Black farmers peaked in number in 1920 when there were 949,889; today there are only 48,697; they account for only 1.4% of the country’s 3.4 million farmers (95% of US farmers are white) and own 0.52% of America’s farmland. The acreage they have managed to hold on to is a quarter the size of white farmers’ acreage, on average. From 2006 to 2016, Black farmers were six times as likely to be foreclosed on as white farmers.
Biden nominated Tom Vilsack to head the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and it was confirmed by the Senate. Vilsack served two terms in the same role in the Obama administration and in between he held a high-paying job in Big Ag, paid a $1 million by Dairy Management. If Ohio congresswoman Marcia Fudge, a senior member of the House agriculture committee, was selected, as had been anticipated – she would have been the first Black woman to serve as agriculture secretary.
George Roberts farms 500 acres with his two brothers. A third-generation farmer, he was hoping for Fudge. “She could have understood what we were up against, she’s walked in our shoes. Pretty sure Vilsack never has,” he said.
Vilsack’s nomination was met with confusion, disappointment and anger. During Vilsack’s eight-year tenure under Obama, fewer loans were given to Black farmers than during the Bush administration, and the USDA foreclosed on Black farmers who had discrimination complaints outstanding, despite a 2008 farm bill moratorium on this practice.
In 2010 Vilsack fired Shirley Sherrod, a longtime Black farmer advocate and civil rights activist who was serving as the Georgia state director of rural development for the USDA, when a deceptively edited clip that made her appear racist towards a white farmer was circulated by the rightwing propagandist Andrew Breitbart. Vilsack later apologized and offered her a different high-level USDA role, which she declined.
At the Senate agriculture committee, Vilsack said in his opening remarks: “It’s a different time, and I’m a different person.”
George Roberts is familiar with why many Black farmers call the USDA the “last plantation”.
“Because we are still answering to ‘boss’. Can we do this, can we do that? They still have their hand over us, saying: no, you can’t.”