A New Hope for Black Farmers? the Obama Administration May Redirect Subsidies from White-Owned Agribusiness to Small Farms

By Hoffmann, Jessica | Colorlines Magazine, May-June 2009 | Go to article overview

A New Hope for Black Farmers? the Obama Administration May Redirect Subsidies from White-Owned Agribusiness to Small Farms


Hoffmann, Jessica, Colorlines Magazine


SPEAKING LAST NOVEMBER about his plans to address the economic crisis, then president-elect Barack Obama called out subsidy payments to "millionaire farmers" as a waste the federal budget could do without. He was reacting, in part, to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, commonly referred to as the GAO, documenting tens of millions of dollars of payments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to almost three thousand multimillionaires who derive most of their income from activities other than farming.

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For those who follow farm policy, there was nothing surprising about the report. For years, the GAO and major media outlets have documented wasteful farm subsidies to ineligible rich people, dead people and people who don't even farm. Not as well documented is the other side of the story: that crop subsidy programs systematically fail to support small farms, and this disproportionately impacts farmers of color.

The U.S. government spends billions each year subsidizing farm operations. Yet Black farmers receive only one-third to one-sixth of the benefits that other farmers receive, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization that has partnered with the National Black Farmers Association on several reports.

Federal crop subsidies go to commodity crops like corn, cotton and rice that require large farms, and most large farms in the U.S. are white-owned. So even when USDA dollars move to counties where people of color are the majority, they largely end up in the hands of the white landowning minority.

Bush-era USDA spokespeople maintained that disparities in subsidies payments are not a matter of race but simply of "large farms and small farms." Yet a history of systemic racism in the U.S., including at the USDA, means that farmers of color disproportionately own small farms where they raise livestock or grow fruits and vegetables--crops that are ineligible for USDA subsidies. …

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