John Boyd, a fourth-generation farmer from Virginia, bought his first farm at age 18 and quickly lost it after falling behind on mortgage payments and the federal government denied him several loans he needed to catch up.

“It’s tough for all farmers, but when you throw in discrimination and racism and unfair lending practices, it’s really hard for you to make it,” said Boyd, now 55. 

Decades after the end of the Civil Rights Movement and long before Black Lives Matter, there was a lesser-known battle over equality and equity taking place on America’s farms and in its courts.

That fight started in the 1990s when a group of Black farmers filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture alleging racial discrimination in how it allocated farm loans and other assistance to Black farmers.

Most farmers rely on USDA operating loans to keep their businesses going. Without that assistance, they lose their ability to operate and make money. Because those loans are based on credit and occur within an economic system that has historically shut Black people out, farmers of color were for decades falling behind on their loans and subsequently losing their farms.

Millions of Black owned farm acreage was taken. It’s estimated that around 98% of all farmland is now owned by white people. Today, there are around 45,000 Black farmers in the U.S., down from about 1 million in 1920, according to the USDA. A vast majority of those are in the Southeast.

In December 1996, a decade after losing his first farm and while going through another foreclosure, Boyd found himself protesting the USDA’s racist lending practices on the streets of Washington D.C. He brought two mules to the protest and gained a lot of media attention.

One was named “40 acres,” referencing the promise made by a Union general that slave families freed after the Civil War would be entitled to 40 acres of land and a mule. The other was named “Struggle.”

As part of the lawsuit, which the farmers won, eligible recipients could claim a payout if the discrimination occured betwen January 1981 and December 1996. It remains the largest civil rights settlement to date.

The 1999 court victory secured billions of dollars in what some have viewed as reparations for more than a century of discrimination and Black land theft.

Now, more than 20 years after that landmark settlement, Black farmers have found themselves fighting the government for emergency debt relief due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Under the previous session of Congress, Black farmers were given around $20 million in total. Today’s Congress increased that figure to $5 billion. 

But Boyd, now the President of the Black Farmers Association, says the cash isn’t enough and has fears about being discriminated against again by the USDA.

He spoke to Reckon about some of the issues he’s experienced during nearly four decades as a Black farmer and what he thinks of the government’s response to the farming crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Reckon

Black farmers have faced a huge amount of discrimination in the U.S. What are some of your experiences since you first bought your own farm at 18?

John Boyd

I’ve faced just about everything you can name, from farm foreclosure to repeated denials for USDA loans, other services and program incentives that were primarily offered to white farmers with ease. I lost a farm at auction at the same time as the USDA was discriminating against me.

And that’s how aggressive and egregious they’ve been, not just towards me, but towards Black farmers in general. It’s a systemic pattern. Yes, we’re finally getting some attention that we should have got 25 years ago. We would have had a whole lot more Black farmers in business if anyone had listened to us back then.

You famously turned up in Washington D.C. with two mules. Can you tell me a little about that day and what happened next?

It was December 12, 1996 and that was the day we really began to get some attention. It wasn’t long too before the discrimination lawsuit was filed. The USDA was going to sell my farm on December 22. The next day on the 13th we had a meeting with the Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman. He later issued a moratorium to stop farm foreclosures. So that was the way I saved my big farm.

But I was doing it for everybody. I did everything I could to get us attention to stop the mistreatment, the abuses, the discrimination, the humiliation. The mules worked. They were actually my dad’s idea. He said anybody over the age of 50 will understand what a mule meant to a Black farm family, especially in the South. They were used for work and transportation and, quite frankly, they were part of the family. You fed them and you made sure to take care of them, because that was your living if you didn’t have a tractor.

We still haven’t got our 40 acres and a mule, and we’re still struggling.

During the pandemic, Congress set aside about $20 million for Black farmers. That’s not a lot of money. Did that feel like a gut punch?

It did because before that the Trump administration gave out $22 billion in subsidies due to the trade war with China. China wasn’t buying from U.S. farmers because of the tariffs so the subsidies kept farms going. A very miniscule amount went to Black farmers.

The rest went to white farmers and corporate farms, and even some members of Congress participated. Very little went to Blacks and other farmers of color. So I wasn’t surprised about the $20 million being so low. 

Under the current Congress that figure has been pushed to $5 billion. Has that changed your opinion of the government and the USDA?

I’ve been trying to get debt relief for Black farmers and other farmers for a very, very long time. Over 32 years. We were denied debt relief under the first lawsuit settlement in the 90s. We didn’t get it on the second settlement. So I’ve been trying to get it in farm bills and all sorts of initiatives since. I want people to know that the $4 billion for debt relief, and $1 billion for technical assistance, is a request we’ve been asking for over 32 years.

Congress didn’t just decide to help us. It was timing. A new administration and the covid relief, but more than anything it was us pushing for three decades.

And then the USDA sends a press release touting this as if it was solely their idea. It wasn’t.

Is this money too little too late for Black farmers who have had to endure the entire pandemic without much direct economic help?

First of all, it’s not enough. Secondly, I’m sure it’s too late for many. And they’re rolling it out through the same directive that discriminated against Black farmers in the first place: local USDA offices. I wanted a neutral third party to administer it so farmers didn’t have to go through USDA. But I will take this win.

Right now, the agriculture secretary has to make sure the money gets to farmers who are in desperate need.

And someone must stop the banks who don’t want us to get the relief. There are lawsuits against the relief money because they [banks] claim us repaying early will hurt profits. We haven’t even seen the money yet. White farmers have also filed suit for reverse discrimination.

What changes would you like to see at the USDA?

You have to put the people in place that want to work with us, but it can’t be people at USDA who support big agriculture. We need progressive change, not money thrown around that looks like progressive change.

Farmers at the start of their careers must have the right resources available so they don’t fall flat on their face while learning how to farm.

But overall, much more has to happen to stop Black farmers disappearing.