New Food Economy: How USDA distorted data to conceal decades of discrimination against black farmers
A New Food Economy investigation found that USDA promoted misleading data to depict a fictional renaissance in black farming. That narrative falsely inflated the department’s record on civil rights—and ultimately cost black farmers land, money, and agency.
Editors’ note: One week ago today, lawmakers convened the first House panel in more than a decade on the issue of reparations for descendants of slaves in the United States. The date chosen for the hearing, June 19, had historic resonance: It was the 154th anniversary of the day General Gordon Granger announced the freedom of the last American slaves in Galveston, Texas, a date still celebrated as Juneteenth.
Critics of reparations contend that the U.S. government paid its debt to black Americans long ago—if not during Emancipation, then more recently. “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters, one day before the hearing. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African-American president.”
But a century of oppression did not end with Barack Obama. The following investigation reveals how one largely ignored form of discrimination still devastates today: Unfair, racially-biased treatment of black farmers by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
As New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow rightly notes, oppression takes many forms. This is a story about one kind in particular: the slow-moving, institutional oppression of a sprawling government bureaucracy. These kinds of racism can be hard to see, which makes them easier to overlook. But for thousands of African-American farmers across the country, day-to-day discrimination by USDA has resulted in staggering loss—of land, of livelihood, of economic stability—over the last hundred years, and throughout our lifetimes. For these Americans, the aftermath of slavery is as current as this season’s denied loan, or this month’s deferred debt payment.
One way that loss is made visible is through the Census of Agriculture, the U.S. government’s definitive count of America’s farmers. Published every five years, most recently in April, the report provides the most comprehensive portrait available of the land, livestock, and people that produce the nation’s food. In 2014, that report was framed to suggest a 9 percent increase in black farming. For reasons explained here for the first time, that widely cited number turns out not to be true. In fact, it helped obscure practices at USDA that were discriminatory, damaging, and ongoing.
Here, we present Nathan Rosenberg and Bryce Stucki’s two-year investigation into the ways agricultural census data were distorted to depict a fictional renaissance in black farming. This false narrative inflated USDA’s record on civil rights and further hurt black farmers—the very people the department claimed it had made historic efforts to help.
As his eight-year term as secretary of agriculture drew to a close, Tom Vilsack claimed to have ushered in a “new era for civil rights” at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency that black farmers have long called “the last plantation.”
In a lengthy post on Medium, published in the summer of 2016, Vilsack detailed USDA’s accomplishments under his watch, making the case that President Barack Obama’s administration had brought profound changes to the department. Not only had Vilsack’s USDA taken great pains to correct past wrongs, he argued, but new policies had resulted in an agricultural sector that was more equitable, diverse, and inclusive than ever before.
“When I assumed the office of the Secretary nearly eight years ago, USDA had a reputation marred by decades of systemic discrimination,” Vilsack wrote. “Thousands of claims had been filed against the Department for denial of equal service, many based on race. Many of these claims languished for decades, unresolved. But this Administration heard President Obama’s call to uproot inequality, and we acted.”
In the Medium post—and after that, in two lengthy interviews with us—Vilsack made several broad assertions about his accomplishments at USDA. He claimed to have resolved the discrimination complaints brought under previous administrations, while also reducing the number of new complaints. He said he had provided better funding for black farmers than President George W. Bush’s administration had. Finally, he said that his work to secure settlement funds for Pigford, a class-action discrimination suit brought by black farmers against USDA, had “helped close a painful chapter in our collective history.” For proof that these actions resulted in positive real-world changes, Vilsack frequently turned to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, which reported a marked increase in black farmers.
That narrative became received wisdom in policy circles. “The number of black farmers in the United States is suddenly growing again,” reported Civil Eats in 2016, citing census numbers in an article titled, “The Resurgence of Black Farmers.” Other mainstream media outlets—including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today—also reported the increase. “Under Secretary Vilsack, President Obama’s USDA made encouraging progress toward righting many of the wrongs of the past and provided meaningful support to black farmers,” wrote the authors of a 2019 report for the liberal public policy organization Center for American Progress.
But nearly all of Vilsack’s claims—echoed by high-ranking USDA officials and taken at face value by the press—are extremely misleading or false.
For over two years, we have investigated USDA’s treatment of black farmers under the Obama administration and found a disturbing pattern: Though USDA came to enjoy a reputation among policymakers and the press as a steady force for good in the lives of historically marginalized farmers, Vilsack and others in the department made cosmetic changes, and little else.
Under Vilsack, USDA employees foreclosed on black farmers with outstanding discrimination complaints, many of which were never resolved. At the same time, USDA staff threw out new complaints and misrepresented their frequency, while continuing to discriminate against farmers. The department sent a lower share of loan dollars to black farmers than it had under President Bush, then used census data in misleading ways to burnish its record on civil rights. And although numerous media outlets portrayed the Pigford settlement payments as lavish handouts—a narrative that originated with right-wing publisher Andrew Breitbart—USDA actually failed to adequately compensate black farmers, and many of them lost their farms.
We came to these conclusions over the course of an investigation that combined hundreds of hours of interviews with a wide-ranging review of USDA documents and data, including a trove of previously unpublished materials we obtained through multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. We spoke to more than 150 people for this story—including more than two dozen black farmers from almost every Southern state—and made trips to North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia to meet with farmers and their advocates. We also interviewed academic specialists and dozens of current and former USDA officials, including several interviews and email exchanges with Vilsack himself.
What emerged is the clearest depiction to date of USDA’s civil rights record under the Obama administration, one that makes it clear that—despite changes in rhetoric—black farmers faced the same challenges under Obama that they did under Bush. Yet Vilsack’s claims, backed by an array of manipulated statistics and pushed by a savvy public relations team, became widely accepted myths. These myths obscured the ways the department continued to discriminate against black farmers throughout the Obama years. They depicted a renaissance that didn’t exist, making it harder for black farmers to get the financial help they needed, often with devastating consequences. This made it easier for Vilsack to whitewash the department’s history, promote his own legacy, and deny ongoing problems through the promotion of a false claim: the suggestion that somehow, despite it all, African-American farmers were winning.
Between 2009 and 2016, USDA claimed to have made historic breakthroughs on civil rights. That misleading narrative that relied on five key myths.
USDA resolved a backlog of civil rights complaints from the Bush years
In 2009, President Obama’s newly confirmed secretary of agriculture took the stage in an auditorium in USDA’s Washington, D.C. headquarters and introduced his closest advisors to the rest of the staff. Lloyd Wright, former chief of civil rights under President Bill Clinton, was in the audience. Wright told us that Vilsack “stood up in front of God and everybody and said that he had a very diverse [set of advisors]. And they were 100-percent white.”
“I told somebody Ray Charles would have been able to see that. That he would stand up: ‘You’re not diverse! You’re all white!’” Wright said.
“There was not a single black,” Wright continued. “And I think he might have had a black advisor once who didn’t stay very long. And that was just for show. But doing that—that’s all in eight years, in his inner circle, he did not have any blacks in advisement.”
Wright, who is black, said that his official title did not make him part of Vilsack’s inner circle: “My business card says that I was an advisor to the secretary, but I only advised on one item, and that was civil rights complaints that were filed between 2000 and 2008.”
Wright told us that Vilsack had asked him, in person, to return to the department to review 14,000 leftover discrimination complaints that USDA’s civil rights office had not reviewed under President Bush. Many of those complaints had come from farmers who alleged that the department had discriminated against them, often by withholding loans, something farmers say USDA has done for decades. But though Wright would review and develop a plan to resolve those cases, he said his efforts ultimately amounted to little more than paper shuffling.
“If I had known that the only thing I was going to do was to create paperwork for [Vilsack’s] resume, I wouldn’t have gone back,” Wright told us. “I went back because I thought we were going to address the issue.”
The department has a long history of discriminating against black farmers. That sometimes happened in overt ways: forcing people off their land, subjecting them to hostility and contempt in federal offices, and conspiring with banks and land developers to steal their property. But even when that mistreatment took a more discreet form—like routinely denying black farmers the same loans white farmers obtained with ease—its impact was still devastating. USDA and federal farm policy are largely responsible for driving black people out of farming almost entirely. Black farmers lost around 90 percent of the land they owned between 1910 and 1997, while white farmers lost only about 2 percent over the same period.
That USDA practices helped bring about this steep decline is, even in the department’s own words, “well documented.” The government recorded widespread racial discrimination at the agency in lengthy reports from the mid-1960s, early 1980s, and late 1990s, especially in the provision of credit. A report from 1997 noted that a respondent in Belzoni, Mississippi, said that USDA treated small and minority farmers “worse than I would treat a dog.”
Wright said he had experienced some of this discrimination himself. In 1964, after he finished his bachelor’s degree in agronomy at Virginia State University, he took a job with USDA in New York, since, he said, “they didn’t hire blacks to work out in the field with farmers” in Virginia at the time.
Wright spent 37 years at the department, most of them in its conservation agency. In the 1970s and 1980s, he developed a pioneering system to help public officials identify and protect highly productive farmland. Frederick Steiner, now dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s school of design, assisted Wright with testing the method, called the Land Evaluation and System Assessment (LESA) system, in the 1980s. In a foreword to a 2001 guide to the LESA system, Steiner wrote that Wright was a “committed and idealistic public servant” whose “role is important to note because it illustrates that a single individual can make a difference in a democracy.”
Steiner said in a phone interview that Wright “was, if not the chief architect, one of the major players in … transforming the [Soil Conservation Service] into the [Natural Resources Conservation Service],” created in 1994, under President Clinton, which Steiner said gave the agency a broader focus. Wright directed multiple divisions in the conservation agency before he was named head of the civil rights office in 1997, from which he retired in 1998.
Steiner said that Wright “believed that his work could make a difference to people, especially, in his case, to farmers. He cared very much about, especially, small farmers…. He was very idealistic in his commitment to the USDA.”
Wright, a farmer himself, told us he returned to USDA because he thought he could help black farmers with discrimination complaints. “I wasn’t going back if I didn’t think I could get that done,” he said.
He would be dealing with the fallout of a badly mismanaged office. An assortment of evidence indicates that the Bush-era civil rights office was plagued by malfeasance and disarray. Between 1999 and 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released at least 10 official documents that described USDA’s continued problems in addressing discrimination complaints and reporting related statistics. Several USDA employees told us that managers had ordered the destruction of civil rights files and disregarded complaints.
“They routinely put the complaints in the corner and ignored them until the statute of limitations ran out,” said a USDA employee who worked on civil rights complaints from farmers in the Bush years and asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.
Slow walking of time-sensitive complaints was just one of many problems. At a 2008 congressional hearing on discrimination inside USDA, Lawrence Lucas, then-president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, a civil rights group, testified that the civil rights office was also rife with harassment and mismanagement. He submitted a letter from employees that claimed the deputy director for civil rights hurled racist and sexist slurs at subordinates, while management played favorites with promotions and micromanaged the rank-and-file.
The upshot was that, by the end of the Bush administration, there were 14,000 outstanding cases from between 2001 and 2008, and only one finding of discrimination during that period.
Wright had returned to USDA to make sure those outstanding cases received meaningful consideration. Back in D.C., he assembled a team and together they found that about 4,000 of the old complaints, many of them from black farmers, had merit. But the complaints involving lending discrimination were also bound by a two-year statute of limitations that prevented USDA from awarding compensation in most cases. A USDA employee who worked with Wright and asked not to be named told us that these complaints became known as “SOL cases,” both for “statute of limitations” and, in a dark comment on what awaited them, “shit out of luck.”
Vilsack has made statements that imply the department resolved these cases. “When we arrived in January 2009, there were 14,000 administrative civil rights cases pending at USDA,” Vilsack wrote in his exit memo. “Since that time, we’ve settled more than 23,000 claims, including thousands as part of large-scale class-action lawsuits.”
But because Congress never extended the statute of limitations, the department could not resolve the old lending discrimination cases Wright worked on. Vilsack has repeatedly blamed Congress for not passing an extension that would have allowed USDA to act.
But Wright contradicts Vilsack’s account. He said he and black farmer groups pushed for the extension but the secretary failed to support them. Wright said he even helped draft provisions that would not only have extended the statute, but also included budget offsets that would have made the resolution cost-neutral.
Their work almost paid off: Wright advocated for the relevant provisions in Congress, and the House passed them twice. But, both times, the language got hung up in the Senate, where, Wright said, it died without Vilsack’s support.
“All we needed, at that time—you know, the Senate was in the hands of the Democrats—all I needed [from Vilsack] was a phone call to a couple of senators and we’d have gotten it passed. You know, I worked on the Hill trying to get us enough senators to get it passed,” said Wright, who had previously worked in the Senate.
Wright had the ear of influential policy makers at the time. He knew that the secretary’s support would get the provisions through the upper chamber. He said a senator had told him that one call to Harry Reid, then-Democratic Senate majority leader, would be sufficient. Wright said he told Vilsack all of this. “And to get that done, he never called,” Wright said.
We asked Vilsack, in emails in May and June, about Wright’s assertion that he failed to make the phone calls Wright requested.
“I have no memory of being asked by Mr. Wright to contact Senator Reid. I may have been asked and I may have made the call, but I have no memory of it,” Vilsack wrote in June.
In an earlier email, he wrote that “We proposed and advocated it for years to no avail because we were dealing with a Congress that resisted our efforts.” When we asked him who he talked to in Congress, he responded, “We would have called or talked to Appropriations SubCommittee [sic] members as part of the budget process.”
“It is amazing to me that anyone would be critical of the Obama Administration in connection with civil rights claims,” Vilsack concluded in another of his emails.
In response to a question about the sense of betrayal that many black farmers feel, Vilsack said in a 2017 interview with us that, “within the Congress that we were dealing with I think we did a pretty good job.”
But Wright disagrees. “I’m convinced he was never committed,” he said of Vilsack.
“They were basically taking people’s land.”
Not only did many farmers with SOL cases not receive relief, USDA actually foreclosed on some of them and attempted to foreclose on others before their cases were resolved—despite a moratorium, mandated as part of the 2008 farm bill, on exactly this practice.
According to Wright and another former civil rights employee, David, who asked that we use a pseudonym to protect his identity, a group of USDA officials moved to foreclose on farmers with SOL cases that were still under review. The group included representatives from the department’s loan agency, legal office, and civil rights office.
David told us about one farmer on whom USDA started to foreclose, after he had already been put in a financially precarious position by the department’s discriminatory practices. “It was crazy,” David said. “They took his cows. Two of his cows died [as a result].… I mean, they were basically taking people’s land, marshals on their land. All this kind of stuff, right?”
Wright told us that when he insisted the group abide by the moratorium, they responded by trying to exclude farmers, often for dubious reasons, so the department could foreclose on them. At one point, David said, the group even attempted to exempt a farmer whose civil rights case had already been found to have merit, although he and his colleagues eventually persuaded the group not to do so.
David said he felt motivated by a sense of justice. “I felt so strongly about this issue, like, I used to tell my wife, I’d say, ‘I hit the lottery tomorrow, I’m still coming in every day to help these farmers,’” he told us.
The department not only dealt dismissively with black farmers with SOL complaints, but also foreclosed on all black farmers at an elevated rate. USDA records we obtained through a FOIA request show that the department foreclosed on black-owned farms at a higher rate than on any other racial group between 2006 and 2016. While black farmers made up less than 3 percent of USDA’s direct-loan recipients during that period, they made up more than 13 percent of farmers who were foreclosed on; the agency was more than six times as likely to foreclose on a black farmer as it was on a white one.
Joe Leonard, who, as Vilsack’s assistant secretary of civil rights, served as head of the civil rights office throughout the Obama administration, attributed the high level of foreclosures among black recipients of USDA loans to a lack of “financial literacy” among African Americans. “I’m not sure what the home ownership foreclosure rate [is among black people] … but I would think that it’s higher than the national average,” he said. “Financial literacy plays a key part in all of that.”
African Americans do have a higher home foreclosure rate than white Americans, but many scholars believe that housing and lending discrimination are the primary drivers of this disparity, not differences in financial literacy. A 2017 study, for example, found that African Americans in seven metropolitan areas were twice as likely to receive predatory mortgages before the 2008 financial crisis as were white Americans with the same credit score and risk factors.
David made similar arguments in response to Leonard’s analysis. “These farmers were not foreclosed on because they were financially illiterate,” he told us. “They were foreclosed on because they weren’t given the tools that they need to farm properly.” He noted that discrimination by USDA employees often left black farmers without the ability to purchase time-sensitive necessities like seeds, farm equipment, and crop insurance—the basics farmers need to stay in business.
New civil rights complaints fell to record lows
The department not only mishandled cases from the Bush years: Civil rights officials, including Joe Leonard, also took an unscrupulous approach to new complaints against the department, according to David and other USDA employees we interviewed.
Vilsack and Leonard repeatedly claimed that discrimination complaints against USDA fell to record lows while they served. In his exit memo, for example, Vilsack claimed that the department “had received the fewest complaints from program participants on record.”
Both also stated, several times—including in letters to congressional representatives that we reviewed—that discrimination complaints against USDA’s lending agency, where most farmer complaints originate, fell by 70 percent under their watch. Until May 14 of this year, Leonard’s official biography, posted on a Washington, D.C. government website, said that total farmer complaints fell 90 percent during his eight years in office. (Leonard currently works for a senior advisor to Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C.)
But these claims are wrong in two ways. First, USDA does not have reliable records on discrimination complaints from before Vilsack’s term, so credible comparisons to previous years are impossible. Second, people with direct knowledge of the complaints process contradict Leonard and Vilsack’s specific claims and general narrative—as does USDA’s own data.
A number of federal reports have established that USDA does not have reliable records on discrimination complaints prior to Vilsack, which makes it impossible to verify whether discrimination complaints actually fell to record lows under his tenure. A 1997 USDA report, for example, for example, noted that an investigative team was “unable to gather historical data on program discrimination complaints at USDA because record keeping on these matters has been virtually nonexistent.” A GAO report from 2008, less than a year before Vilsack entered office, stated that the department’s credibility to correct problems with its complaints process “continues to be undermined by faulty reporting of data on discrimination complaints…. Even such basic information as the number of discrimination complaints is subject to wide variation in [the civil rights office’s] reports to the public and the Congress.”
Although USDA’s data should not be taken at face value, what records it does have further undermine Vilsack’s and Leonard’s claims. Data we received from a FOIA request show that the average number of complaints filed against the department’s lending agency under Vilsack was slightly higher than the average number of complaints filed in the last two years of the Bush administration, the only years for which data were available. The department has not responded to a request for data from years prior.
Department employees have also used USDA’s own data to disprove Leonard and Vilsack’s assertions. In 2015, Claudette Joyner, president of a local union representing USDA employees, used public data from reports submitted to Congress to debunk the claim that complaints against the department’s lending agency had fallen by 70 percent.
“Where is the Assistant Secretary getting his numbers from?” Joyner wrote, referring to Joe Leonard, in a letter addressed to union members. “Is he making them up or are they coming from the infamously unreliable civil rights databases?”
Leonard, David told us, was “basically padding the numbers in each state, saying the numbers had gone down, when our data was showing something different.” David, who said he had tried to help farmers covertly, described a different reality at USDA: “We had black farmers calling our office, screaming, crying for help,” he said.
David referred to a speech Leonard gave in 2011, in which he claimed that the number of complaints made by farmers had fallen to 37 in the previous fiscal year. “It was a joke in our division,” David said. “We had found [that many] in Alabama alone.”
In fact, between 2010 and 2012—the only years during the Vilsack administration for which relevant data were made available—Leonard’s public statements claimed 68 percent fewer “customer” complaints against USDA’s loan agency than the department’s own reports to Congress indicated.
When we asked Leonard about this discrepancy, he emailed us a statement, dated May 14, in which he wrote, “I reported what was presented to me by staff at that time and have since learned that some of those numbers were not accurate.” Leonard did not respond to our questions about how he got the wrong numbers or why he was unaware they were wrong, even though his office had submitted different ones to Congress.
David told us that people both inside and outside the confines of USDA had complained that Leonard’s numbers were incorrect. There were, he said, “countless letters, countless correspondence, countless phone calls from different farmers trying to get him to correct the record.” Several other civil rights office employees we spoke to told us that, within the office, Leonard’s numbers were widely known to be inaccurate.
“You can, you know, ask half of the fucking people that are still at USDA civil rights and they’ll tell you that’s just a big piece of bullshit,” David said, referring to Leonard’s claim that he was not responsible for the inaccurate numbers. “I mean, I don’t know what to say about that. That’s crazy.”
Although the farm bill requires USDA to issue reports every year with the number and status of the discrimination complaints it receives, the department has only released one of these reports since 2013.
Ron Cotton, current president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, asserted that the department stopped releasing these reports because they would have demonstrated that Leonard and Vilsack were “fudging” how many discrimination complaints the department received.
“They stopped because they could not verify the numbers,” Cotton wrote by email. “Everyone knew they were lying.”
“The numbers weren’t jiving,” he added, in a subsequent interview.
“That’s the stuff that’s killin’ us.”
While Leonard told us that there were fewer claims due to USDA’s efforts to improve its civil rights record, department employees and farmers we interviewed for this story dispute his reasoning. “When I was there, as a contractor, I labeled … the civil rights arm of the department as being nothing more than a ‘closing machine,’ in that they came up with every little knick and corner they could find as a reason to close a complaint,” said Wright. “Or not accept them to begin with.”
Wright said that when he asked for an explanation about why the department had closed a particular case from the Bush years, the staff in the civil rights office told him that the complainant “didn’t name the agency” that committed the offense. “Well, there’s only one agency in the Department of Agriculture that would make an operating loan,” he said.
David said office staff disqualified complaints in the way Wright described. “It’s the equivalent of a doctor punishing their patient because they don’t know the scientific terms to describe the pain or how they’re hurting,” he said. “‘Oh, you said ‘stomach,’ you didn’t say ‘abdomen?’ Sorry, you’re out of here.’”
Wright said he thinks that after he left the department in 2012, the civil rights office continued these practices. “You need to understand that most of the people who operated under Joe Leonard were the people hired under Bush,” he said. “Joe Leonard came in and eventually brought all those people back in high positions and they continued their old ways,” he said, in a later interview. “Some of them are still there.”
Leonard defended his record in numerous interviews, emails, and text exchanges with us, repeating many of the same claims he made during his time at USDA. In response to allegations that he had failed to address systematic discrimination against black farmers, he told us, “I’m proud of all the communities I was able to assist at USDA. Lloyd and others thought I was just supposed to assist African Americans. I had to defend everyone.”
Wright’s “only claim to fame is hating USDA,” Leonard later told us. “Lloyd’s not a professional, he’s a farmer, whereas I’m a professional,” he said. “He could run amok. I can’t run amok.”
When we asked Frederick Steiner, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s school of design, who had worked with Wright in the past, what he thought of Leonard’s characterization, he said, “I just can’t imagine anyone calling Lloyd Wright unprofessional. That just is shocking. And from my experience totally inaccurate.”
But even if the number of complaints really did decline under Vilsack’s watch, black farmers and advocates say that might not have had much to do with reduced discrimination.
“There’s fewer discrimination complaints, number one, because you got fewer black farmers,” said Sam, a black farmer who works with an organization that helps small farmers in the rural South. He asked us not to use his real name for fear of reprisal from USDA. “Number two, you had beat the [remaining] ones down so those don’t wanna fool with you.” Sam told us that discrimination has taken on new, less obvious forms in local USDA offices. “It’s all this undercover [stuff] that people can do,” he said. “But then people can say, ‘I’m within the law.’ That’s the stuff that’s killin’ us.”
Several members of his organization, along with farmers we talked to across the South, agreed with Sam’s assessment.
In one striking case, a black farmer in South Carolina, Charles McDonald, was repeatedly denied loans because USDA agents listed his crop yields as far lower than they actually were—a practice USDA agents have used for decades to deny loans to black farmers, as extensively documented by the historian Pete Daniel. Since USDA determined McDonald was not a productive farmer, even though he had won multiple awards for his corn production—including first place for corn yields at an agriculture expo in 1997—it repeatedly denied him loans, which caused him to lose over 700 acres, including land that his family had owned for over 100 years.
Although the case presented evidence of discrimination by a local USDA office—which also listed low yields for black farmers across the county—Vilsack’s department refused to settle with McDonald, and threatened at least one farmer testifying on his behalf with the loss of settlement funds. And after an administrative law judge ruled in McDonald’s favor in 2010, Wright said that Vilsack and Leonard actually considered overriding the judge’s decision. Wright also told us that he met with one of Vilsack’s chief aides in order to urge Vilsack to send a team to investigate black farmers’ yields in McDonald’s county and surrounding counties, and increase their listed values if needed. But, he said, Vilsack decided not to pursue the case any further. “He did zero. He didn’t do a damn thing.”
Vilsack denied in an email in May that he considered overriding the judge’s decision. “The matter was referred to the OGC [Office of General Counsel] for final determination of payment or appeal. At no time did I suggest that his claim be ignored or not treated above board,” Vilsack wrote. “If it was appealed the decision to do so would have been made by OGC on what that office felt were good faith grounds.”
In the rare instance when the civil rights office did acknowledge that USDA employees had discriminated against black farmers, USDA’s documentation indicates that the department failed to discipline the offending officials. Between fiscal years 2010 and 2012, USDA “customers,” a category that includes farmers, among other recipients of USDA services, filed more than 2,800 discrimination complaints against USDA. Data posted on the department’s website show that it failed to take disciplinary action against any of its employees in response to discrimination complaints brought by customers during that period—the only years available for Vilsack’s term—even in cases where a USDA employee was found to be at fault.
We asked USDA officials for the number of personnel actions taken by the department in other years, information the department is required to post online under federal law, but they have not answered our repeated requests.
Soon after Vilsack left office, when a legal publication asked him how attorneys could help minority farmers, he said they needed to give them some tough love.
“They just can’t assume that every time they aren’t successful it’s because of discrimination,” he said. “I think you can do a service to your client by not only fighting hard for them, but also explaining why they didn’t get the help that they thought they were entitled to, and it wasn’t anything to do with the color of their skin or their culture or whatever. It just had to do with this is the way financial decisions are made.”
“They win at all costs.”
Interviews with 18 current and former civil rights employees at USDA indicate that the institutional structure supporting what Lloyd Wright called the “closing machine” may persist for some time. That’s in part because the office responsible for defending the department against complaints, USDA’s Office of General Counsel (OGC), has—contrary to federal law—long been involved with reviewing and closing discrimination cases.
The department’s civil rights office is meant to guarantee the rights of people who say they have suffered discrimination from USDA employees. OGC, on the other hand, is an independent body that represents the department in legal proceedings.
Yet, numerous reports, along with current and former employees, have said that OGC has been involved in the civil rights office’s decisions for over a decade. This would be akin to suing the federal government, making your case, then watching the defense attorney disappear into his chambers, emerge in judge’s robes, and render his verdict.
Government Accountability Office reports from 2008 and 2009 found that OGC had been reviewing and resolving discrimination complaints received by the department. Every civil rights employee we asked, including Joe Leonard, said OGC was and still is heavily involved in the civil rights office. One current employee laughed, as if the question was absurd. Another employee said, “I often hear my managers say that whatever OGC says is what we’re going to do.” When asked if OGC’s involvement was a problem, still another employee said, “Yes, dramatically so.”
“Say a farmer does go through the process [and] they actually reach the level of having an actual complaint,” David said. “Dr. Leonard or whoever’s in that capacity [now] would consult with OGC and basically find a way to get it thrown away.” (Leonard holds a PhD in American history from Howard University, with a focus on civil rights history.)
“It’s like working for Coca-Cola,” said David. “They are in the business of defending the agency, and they’re not trying to pay anyone.… Even if someone has a compelling case, it goes to OGC and OGC figures out a way to draft something up … that basically denies or closes out the complaint.”
“The OGC kept a position that none of the complaints should be, you know, paid,” said Wright. “They were worse than the civil rights people.”
In an interview with us, Joe Leonard claimed that he battled with OGC while he was assistant secretary. “I was always arguing with OGC for a more liberal interpretation of the law that could positively impact farmers,” he told us. “They were pushing to control the [civil rights] office.” When we asked him if OGC’s involvement was still a problem today, he asked, “What do you think?” He then answered his own question. “Of course it is! I mean, I’m not sure why you would … of course it is. I guarantee you OGC is making the majority of the decisions.”
When we told Vilsack, in an email, that several current and former USDA employees had told us OGC was interfering in the civil rights process, he wrote back, “I am now and was as Secretary unaware of any effort by the OGC office to undermine the review process of Civil Rights complaints. I find it impossible to believe that either [of my general counsel] in their capacity as Général [sic] Counsel would have tolerated such conduct.”
The employees we talked to told us that OGC has been ruthless in its pursuit of victories for the department and that its influence over the civil rights process is profound. “They win at all costs,” one current employee said. “They make you very uncomfortable and they make you leave. They don’t want you there. This is what they do to their enemies. They all circle the wagons.”
“Until OGC remove themselves out of the pathway of doing the right thing,” said Rosetta Davis, a current employee, “we’re always going to have problems at USDA.” (In 2017, Davis filed suit against USDA, claiming that six managers, including Joe Leonard, had retaliated against her for filing Equal Employment Opportunity complaints.)
“It doesn’t matter who’s in the secretary’s seat,” said Davis. “OGC runs USDA, at the end of the day.”
USDA reduced funding disparities between black and white farmers
As Vilsack worked on the complaints process, he said he also took steps intended to increase minority participation in USDA programs. In one of his interviews with us, he argued that some minority farmers lose their land because they are unable to secure the large loans that many commercial farmers get. One way to be “proactive” and “avoid these circumstances from reoccurring,” he said, was to make loans more accessible to farmers of color.
Vilsack and Leonard have repeatedly claimed that they met this goal. In his August 2016 post about civil rights at USDA, Vilsack wrote that the department’s “annual lending to underserved producers [had] more than doubled,” from $380 to $830 million between the years 2008 and 2015. Leonard made the same claim in another blog post for USDA.
Vilsack also wrote about the “popular microloan program” and told us in an interview that microloans had been “extremely successful.” Leonard characterized the microloan program, which provides farmers with loans under $50,000, as “an indication that government works for you.” The two have made similar claims about other, smaller financing programs, too.
But our analysis of USDA writings, reports, and data, along with interviews with farmers, suggests that Vilsack and Leonard’s claims, while narrowly true, are misleading.
Part of the misdirection comes from the terms USDA uses to discuss these issues. Department officials often use the term “underserved producers” in a way that suggests those producers are synonymous with minority farmers. But the term “underserved producers,” according to the official definition, includes women, along with people of color. Depending on the program, the term may also refer to veteran, low-income, and beginning farmers, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
Vilsack and Leonard often used language that suggested the microloan program was designed specifically to benefit minorities. “Microloans were constructed with farmers of color and farmers in need in mind,” said Leonard, in a typical remark during one of our interviews.
But a 2016 report from USDA shows that 86 percent of all microloans issued between 2013 and 2015 went to white farmers, and demonstrates that, of those, at least two-thirds went to white men. Around 7 percent went to black farmers, according to the report, which does not include the total dollar amount of loans that went to black farmers. Documents we received through a FOIA request show that black farmers obtained only about $11 million in microloans in 2015, or less than 0.2 percent of the roughly $5.7 billion in loans administered or guaranteed by USDA that year.
Similar disparities existed in other USDA programs. Leonard pointed to the additional funding made available to minority farmers for high tunnels, or hoop houses, which are unheated greenhouses used to extend the growing season, as “the perfect case in point” for the department’s efforts “to promote farming in communities of color.” Leonard claimed that Vilsack “closely followed the numbers of [minority farmers] applying … to the hoop house program” and that minority farmers, as a result of the program, “felt they were getting a good deal … and they felt appreciated.”
Haywood Harrell, a former agricultural agent and black farmer in Halifax County, North Carolina, told us, “Yeah, we got a whole bunch of these hoop houses. And they gonna net you $300 a year off of them. Whoopee.”
“But it is something to show,” Harrell continued. “You make a nice picture to put on the magazine: ‘Look here, it’s a black guy with a hoop house.’”
Using data we requested from USDA, we found that not only was the hoop house program tiny—it accounted for less than 0.40 percent of the department’s funding for conservation practices on working agricultural lands under Vilsack—but the overwhelming bulk of its funding, 84 percent, went to white farmers, while black farmers received just 6 percent. The department provided all farmers who identified their race with over $12 billion for conservation practices on working lands during the Obama administration, of which black farmers received about 1 percent.
This pattern was typical for many smaller USDA programs: Official literature suggested a program was targeted at minority farmers, but most of the money went to white farmers, and the amounts doled out were trivial compared to the total sums USDA manages.
Not only did black farmers derive little benefit from smaller programs, but we also found, in data obtained through a FOIA request, that their share of total lending actually fell under Obama.
Black farmers received 0.87 percent of USDA lending from 2001 to 2008, but they received even less, 0.80 percent, between 2009 and 2016. This difference may seem modest, but if black farmers had received the same share of loan dollars under Obama as they did under Bush, they would have received an additional $28 million.
Not only did the funding disparity increase during the Obama presidency, but the overall amount black farmers received remained miniscule.
If black farmers’ share of loans had been commensurate with their share of the farming population, they would have received about twice as much as they did, or another $300 million. If their lending totals reflected their proportion of the U.S. population, they would have received 16 times what they actually received, or an extra $5 billion.
Larger sums are apportioned through systems even more opaque than USDA’s. The Farm Credit System provides about 41 percent of all agricultural loans, far more than USDA, and is heavily subsidized. Yet the federal government performs almost no oversight to guard against discrimination. “Effectively, there is no civil rights [process]” in the Farm Credit System, said Lorette Picciano, executive director of the Rural Coalition, an advocacy organization representing farmers, farm workers, and rural communities. “There’s no ability to have discrimination complaints against Farm Credit in the banks.”
“They shouldn’t be playing that game.”
In response to a question about what disparities like these implied for black farmers, who disproportionately run small farms, Vilsack answered in a long, indirect way, shifting the terms of the conversation to farm size rather than race. “The challenge for small producers has always been that they’re trying to play in a big producer game, and they shouldn’t be playing that game because it’s not set up for them,” he said.
Vilsack also told us small-scale farmers should instead compete in local and organic markets. But these markets are also dominated by big producers. USDA data from the 2015 Local Food Marketing Practices Survey show that the largest 0.5 percent of farms that sell directly to local purchasers are responsible for 29 percent of all sales by value, while the largest 4 percent, some 6,900 farms, take in more than 59 percent of the sales volume.
Similarly, the largest 880 or so family-owned organic farms, 6 percent of the total, bring in almost half of all organic sales by value. If you add non-family corporate farms into the mix, just 12 percent of organic farms take in 70 percent of all organic sales. According to the 2012 agricultural census, black farmers take in only 0.05 percent of organic sales. They capture only 0.55 percent of direct sales to individuals—like at farmers’ markets—and only 0.21 percent of all agricultural sales.
Vilsack’s justifications for what is effectively a two-tiered financing system share a disturbing resonance with quotes from USDA officials during some of the department’s most intensely discriminatory periods. “Some people have more resources to borrow more money than others,” Robert Bamberg, head of the Alabama branch of USDA’s loan agency, told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1968.
“It goes back to this … in many cases, our nigger population has small acreage.”
The problem was widespread. In 1965, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights criticized USDA for using “the current condition of the Negro farmer” to limit his access to resources necessary “to change his disadvantaged status.” USDA, the commission charged, “[divorced] the Negro from its regular concerns, designing for him limited objectives and constricted roles.”
A half-century later, many black farmers say little has changed. They point out that their disadvantaged status, the very reason they’re denied help, is the result of decades of discrimination by USDA. In an interview with us, Will Muhammad, a black farmer in Alabama, drew a contrast between the federal government’s treatment of black farmers and its treatment of people affected by Hurricane Sandy.
After Sandy hit, Congressman Peter King, a Republican from New York, was “demanding that his people be taken care of by FEMA or whoever or an emergency fund because the storm had displaced them. He wanted them to be taken care of monetarily immediately,” Muhammad said. “And Congress answered, right? And this was … well, some would call it an act of God. A natural disaster. Okay, well the disaster that we suffered was unnatural. It was a purposefully orchestrated strike. In other words, we were attacked. We were assaulted by white folk.
“And now you want us to make a loan, you know? For something that we should already have. We shouldn’t have to ask for a damn thing. You should be begging us to take it—to save your life.”
The number of black farmers increased
As we continued to report this story, it became increasingly difficult to reconcile USDA’s claim that the number of black farmers had increased—by 9 percent, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture—with the stories we were hearing from farmers on the ground.
When we visited farmer Gary Grant in Tillery, North Carolina last year, we asked him if he thought the number of black farmers in the county had increased between 2007 and 2012, as the Census of Agriculture had reported. “No,” he said, laughing. “If there were 55, there are now 25. Because it’s going down,” he said. “It’s not going up.” He told us the same was true of state estimates.
Grant laughed again when we asked him about the reported increase in total acreage operated by black farmers (an increase of 3,830 acres between 2007 and 2012). “If we couldn’t get money to operate the farms in times of prosperity, and we’re still recuperating from an economic [recession],” he asked, “where are we supposed to get the money from to buy this land?”
“They just lie, lie, lie, and lie, that’s all they do … to make them and the government look good,” Grant said. “And to try to keep the attention off of what the actual problems are.”
Grant is president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association and has been active in North Carolina’s Halifax County farming community since he returned to his hometown to teach decades ago. He maintains a museum that documents the story of the county’s resettlement community, where he said hundreds of black families ran small farms in the middle of the century. Grant’s own family owned several hundred acres, but lost a significant amount due to discrimination, he said. Many black families suffered the same fate. “There were approximately 300 family farmers [in Halifax County] between 1940 and 1960,” Grant said. “And none of those families are in farming today.”
When Grant took us to visit Haywood Harrell, Harrell told us that there were fewer black farmers than ever. When we asked about the reported increase in Halifax, Harrell said, “I know that’s not right. Find ’em. Go find ’em.” We asked him what he thought the correct figures for 2007 and 2012 were, and he said, “maybe 25, then maybe 12.” (The agricultural census reported 51 and 68.) He guessed there were maybe eight to 10 today. He asked us to repeat USDA’s estimates, and then he and Grant laughed. “Glad to know I got some more folk out here I don’t know,” Harrell said.
As they talked about the history of black farmers in their county, Grant and Harrell sounded much like black farmers we talked to from Virginia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida. While they may have known a number of small operators in their youth, by now—many of them are in their 60s or older—almost all of the black farmers in their communities are gone. And many of those who remain have battled to keep their land.
Grant and his sister, who lives in the house they grew up in, are still fighting the department. Grant recalled that on his deathbed, their father told them, “do not let USDA take my land.”
The farmers’ stories were uncannily similar almost everywhere we visited, but were at odds with USDA’s media releases. As Vilsack was preparing to leave USDA, he wrote that the reported increase in black farmers in the 2012 Census of Agriculture was the best evidence that the department was finally “regaining trust” with African-American farmers. More than two decades prior, The New York Times had predicted the extinction of black farmers, but “today,” wrote the secretary, their numbers are “rising.”
USDA officials were unambiguous about these “increases” and their significance. “The number of minority farm and ranch principal operators increased dramatically,” Vilsack wrote, on the release of the agricultural census results. “If you look at the census,” said Joe Leonard, the former civil rights chief, “you see an increase in black and brown farming.” The 2017 results were going to show, Leonard said, prior to their release in April 2019, “the commitment of the Obama administration and Secretary Vilsack to those persons.” (The 2017 results, in fact, showed a decline in farms with a black principal operator.)
But our analysis, along with dozens of interviews with farmers, researchers, and advocates, found that USDA misled the public about the results of the census. The evidence indicates that the increases reported in the 2012 Census of Agriculture reflected changes in the census rather than real increases, and the number of black farmers almost certainly declined. The official narrative flatters former USDA officials, but has shifted policy priorities away from a community that badly needs it.
“It’s hard to convince people on the Hill that they should take initiatives … for black farmers,” said Lloyd Wright, “when the statistics would indicate that they are one of the few groups that are increasing.”
The agricultural census is conducted every five years and is meant to be a full count of all farms in the country. But unlike the better-known decennial census, its final estimates are adjusted with weights. USDA statisticians estimated that they received responses for only 43 percent of all black farmers in the country in 2012, so their final counts were weighted such that, on average, each black farmer who provided a usable, properly classified response was made to count for 2.3 black farmers. This means that over half of the roughly 33,000 farmers USDA reported in 2012 came from adjustments.
Adjustments like these are fairly new. The government has collected the agricultural census since 1840, with far more detailed statistics on crops and livestock than on people. The survey has collected demographic information for some time, but the survey designers only made a serious commitment to improve their demographic estimates within the past two decades or so.
A look at how the census has changed over the years helps explain why the recent results are so at odds with the experience of the many black farmers we interviewed.
In 1920, the agricultural census recorded around 925,000 black farmers, a number that steadily declined through 1997, when it hit roughly 18,500—a decline of 98 percent. Throughout that period, the government carried out agricultural policy intended to consolidate land and drive out small farmers—who were disproportionately black—while routinely and systematically withholding payments and loans from black farmers. Today, the federal funding system still sends half of all government farm money to the largest 9 percent of family-owned farms in the country, whose operators are 97 percent male and 99 percent white.
USDA has acknowledged and researchers have found that the agricultural census significantly undercounted black-owned land and black farmers before 1997, when USDA took over the survey from the Census Bureau. Before that year, the government omitted black farmers from official files used to record survey participants, or enumerators did not put in sufficient effort to find their farms. The GAO chastised the department over these erroneous counts, and Congress mandated in the 2008 farm bill that USDA improve them for 2012.
Experts, farmers, and advocates agree that USDA has taken a number of steps to improve its counts of previously overlooked groups, efforts that include better outreach to farmers of color and methodological improvements. And as the department made more accurate counts, the number of farmers it reported in certain categories sometimes went up. In fact, the department itself, in a 2013 report, acknowledged that its more accurate counts from 2002 and 2007 were “not fully comparable” with earlier ones because of the changes in the census and its estimation procedure over time.
Despite complicating factors like these, the department’s press release for results from the 2012 Census of Agriculture did not include any such caveats, stating that “all categories of minority-operated farms increased.” Nor did the factsheet that USDA produced on black farmers and the 2012 agricultural census discuss these changes. In fact, it flatly stated that “Farms with black principal operators increased 9 percent.” These materials, along with public statements from USDA officials, were enough to convince some journalists to run stories on the increase in black farmers.
The slight “increase” reported by USDA, however—along with the increase routinely referenced by Vilsack and Leonard as evidence of USDA’s civil rights accomplishments—was not large enough to be statistically significant. We could not find any instance where a reporter noted this fact, nor could we identify an instance where Vilsack or Leonard said it. The full report also failed to provide—in stark contrast to the copious reference materials available from the Census Bureau for its surveys—a way for users to calculate significance.
As with Gary Grant, many of the black farmers and experts we interviewed said USDA’s changes created a false trend in counts of black farmers: the new, more accurate counts made for the sudden appearance of more black farmers. “They already was out there. There ain’t no new ones,” said Ben Burkett, head of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, in reference to black farmers. “They just countin’ them better. That’s my bit.”
Many of the more than two dozen black farmers we interviewed for this story said they saw the same thing among other black farmers they knew: “Decrease. Every year at least one,” said Sam, the farmer who works with other small-scale farmers in the rural South.
Lott Johnson, a farmer in Lonoke County, Arkansas, told us that when he was growing up, there were 35 to 40 black farmers in his area. “Some pig farmers, cows, vegetables, cotton, soybean, rice, trees, grass, hay—it was all types, all types,” he said. We met Johnson in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, where the wealthy, white Delta planter elite used to meet to plan, party, and mingle. A decade ago, there were probably about 10 black farmers in Lonoke County, said Johnson, and today there are probably two or three. (The census reported an increase from 29 to 35 between 2007 and 2012.) He said he thinks “discrimination and pressure” explain why there are so few black farmers now.
“There’s very little evidence to support that there’s a growth in the number of black farms,” said Spencer Wood, a rural sociologist we spoke to for this story.
We asked Vilsack, in an email, about these critiques.
“I guess I do not think the criticism in the Census is fair,” Vilsack wrote. (We are quoting exactly as Vilsack responded in his original email, available here.) “Bottom line I believe the Census gave a more accurate count (which is what the Census is suppose to do) than it had before which is important because that fact can be used to promote policies or direct resources.”
Lloyd Wright told us he conducted spot-checks in counties where the census reported increases and found reality at odds with the reports. “I think he knew better,” Wright said of Vilsack’s statements on the census, “but he made the claim in either case, and it got published in the usual places.”
The Pigford settlement closed a “painful chapter in our collective history”
USDA’s misleading treatment of census data has done more than conceal ongoing discrimination against black farmers. It became a crucial part of a far-right crusade against a federal settlement with them known as Pigford. Andrew Breitbart, the deceased right-wing publisher, used census data to allege widespread fraud in the claims process, an argument that would wind its way from conservative journals into the mainstream press. After TheNew York Times published a report critical of Pigford, repeating many of Breitbart’s claims, the settlement became so associated with fraud that it still hinders black farmers today.
But our analysis of census data shows that the writers’ arguments rested on specious numbers. They failed to account for the survey’s historical undercounts of black farmers, which—along with other factors—led them to understate the number of potentially eligible claimants. Our reporting suggests that most black people who farmed in the relevant period did not receive Pigford payments, and a closer look at those who did shows the payments were often inadequate. Despite what Tom Vilsack has written, many black farmers do not feel the settlement helped “close a painful chapter in our collective history.”
Breitbart said he first became “obsessed” with the Pigford settlements for black farmers in 2010. The government had reached a settlement in Pigford in 1999—agreeing to award claimants a little over $1 billion—but a number of class members had missed the filing deadline. So Congress, with bipartisan support, inserted a provision into the 2008 farm bill to allow anyone who had submitted a late request to re-open it. Those claims were consolidated into a case that became known as Pigford II. In all, around 33,000 claimants received settlements as part of these cases.
Though the Pigford cases were meant to compensate black farmers for years of mistreatment under USDA, Breitbart successfully pushed the narrative that the payments amounted to a fraudulent “vote-buying scheme” operated by the Obama administration. His interpretation of the Census of Agriculture turned out to be a crucial part of his argument: Breitbart used the discrepancy between census numbers and the number of Pigford claimants as proof of widespread fraud.
On December 8, 2010, the day that President Obama signed the Pigford II settlement, Breitbart’s trickle of articles about the case suddenly became a torrent. Of the 20 posts featured in Breitbart’s “Big Government” section a day later, on December 9, a total of 13 posts were about what he referred to as “the Pigford shakedown.” “REPARATIONS HAVE BEGUN,” read one headline. “THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN GOVERNMENT RINGS THE DINNER BELL,” read another. “PIGFORD MAY BE THE BIGGEST SCAM IN AMERICAN HISTORY,” yet another said.
“I had never heard of Pigford,” Breitbart told the conservative news site The Daily Caller in December of 2010. “So … all I’ve been doing is eating, breathing, sleeping Pigford, researching Pigford, finding whistleblowers who … have been wanting to tell the story of how this was rigged.”
The following February, at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Breitbart called on other attendees to join his attack on the settlement, telling them that they shouldn’t be “fearful of … being called a racist.” Black legislators, he said, “were the perpetrators of black-on-black crime” and were “screwing black farmers,” not conservatives.
Through a barrage of posts, articles, and media appearances, Breitbart’s thinly-sourced conspiracy theories quickly became the focus of right-wing pundits, social media posts, and talk-radio shock jocks.
In July of 2011, Iowa’s Republican Congressman Steve King, and former Minnesota Republican Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, told reporters during a tour of flooded areas along the Missouri River, that the Pigford settlement was taking money out of the hands of Midwestern farmers.
“When money is diverted to inefficient projects, like the Pigford project, where there seems to be proof-positive of fraud,” Bachmann said, “we can’t afford $2 billion in potentially fraudulent claims when that money can be used to benefit the people along the Mississippi and the Missouri River.”
While mainstream publications were careful to distance themselves from Breitbart’s more outlandish claims, some writers were nonetheless convinced that data from the agricultural census showed pervasive fraud.
Daniel Foster summarized the case in a 2011 article for the National Review. In that article, he referenced the testimony of a USDA loan supervisor named John Stringfellow, who called Pigford the “largest scam against taxpayers in the history of the United States.”
When we asked Stringfellow, who was not involved in Pigford II, about his allegations regarding the first Pigford case, he said that he and his USDA colleagues, who worked in a region of Arkansas that had a large African-American population, had provided few loans to black farmers. He saw this as a sign that his team had not discriminated.
He also saw it as a sign of fraud, he said. How could so many locals submit claims, his thinking went, when they provided so few loans? “I had 20, 25 tops, minority, black, African-American farmers, and I had over 700 apply [for the settlement].” After more exposition and explanation, he returned to his original point. “But you can see, if I only had 20, 25 black farmers, and over 700 applied, that tells you right there that it was a payback. It was a Democratic payback to the black vote. That’s just it, plain and simple.”
Later in the interview, Stringfellow compared the stories of black farmers who were unsure which USDA employee had discriminated against them to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which he said he did not find credible.
While Conor Friedersdorf, in a blog post for The Atlantic, did not reference Stringfellow, he did present Foster’s analysis of the census as the most crucial piece of the writer’s argument. Foster had written that the agricultural census counted only 18,500 black farmers in 1997, yet there had been “nearly 100,000” claimants in both Pigford cases up to that point. (There were actually fewer than 63,000 submitted claims.)
“I just can’t trust a damn thing [Breitbart] publishes,” wrote Friedersdorf. But he also said he was nonetheless “struck” by the “gap between the total number of claiments [sic] and the total number of black farmers in America.” He continued: “If accurate, it suggests widespread fraud.”
In 2013, The New York Times published a story called “U.S. Opens Spigot after Farmers Claim Discrimination,” which echoed many of Andrew Breitbart’s main contentions, and alleged that the Pigford II settlement process had become a “runaway train” driven, in part, “by racial politics.” The Times reported that there were 16 different zip codes in which successful claims “exceeded the total number of farms operated by people of any race in 1997.” Writing in Mother Jones, Kevin Drum expressed the conventional wisdom that emerged following the Times piece: “It was raining money, so [people] put out their hats.”
But a more careful approach to the data undercuts these claims. These writers failed to take into account several factors that suggest the number of successful claimants fell far short of the number of black people who farmed, or attempted to farm, over the relevant period. Far from “raining money,” it is likely that the majority of black farmers—and often-forgotten aspiring farmers—between 1981 and 1996 never received settlements.
While Fridersdorf referred to numbers from 1997—the end of the relevant period—the 1982 census shows just over 33,000 black farmers. This number is almost certainly an undercount. Various studies we reviewed have found undercounts of black farmers from between 25 to 50 percent prior to 2002. A 1978 Census Bureau analysis, for example, estimated that the 1974 figures undercounted black farmers by 53.3 percent and the 1978 figures by 34.8 percent.
If we adjust the 1982 census for an undercount between 25 and 50 percent, then we get between 44,000 and 66,500 black farmers that year.
Further, prior to 2002, the census counted only one farmer per farm, even though many farms have multiple operators. The 2017 Census of Agriculture counted roughly 1.38 black farmers per black-operated farm. If we increase our numbers by that ratio, we get between 61,000 and 92,000 black farmers in 1982.
But even these figures do not include aspiring black farmers, who were also eligible for settlements in some cases and could have formed a substantial share of those discriminated against by USDA. Many black families were forced to leave farming before 1981 because they were often unable to get credit from local banks or the department. As a result, there are a large number of black families with enough land to begin farming—often the biggest hurdle for new farmers—who nonetheless need credit to purchase supplies and equipment. A 1999 USDA survey found that black families were half as likely to farm their farmland as white families. A fair number of people from those families could have attempted to farm in the period covered by Pigford.
Eventually, some 33,000 claimants in total received settlements from the federal government in Pigford I and II, significantly fewer than reports from The New York Times and other publications suggested. Many black farmers and advocates believe that USDA’s flawed interpretation of the Census of Agriculture failed them twice: first, when conservative—and then mainstream—media outlets used inaccurate census data to falsely claim the federal government was flooding rural black communities with federal dollars, and again, after the 2012 census, when USDA inaccurately claimed the number of black farmers had increased since 2007.
When we asked Joe Leonard whether the conservative media campaign against Pigford made it more difficult for the department to help black farmers, he did not respond directly. But his comments suggest that USDA leadership was especially sensitive to the political feelings of the Fox News set. “The best way to answer that is by saying that Steve King thought [Pigford] was reparations for black people,” he said, referring to the Republican congressman from Iowa, who is notorious for his racist comments. “White America viewed it—and Steve King’s constituents and the group that listens to him throughout the country—viewed it as such.”
Leonard responded to a question about whether USDA had a plan to counter misinformation about Pigford by saying, “The one thing that you’re missing at that time is that USDA is 80-percent white. So it makes it hard to…. The department is overwhelmingly white…. We had a small group of people who supported Pigford and all of the class actions we settled and there was a large amount of people who did not support them.”
Several black farmers, advocates, and former USDA employees told us that misperceptions about Pigford fraud have harmed black farmers writ large. They reported an uptick of resentment and discrimination in their communities as many of their white neighbors, some of whom worked at local banks, USDA offices, and other institutions critical to farmers, believed they were raking in incredible amounts of money. Meanwhile, advocates in Washington, D.C. said they found it difficult to make headway among policy makers who believed not only that the population of black farmers was increasing, but also that they had been justly compensated by Pigford. As one advocate, who had direct knowledge of the situation, told us, “the sentiment [on Capitol Hill] was, ‘You guys already got a crack at the apple, stop making so much noise.’”
“They didn’t get the land back.”
At the same time, Pigford II provided little real relief to many of the farmers who first brought the case.
About a year into his term, Secretary Vilsack announced, with Attorney General Eric Holder, a $1.25 billion settlement in Pigford II. While Vilsack has written that the settlement agreement “helped close a painful chapter in our collective history,” a closer look at the payments—and the financial realities of farming—tells a different story.
USDA spent most of its Pigford II settlement fund on payments of $50,000 to roughly 18,000 claimants. While $50,000 may be a lot for the average household, the average mid-sized farm spends about $500,000 on operating expenses each year. “If you really wanted a good set of tires for your tractor? I’m not even sure the $50,000 would do it,” said Gary Grant, who is also president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association. “I know you can’t buy a tractor with it.” Several farmers we spoke to independently made the same point.
As a result of these costs, commercial farms often carry hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. The average commercial farm with loans paid roughly $45,000 on interest payments alone in 2012.
While USDA has regularly given white farmers who could not pay off federal loans an opportunity to restructure their debt—often at very favorable terms—black farmers have rarely been given such a chance. That, combined with late loan disbursals, harsh loan terms, and other forms of discrimination, left many black farmers with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt in the span covered by Pigford I and II. During the Clinton administration, in the late 1990s, the federal government estimated that the average black farmer had around $100,000 of government debt alone. Some experts we spoke to, including Lloyd Wright, considered debt relief—the forgiveness of federal loans—the most crucial part of the settlement.
“If you remove the debt, at least you have the land,” said Wright. “But as long as you’re under the debt cloud, you can’t get money, you can’t operate.”
Despite the fact that the original consent decree said claimants would be granted debt forgiveness whenever an adjudicator found discrimination, only five farmers won relief, for a total of $647,000, one-twentieth of 1 percent of the total amount set aside for claims.
Since the farmers who pursued restitution under Pigford were barred from making other claims against USDA, the lack of meaningful relief left many of them “worse off than they were before,” Wright told us. “‘Okay. That makes it right,’” said Haywood Harrell, imitating a representative from USDA. “Hell no, that don’t make it right.”
“They didn’t get the land back,” continued Harrell, who said that many of the people he knew who took the $50,000 payout had already been driven out of business. That amount of money is not enough to enter farming again, let alone make up for decades of lost economic opportunities.
“You can’t start farming with $50,000,” Harrell said.
When we asked Vilsack if USDA played a role in the decline of black farmers over time, he responded, “I don’t know,” before adding, “I think it played a role to the extent that [the Pigford claimants] felt that they had been discriminated against and we tried to provide some measure of justice.”
At a 2014 USDA forum on the “future of farming and agriculture” in a wealthy D.C. suburb, Vilsack moderated a panel called “Young Farmers: Unlimited Opportunities.” He introduced the four panelists, who he referred to as a “very diverse group” (all four were white), and asked them a series of questions about young farmers. Farmers under 35, according to the 2012 census, are the whitest age cohort of farmers in the country. Further, although black people make up about 14 percent of all Americans under 35, they make up less than 1 percent of farmers in that age group.
Yet only one of Vilsack’s questions, directed at the president of the National Young Farmers Coalition, directly touched on race. “I want you to envision an inner-city child,” Vilsack told her. “Could be African American, could be Hispanic, could be Native American, Asian, whatever, a minority. You’re talking to that child. That child doesn’t even know what a tomato is, much less what you are talking about,” Vilsack said. “I want you to convince that kid that he ought to think about farming.”
Lawrence Lucas, president emeritus of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, described this exchange, saying that he found it to be a troubling expression of a widespread viewpoint at the department: that the decline in black farmers has more to do with black culture than with discrimination.
“My reaction was that he was expressing what he thinks of black people,” Lucas told us. “I could not help but feel very disappointed, if not a bit insulted, because that’s what people say about minorities when they want to make an excuse.”
Many of the black farmers we spoke to also bristled at Vilsack’s suggestion that black people are uninterested in, or do not understand, farming.
Leah Penniman, author of the book Farming While Black, operates a training program by and for farmers of color that counts almost 500 graduates. Penniman pointed out that a significant number of black people live in or have family in the rural South, and are no strangers to agriculture. She sees her own Soul Fire Farm, near Albany, New York, as evidence that there is a strong interest in farming among many young black people, regardless of where they were born. “Every single training program we run has a long and enthusiastic training list,” she said.
But their opportunities are limited, according to Penniman, by disparities in wealth and land ownership. “Wealth attracts more wealth to it,” she said, adding that current USDA programs are “just kicking around the edges of the problem. You really need to look at land and wealth reform in a serious way … and reparations … if we’re going to reclaim our place of agency.”
When we asked Vilsack how farming could be made more equitable, given such large racial disparities in land ownership, he rejected the question’s premise. “As far as the big versus small argument,” Vilsack said, “I really get irritated by those questions. Questions like that divide people and, god, we’ve got enough of that in this country.”
If black farmers do see opportunity, it’s not in the reforms Vilsack claims to have made, but in local community organizations and the tight-knit black farmers’ cooperatives that grew out of the civil rights movement. “If it weren’t for these organizations,” said Bobby Harden, a farmer in Winston County, Mississippi, “we wouldn’t be gettin’ nothin’. And everybody sittin’ behind a desk [would] get all the money.”
Despite their work, however, these organizations face steep odds. Many of them receive funding through the Section 2501 Program, which Congress created in the 1990 farm bill to fund outreach and technical assistance to minority farmers. The program’s annual mandatory funding, already just an iota of USDA’s total spending, was slashed in half—to $10 million—in the 2014 farm bill. Its scope was also broadened to include veteran farmers, further diluting the funds reaching people of color.
The 2018 farm bill raised funding for the program to $15 million in 2019—with a gradual increase to $25 million by 2023. While important, the program remains negligible compared to the billions of federal dollars that flow each year to large-scale commercial farms, 99 percent of which are owned by white families.
When asked about the many criticisms of USDA’s treatment of black farmers made by experts and farmers themselves, Vilsack laughed and said he “was happy to put my record up against anybody’s in terms of civil rights.” He added that what he had accomplished at the department “was a hell of a lot better than what anyone else had done.”
After he left office in 2017, Vilsack became CEO of a dairy lobbying group, where his predecessor had made over $750,000 the previous year. That fall, Vilsack gave a keynote speech for New Democracy, a centrist Democratic organization. “Our party,” he told an audience in Iowa, where he was once governor, “stopped showing up and stopped competing effectively in rural areas. We forgot how to talk to folks,” he said, “and, when we did, we often talked down.”
Just after the 2016 presidential election, Vilsack told The New York Times that “rural America is 15 percent of America’s population.” He continued, “It’s the same percentage as African Americans; it’s the same percentage as Hispanics. We spend a lot of time thinking about that 15 percent—and we should, God bless them, we should. But not to the exclusion of the other 15 percent.” While Vilsack’s statement implies rural America and black America do not overlap, the reality is far different.
Less than a hundred years ago, the majority of African Americans lived in the rural South. Today, many remain, but what was once their single largest source of wealth, agricultural land, has largely been taken from them by USDA.
“In the county where I live, on a little horseshoe road, back in the ’50s, there were 34 black farmers,” said Lloyd Wright, the former civil rights official, whose quiet delivery and slight Southern accent convey a gentle demeanor. “My family is the only family that’s still farming, only black family,” he went on. “So, that’s really been the decline.” Farmers like Wright have not given up on the future of black farming, but they know statistical increases will not save it. “USDA hasn’t done anything except change its communications. It has not changed its ways.”