., held the Black farmer’s conference call to listen to countrywide concerns. The Rev. thanked farmers for joining the call right before immediately clicking off to join another protest against the recent killing of African-American, Minneapolis resident George Floyd. Before the coalition’s executive director Robert Patillo opened up the line to Black farmers to ask questions, Congressman Bishop rattled off USDA facts and figures from a 2017 Census of Agriculture about Black producers:
- 88: The percent of black producers in the top 12 states — Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee;
- 48,697: The number U.S. producers who identified as black;
- Black producers where older, more likely to have served or be serving in the military;
- Their farms were smaller and value of ag sales was less than 1 percent of the U.S. total; and
- 62: The percent of black-operated farms with Internet access.
“I’m keenly aware of the plight of Black farmers,” said Bishop. “I made it a priority to provide first-ever funding for heirs’ property issues that make it hard for Black people to hold on to their land.”
With the bad news to Black farmers, Bishop also shared the good. The House passed the fifth COVID-19 relief bill: The Heroes Act. In addition to providing $75 billion for testing, tracing and treatment, the bill addresses rises in hunger. It provides a 15 percent increase to the maximum SNAP benefit and additional funding for nutrition programs that help families put food on the table. The bill supports small businesses and nonprofits by strengthening the Payroll Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program as well.
Meat producer Wayne Swanson of Swanson Family Farm LLC started the Q&A session: “I’m experiencing issues with processing,” said Swanson, who specializes in grass-fed and pasture-raised beef, goat, pork and lamb. “Dominant farmers with connections are buying out the processing floor. Can we get a little bit of help for a large processing plant in the right zoning area so we can get food to Atlanta faster?” The Henry County, Georgia, farmer added that his customer base is 75 to 85 percent African-American, and he his agribusiness wouldn’t still be in operation if it wasn’t for 1890 land-grant institution Fort Valley State University (FVSU) to help with processing efforts. “Fort Valley has all the tools, but we’re not using them for the benefit of the community to train the next butchers and cattle farmers,” said Swanson.
There are 16,934 black-operated farms specializing in beef cattle, according to the 2017 USDA ag census. Bishop acknowledged COVID-19 has only interrupted the food chain process even more but offered hope to Swanson. “In the appropriation bill, we’re wanting to invest and create opportunities for minorities and any other farmer who wants to go into processing,” Bishop said. “Historically, the state of Georgia has lost meat processing facilities tremendously in the past 10 years. There are investments and loans available to get connected with these resources.” To get the process started, call or email his office.
Journalist Mo Barnes asked Bishop to weigh in about the unfair pricing with poultry farms and his thoughts about Black farmers getting locked out of industrial hemp because of the tight stipulations to continue operations. Concerning poultry farms, Bishop mentioned the appropriation bill will address the relationship between integrators and growers. “We’re trying to put in place language to control them pushing around small producers, especially Black producers,” he said.
Bishop said he’s been working with Historical Black Colleges and Universities like FVSU to help make information available for black producers to go forward in hemp. “Georgia was late going with it and developing regulations,” said Bishop. “We recognize it’s a difficult situation for farmers getting access to the information so late.”
Lamar Wilson, founder of hemp network Sunjoined in Kentucky, chimed in. He was curious about whether or not there is federal funds set aside to help beef farmers and even hemp processors create cooperatives for disadvantaged farmers. There are, Bishop assured him. “Funds are available for the formation of cooperatives,” said Bishop, who wanted to sit down and discuss options with Wilson. “There are a lot of cooperatives in the Midwest with concepts that work to produce, process and distribute.”
Bishop stressed African-American farmers and ranchers have to work together to develop strategic plans. Continuously sharing ideas at regional and national conferences in the future will help. The coalition took an email question about international markets for Black farmers. With trade wars and tariffs affecting producers, the query wanted to know what efforts are taking place to help Black farmers successfully tap into global commerce. Bishops response: “USDA’s outreach office helps with exports. The fact that the administration has been trying to force their will is a disadvantage to all of agriculture. Technical assistance can and should be more available so African-American farmers have the opportunity to export easier.”
Rainbow PUSH plans to receive more answers to some of the Black farmers’ concerns and collect information about grants available for disadvantaged farmers. “Our next step is to follow up on questions asked and get requested information back to the farmers,” said Trina Heathington, program coordinator for Rainbow PUSH. “We plan to continue to work with Congress on ways to keep Black farmers informed on all new emerging bills and resources.” The coalition will continue scheduling meetings with Congressman Bishop on a bi-weekly basis, said Heathington. Bishop closed the conference with popular proverbs as calls to action for Black farmers: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” and “the crying baby gets the milk.” Basically, speak up and out L-O-U-D!
“I hear your concerns,” he said to the Black farmers listening. “I’m working diligently to make the right resources available for you to realize your full potential that you so richly deserve.”