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‘Rampant issues’: Black farmers are still left out at USDA

‘Rampant issues’: Black farmers are still left out at USDA

The Biden administration is trying to make up for decades of racial discrimination in U.S. farm assistance by forgiving loans to farmers of color. But Black farmers and their advocates say that plan, while welcome, won’t fix the ongoing problem: Agriculture Department programs are still biased against them.

The agency granted loans to only 37 percent of Black applicants last year in one program that helps farmers pay for land, equipment and repairs but accepted 71 percent of applications from white farmers, according to a POLITICO analysis of USDA data. In a grant program to help producers weather the coronavirus pandemic, farmers of color received less than one percent of the payments even though they are five percent of all U.S. farmers.

In addition to forgiving debt, advocates for Black farmers want the administration to address barriers such as loan terms that favor large, wealthy farms, a complex application process, and poor service and inequity at local USDA offices.

“This data affirms what our elder farmers have been saying about the U.S. Department of Agriculture for decades,” said Tracy Lloyd McCurty, executive director of the Black Belt Justice Center, a legal and advocacy nonprofit that represents Black farmers. It reveals the “abysmal failures” of previous legal settlements in dismantling pervasive racial discrimination, she said.

How the administration approaches USDA lending will be a major test of whether President Joe Biden can make good on his broader pledge to combat racial discrimination.

The plan to use $ 4 billion from the recent coronavirus aid package to forgive loans to farmers of color is now tied up in legal challenges filed by white farmers. But even if USDA prevails in court, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will still face the onerous tasks of overhauling entrenched practices and convincing Black farmers and their advocates that change has come.

“The American Rescue Plan’s effort is to begin addressing the cumulative effect of that discrimination in terms of socially disadvantaged producers,” Vilsack told reporters in May. “I think there is a very legitimate reason for doing what we are doing. I think it has to be complemented with additional steps.”

The USDA said it is reviewing all of the department’s agencies and programs through an internal working group. It will examine how to provide better technical assistance for socially disadvantaged and local producers, as well as improve access to land and markets. An external review is set to begin in the fall.

“The secretary is committed to building a new USDA at every level, but this work has just begun and it will require a steady focus and march forward,” a USDA spokesperson told POLITICO.

The work will require fundamentally rethinking USDA programs stretching back decades.

USDA is a sprawling bureaucracy whose nearly 100,000 employees are deployed in more than 4,500 locations across the country and abroad. The department, which was created during the Civil War, has by its own accounting a lengthy history of bias against small farms in general and in particular against Black farmers, many of whom run operations with annual sales of less than $ 250,000.

Black farmers filed a class-action lawsuit in 1997, complaining that USDA denied them timely loans and debt restructuring, forcing many into foreclosure.

A settlement in that case, Pigford v. Glickman, led to payouts of up to $ 50,000 per farmer in 1997 and 2010, but many farmers failed to submit requests because of restrictive deadlines and the burden of gathering documents. The settlement fell short of addressing the problems resulting from the discriminatory lending, advocates contend.

The problem, many say, lies at the local level. County offices of USDA’s lending arm, the Farm Service Agency, are often the first and only point of contact for farmers seeking access to government assistance programs. Black farmers say their interactions with FSA officials, who play a pivotal role in determining whether loans are granted, are plagued by racial bias, inexperienced personnel and lack of bandwidth to help with applications.

“I don’t even know if USDA understands how rampant the issues are in 2021 in these small, local county offices,” said Carolyn Jones, a Black farmer and executive director for the Mississippi Minority Farmers Alliance.

“The process put in place keeps you from being able to apply,” Jones said, citing issues including overly complex applications, a lack of access to a competitive market and outright discrimination.

To address the disparate treatment, USDA should consider increasing outside oversight of its branches and programs and remodeling its approach to extending credit, said Jillian Hishaw, who launched Family Agriculture Resource Management Services to help farmers from historically disadvantaged groups.

“There should always be some type of objective, external party reviewing, especially when it comes to lending and FSA,” Hishaw said, adding that the agency should “also consider other criteria when it comes to qualifying for loans.”

Other advocates are pushing for passage of Sen. Cory Booker’s Justice for Black Farmers Act, S. 300 (117), — legislation that they say includes many of the changes they want to see at USDA, such as increased oversight and an independent financial institution to provide unbiased lending.

Some argue that the USDA should re-conceive the criteria it uses for extending credit, which favors large, wealthy farms. The average farm for a Black farmer is 132 acres, according to the 2017 Agricultural Census, the lowest of any socially disadvantaged group. That compares with 431 acres for white farmers.

Cesar Escalante, a professor of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Georgia who has studied loan patterns for socially disadvantaged farmers, co-authored a study published last year in the Agricultural Finance Review, showing that minority borrowers were often given smaller loan amounts with higher interest rates because they had poorer results in credit scoring models.

“We know that race is not a factor in determining credit scores,” Escalante said. “It comes down to profitability and size.”

Farm size was also a reason so few farmers of color received aid under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which were grant payments to farmers intended to offset lost sales during the pandemic. Black farmers received the smallest share among socially disadvantaged groups.

“It’s pretty clear white farmers did pretty well under that program because of the way it was structured. It’s structured on size, it’s structured on production,” Vilsack said during a recent White House press conference.

The total number of direct loans to Black farmers has fallen precipitously in recent years, from a peak of 945 in 2015 to a 10-year low of 460 in 2020. Direct loans are available for farmers to put toward a wide variety of purchases, repairs and investments.

Poor credit is the most common reason cited for rejection of Black farmers’ direct loan applications, even though the program is designed for farmers who are unable to get loans from other financial institutions. That irony is not lost on farmers like Travis Cleaver of Hodgenville, Ky., who says he has extensive experience dealing with USDA lending programs.

“If you have good credit they say ‘go get a loan at a primary institute, you don’t need us’. So it’s a double-edged sword,” Cleaver said in an interview. “To me it’s just trickery because you have bad credit or you have too good credit. They have too many loopholes.”

For their part, farmers would like to see the agency’s local offices play a more helpful role than they typically have in the past.

Thelonious Cook, who started a small Virginia farm in 2015, said that when he asked his local FSA office about potential loans or programs for socially disadvantaged farmers, he was told that none existed, even though the agency does target a portion of aid for that group.

Cook said he was also frustrated by the complicated application process.

“It’s a waste of my time going through the mound of applications. You need someone to help you sift through it. You need people who are there,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by Cleaver, the Black farmer from Kentucky, who said the process can be especially daunting when seeking money to buy land because an approval letter is required from a real estate agent before applying.

“You might waste all your time trying to get an approval letter and still not get a loan. I probably messed the loan up four times in the application just because I didn’t understand it,” he said. “The package is so thick and so intimidating, it’s not something you are accustomed to doing.”

What helped Cleaver was a woman in the FSA office who took the time to explain the processes.

“She was like an angel. I had been going through the loan officers and the HBCU [historically Black colleges and universities] that was here and they couldn’t get anything done,” he said. “[She] held my hand and she told me everything step by step. She was patient, she was polite.”

Author: Ximena Bustillo
Read more here >>> Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

Wine, watermarks and a farmer’s nudge: How the infrastructure deal got done

Wine, watermarks and a farmer’s nudge: How the infrastructure deal got done

The Senate’s centrist core is suddenly on a hot streak, pushing forward the largest infrastructure proposal in U.S. history after helping clinch a $ 900 billion coronavirus package late last year. There’s still a chance their work goes down, but Thursday’s Biden endorsement set them apart from the failed array of congressional gangs that have tried in vain to make ambitious aisle-crossing laws.

It’s a reminder to Washington that in a 50-50 Senate, the ideological middle is empowered like never before.

“The question has always been, ‘What do we have to do to get it done?'” said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

And what was the answer? “Wine. The answer was wine. There was plenty.”

The bipartisan crew was already getting to work as Democrats passed their $ 1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law in March. Sinema and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) began convening talks on a deal to boost roads, bridges and broadband but tried to stay in the background as Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) kicked off infrastructure talks with Biden that eventually sputtered.

When those conversations ceased, Sinema, Portman, Tester and their latest Senate gang stepped in to fill the void.

“We started working on this months ago. It’s just, we didn’t talk about it,” Sinema said.

Of course, the group has kept the details of its plan closely held and at times grew paranoid about leaks. One draft was even watermarked with senators’ names to prevent publication of internal documents. And the exact details of their proposal still haven’t been publicly released beyond top line numbers.

Sinema and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) provided the wine for Wednesday’s pivotal meeting. While libations and late-night pizza helped grease the skids for the compromise, there was another factor: Republicans in the group offered more than $ 200 billion in added new spending than Capito and her group of GOP committee leaders were able to muster.

Still, many details in the plan were based off Capito’s work.

“Money. It’s just much more money. Because it’s basically the same plan,” Capito said. “In the final conversation [with me] the president said he wanted a $ 1 trillion in new spending. And it appears as though it’s almost half that.”

The success of the ascendant Senate group could be critical to advancing major legislation beyond infrastructure, even as Democrats plan a party-line spending package that fills in the rest of Biden’s agenda on climate, paid leave and prescription drug reform.

The bipartisan group has also discussed a minimum wage increase from Sinema and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and potential immigration reform options. But Capito, a onetime member of the bipartisan confab, is unconvinced that its infrastructure breakthrough would bring good vibes to the evenly split Senate, where Biden’s party is insisting that its partisan spending package ride right alongside the bipartisan deal.

“We know what’s coming right after it. So, I think that just splinters everybody apart again,” she said.

Regardless of that skepticism and the legislative slog that lies ahead, Biden’s boost to the framework was a clear victory for the gang of about 20 Republican and Democratic senators. In interviews, members of the group attributed their success to the subject matter. While other bipartisan gangs have tried to reach deals on immigration, police conduct and fiscal policy, this group of centrists isn’t wading too deeply into controversy.

Instead it pursued a coronavirus relief package amid a surge of infections and after six months of delay, then turned to infrastructure — one of the few topics of consistent bipartisan interest in Congress. They also tried to make their proposal’s financing as painless as possible, seeking obscure funding methods that wouldn’t rev up conservatives or liberal critics.

“Infrastructure is popular. And it’s not just popular here on Capitol Hill, but people in the real world, like with Covid [relief], want us to do something,” said Portman, adding that the group worked on the proposal for three months, almost on a daily basis. “Let’s be honest. It’s easier than entitlements or health care.”

Portman noted that the bipartisan proposal also gave Democrats who weren’t as comfortable with the large price tag of a party-line bill “a place to land.”

It also helped that neither Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer nor Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to quash the bipartisan discussions — so far, at least. Schumer on Thursday endorsed the bipartisan framework, while McConnell said he is still in “listening mode.”

A changeover at the White House didn’t hurt either. Former President Donald Trump crippled bipartisan immigration talks in 2018 by stomping over Sen. Mike Rounds’ (R-S.D.) work with Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a sharp contrast to Biden’s behavior.

“We thought we had the [Trump] White House supporting us until the day before the vote. And in doing so, we did not necessarily achieve leadership support for our proposal,” Rounds recalled.

This time around, he said the Biden White House remained engaged in the infrastructure talks, and Senate Republicans and Democrats were given “the opportunity by leadership on both sides to continue the negotiations,” Rounds said.

What’s more, this is essentially a moment Biden’s presidency was built for.

He has deep relationships with Democratic and GOP senators, notably with moderates like Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). By contrast, Trump barely cultivated relationships with centrists in either party.

“The single greatest currency is keeping your word. Mitt Romney’s never broken his word to me. The senator from Alaska, the senator from Maine, they’ve never broken their word to me. They’re friends,” Biden said after meeting with the group of senators. “The people I was with today are people I trust. I don’t agree with them on everything, but I trust them.”

The GOP members of the core group of 10 senators that met with Biden have recent experience bucking their party. Romney, Murkowski, Collins and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) all voted to convict Trump earlier this year for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, and Portman joined them in backing a commission to investigate that attack, over McConnell’s objections.

In the last few days, White House negotiators met with the group of senators on Capitol Hill, sometimes multiple times a day. It all culminated in Thursday’s meeting with the president.

After Biden was briefed on the state of the talks, he convened the negotiators at the White House. One attendee said the president suggested that their bipartisan effort was not only important domestically, but also a significant statement to allies and adversaries abroad in demonstrating that Democrats and Republicans could work together. Biden said that he didn’t get everything he wanted in the package, but that it should move forward anyway.

“He said, ‘I’m going to support your deal. I’m going to publicly back it. None of us got everything we wanted.’ But the president is like we are, in terms of the style of how we work,” Sinema said.

“When he was a senator, he was the same. He wanted to get things done.”

Author: Burgess Everett and Marianne LeVine
This post originally appeared on Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

Tesco and Morrisons to reject Australian meat in major boost for British farmers

Tesco and Morrisons to reject Australian meat in major boost for British farmers

Meat from Australia will arrive to the UK over the next year due to a new deal between the two nations. The beef will be tariff-free, meaning it may be cheaper than British produced meat.

As much as 35,000 tonnes of tariff-free beef could arrive from Australia to Britain over the next year.

This is equivalent to an eighth of the UK’s total beef imports.

Although the Australian beef may be a lot cheaper than meat sourced from British farms, supermarkets have already pledged that they will not sell it.

Tesco and Morrisons have both said they will reject the meat, opting instead to continue supporting British farmers.

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Tesco said it “did not anticipate any change” to its British and Irish meat suppliers following the deal between the UK and Australia.

Ken Murphy, the supermarket’s Chief Executive, said: “They produce local, high-quality produce and we’re proud to work with them.”

Morrisons agreed, saying: “Morrisons fresh meat is 100 percent British…from UK farmers we trust.

Sainsbury’s, on the other hand, said it sometimes looked to other countries to “ensure the best quality, value and availability”.

“Our customers can rest assured that we’ll continue to back British farmers and sourcing produce from them that meets our strict animal welfare and environmental standards.”

The free-trade deal with Australia is the first agreement the UK has signed since it left the EU.

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said the deal would “lower prices for UK shoppers”.

Britain imports £46million of meat from Australia each year, £182million of consumer goods, and £249million of wine.

The new deal permits tariff-free trade for British exports, as well as makes it easier for Britons to work in Australia.

This post originally appeared on Daily Express :: Life and Style Feed
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Banks Fight $4 Billion Debt Relief Plan for Black Farmers

Banks Fight $4 Billion Debt Relief Plan for Black Farmers

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration’s efforts to provide $ 4 billion in debt relief to minority farmers is encountering stiff resistance from banks, which are complaining that the government initiative to pay off the loans of borrowers who have faced decades of financial discrimination will cut into their profits and hurt investors.

The debt relief was approved as part of the $ 1.9 trillion stimulus package that Congress passed in March and was intended to make amends for the discrimination that Black and other nonwhite farmers have faced from lenders and the United States Department of Agriculture over the years. But no money has yet gone out the door.

Instead, the program has become mired in controversy and lawsuits. In April, white farmers who claim that they are victims of reverse discrimination sued the U.S.D.A. over the initiative.

Now, three of the biggest banking groups — the American Bankers Association, the Independent Community Bankers of America and National Rural Lenders Association — are waging their own fight and complaining about the cost of being repaid early.

Their argument stems from the way banks make money from loans and how they decide where to extend credit. When a bank lends money to a borrower, like a farmer, it considers several factors, including how much interest it will earn over the lifetime of the loan and whether the bank can sell the loan to other investors.

By allowing borrowers to repay their debts early, the lenders are being denied income they have long expected, they argue. The banks want the federal government to pay money beyond the outstanding loan amount so that banks and investors will not miss out on interest income that they were expecting or money that they would have made reselling the loans to other investors.

They also want other investors who bought the loans in the secondary market to get government money that would make up for whatever losses they might incur from the early payoff.

Bank lobbyists, in letters and virtual meetings, have been asking the Agriculture Department to make changes to the repayment program, a U.S.D.A. official said. They are pressing the U.S.D.A. to simply make the loan payments, rather than wipe out the debt all at once. And they are warning of other repercussions, including long-term damage to the U.S.D.A.’s minority lending program.

In a letter sent last month to Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, the banks suggested that they might be more reluctant to extend credit if the loans were quickly repaid, leaving minority farmers worse off in the long run. The intimation was viewed as a threat by some organizations that represent Black farmers.

“If U.S.D.A. does not compensate lenders for such disruptions or avoid sudden loan payoffs, the likely result will be less access to credit for those seeking U.S.D.A. guaranteed loans in the future, including U.S.D.A. farmers/ranchers,” they wrote to Mr. Vilsack in April.

The U.S.D.A. has shown no inclination to reverse course. An agency official said that obliging the banks would put an undue burden on taxpayers and that the law did not allow the agency to pay interest costs or reimburse secondary market investors. The agency hopes to be able to begin the debt relief process in the coming weeks, according to the official, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the program.

The relief legislation that Congress passed in March provided “sums as may be necessary” from the Treasury Department to help minority farmers and ranchers pay off loans granted or guaranteed by the Agriculture Department. Most of the loans are made directly to farmers, but about 12 percent, or 3,078, are made through lenders and guaranteed by the U.S.D.A.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the loan forgiveness provision would cost $ 4 billion over a decade.

While America’s banks have flourished in the last century, the number of Black-owned farms has declined sharply since 1920, to less than 40,000 today from about a million. Their demise is the result of industry consolidation as well as onerous loan terms and high foreclosure rates.

Black farmers have been frustrated by the delays and say they are angry that banks are demanding additional money, slowing down the debt relief process.

“Look at the two groups: You have the Black men and women who have gone through racism and discrimination and have lost their land and their livelihood,” said Bill Bridgeforth, a farmer in Alabama who is on the board of the National Black Growers Council. “And then you have the American Bankers Association, which represents the wealthiest folks in the land, and they’re whining about the money they could potentially lose.”

John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, a nonprofit, said he found it upsetting that the banks said little about years of discriminatory lending practices and instead complained about losing profits.

“They’ve never signed on to a letter or supported us to end discrimination, but they were quick to send a letter to the secretary telling him how troublesome it’s going to be for the banks,” Mr. Boyd said. “They need to think about the trouble they’ve caused not working with Black farmers and the foreclosure process and how troublesome that was for us.”

Mr. Boyd urged Mr. Vilsack not to let the debt relief stall.

“It’s planting season and Black farmers and farmers of color really could use this relief,” Mr. Boyd said.

Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, said that the letter from the banks appeared to be a veiled threat.

“They are prioritizing profits over people,” Mr. Blanding said, expressing concern that the backlash from banks and white farmers could delay the debt relief. “Debt has been a burden on the back of many farmers and especially farmers of color. Them holding this up really prolongs justice.”

Although the government is paying 120 percent of the outstanding loan amounts to cover additional taxes and fees, banks say that unless they get more, they will be on the losing end of the bailout.

The banking industry groups could not offer an estimate of how much additional money they would need to be satisfied. The Agriculture Department said it would cost tens of millions of dollars to meet the banks’ demands.

In the letter to Mr. Vilsack, the bank lobbyists pointed to one large community bank, which they said had a $ 200 million portfolio of loans to socially disadvantaged farmers that would lose millions of dollars of net income per year if the loans were quickly paid off. They warned that such a move would “undoubtedly reduce the bank’s ability to retain employees.”

The American Bankers Association defended the request, arguing that lenders have been a lifeline to minority farmers. It said that the matter primarily affects the group’s smaller members that have large portfolios of loans from socially disadvantaged borrowers. Representatives for Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup said that the debt relief program had not been on their radar and that they had not been lobbying against it.

“We recognize the need for U.S.D.A. to carry out this act of Congress, and we support the goal of providing financial relief to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers,” said Sarah Grano, a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association. “We believe it would be helpful if the U.S.D.A. implemented this one-time action without causing undue financial harm to the very lenders who have been supporting farmers with much-needed credit.”

Danny Creel, the executive director of the National Rural Lenders Association, said he had no comment. An official from the Independent Community Bankers of America said that the group was not currently considering litigation and that it anticipated that the federal government would find a way to accommodate its requests.

Lawmakers who helped craft the relief legislation have expressed little sympathy for the banks and are pressing the agriculture department to get the money out the door.

Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, said: “U.S.D.A. should now take this first step toward addressing the agency’s history of discrimination by quickly implementing the law that Congress passed and moving forward without delay to pay off in full all direct and guaranteed loans of Black farmers and other socially disadvantaged farmers.”

The banks are not the only ones who have been fighting the debt relief initiative. A group of white farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota and Ohio are suing the Agriculture Department, arguing that offering debt relief on the basis of skin color is discriminatory. America First Legal, a group led by the former Trump administration official Stephen Miller, filed a lawsuit making a similar argument in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas this month.

Mr. Vilsack said at a White House press briefing this month that his department would not be deterred by pushback against its plans to help minority farmers.

“I think I have to take you back 20, 30 years, when we know for a fact that socially disadvantaged producers were discriminated against by the United States Department of Agriculture,” Mr. Vilsack said. “So, the American Rescue Plan’s effort is to begin addressing the cumulative effect of that discrimination in terms of socially disadvantaged producers.”

Author: Alan Rappeport
This post originally appeared on NYT > U.S. News

Russian farmers about to reap bumper grain harvest – USDA

Russian farmers about to reap bumper grain harvest – USDA

Russia is projected to produce 85 million tons of wheat in the next agricultural season, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). That would make it one of the best harvests in post-Soviet history.

Russian farmers reaped a record wheat harvest of more than 86 million tons in 2017, with the overall production of grains reaching over 135.5 million tons.

The second largest wheat crop was harvested last year. It totaled 85.9 million tons, while production of all grains, including wheat, neared 133.465 million tons, according to Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service.
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However, the numbers slightly differ from those published by the USDA, which had previously reported that Russia had secured a wheat crop of some 85.2 million tons in 2017, and 85.35 million tons in 2020.

According to US analysts, Russia’s complete stocks of wheat will total 15.082 million tons by the end of June 2022, compared to the 12.082 million tons projected for the end of the current agricultural season, June 30.

“Stocks in Russia are forecast to expand the most as the government continues to implement export tax measures despite another bumper crop,” the USDA said in its report.

For more stories on economy & finance visit RT’s business section

Author: RT
This post originally appeared on RT Business News

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller alleges aid to farmers

Author: Reese Oxner
This post originally appeared on The Texas Tribune: Main Feed

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller alleges aid to farmers