Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.

On Wednesday, Congress passed one of the most sweeping relief programs for minority farmers in the nation’s history, through a provision of President Biden’s pandemic stimulus bill. Although the landmark legislation, which would cancel $4 billion worth of debt, seemed to emerge out of nowhere, it actually is the result of more than 20 years of organizing by Black farmers.

The Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act will forgive 120 percent of the value of loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or from private lenders and guaranteed by the USDA, to “Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic farmers and other agricultural producers of color,” according to a release from the bill’s sponsors, Senators Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

Advocacy groups say the debt relief will begin to rectify decades of broken promises and discrimination from the USDA that caused Black farmers to lose roughly 90 percent of their land between 1910 and today.

Although the program will be administered as pandemic relief — and apply to all farmers of color — the intellectual forces behind the bill say its main objective is to address failures in two landmark civil rights settlements between the USDA and Black farmers.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

In 2016, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said the controversial settlements, known as Pigford I and II, “helped close a painful chapter in our collective history.” But instead, the Pigford settlements, which were designed to address a century of discrimination at the USDA, drew the ire of both conservatives and racial-justice advocates. The new debt-forgiveness legislation is controversial, too, with Republicans accusing Democrats of trying to sneak a reparations policy into an emergency bill instead of going through the proper legislative process.

The bill is “not something that just happened,” according to Tracy Lloyd McCurty, an activist who has spent the past three years fighting for Black farmer debt relief as executive director of Black Belt Justice Center, a nonprofit that advocates for African-American farmers.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“No, the origin is the suffering of the Black farmer due to the injustice of the Pigford lawsuits,” she said.

Bernice Atchison, an 81-year-old farmer from Alabama, is a living embodiment of that injustice. She continues to fight for compensation from the Pigford settlements to this day.

“We faced everything from USDA, from denied loans, from getting loans late, from being overcharged … we faced it all,” she said in an interview with Ag Insider.

Atchison still manages 60 acres of farmland, but lost more than 250 acres during her decades-long battle with the USDA.

“We have no way of ever becoming stable because of the way that the laws are written in order to keep us from progressing,” she said. “You just can’t. We were supposed to get the loans.”

The Pigford settlements stem from a 1997 class action lawsuit that accused the USDA of discriminating against Black farmers through loans and other policies, and failing to investigate or respond to discrimination claims. USDA settled with the farmers, agreeing to compensate them with cash and debt relief in what became known as Pigford I. But the short deadline to file a claim left out many eligible farmers. That led to Pigford II, a 2010 settlement in which the federal government agreed to pay $1.25 billion to claimants left out of Pigford I.

The majority of farmers who filed Pigford claims opted for a fast-tracked adjudication process that offered $50,000 payouts, plus debt relief and offsets of tax liability. But only a small number of claimants under the so-called “Track A” process received debt forgiveness.

“Most of the farmers signed up for Track A because most of them wanted debt relief,” said Lloyd Wright, a former director of civil rights at USDA. “There were 22,721 farmers who signed up for Pigford I. Only 371 of them got debt relief and that was the main thing they signed up for.”

After a federal judge made debt relief available to the farmers through a consent decree, their attorneys and the U.S. Department of Justice negotiated a stipulation order that placed additional restrictions on which loans would qualify, including a requirement that farmers prove that the specific loan was affected by discrimination. In the end, less than 5 percent of the Pigford I funds went to debt forgiveness, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The stipulation order came as a surprise to many of the farmers and their allies. Some claimants believed they would be entitled to substantial debt relief and, on the advice of their lawyers, stopped making payments on loans that they expected to be forgiven, according to Wright.

“I expected them to get debt relief,” said Wright, who led USDA’s civil rights division from 1997-1998. “I was as surprised as the farmers that they didn’t. Maybe I shouldn’t have been. The history of USDA has been that they have figured out how not to give Black folks whatever they give everyone else, so I should’ve been suspicious, but I was not.”

A spokesperson for the USDA acknowledged in a statement to Ag Insider that “there is a lot more that needs to be done and accomplished at USDA to make programming equitable and to root out generations of systemic discrimination.”

“The recent bills introduced by Senators Warnock and Booker offer solutions to address debt, create access to land, and provide outreach and education on credit and financing,” the spokesperson added.

The Pigford settlements became the subject of outrage on both ends of the political spectrum. Conservative media portrayed Pigford as a government handout rife with fraud. Critics highlighted census data that showed there were fewer Black-owned farms than the number of farmers filing discrimination claims as proof that the program was being abused. However, census data during the settlement period counted farms, not individual farmers. Many farms had more than one farmer, and settlement funds were also available for people who wanted to farm but were unable to because they had been denied loans, both of which may explain the large number of claimants.

Though the new debt-relief program emerged out of advocacy for Black farmers seeking the loan forgiveness promised in the Pigford settlements, the activists pushed for a more inclusive bill because of the federal government’s history of discrimination against all farmers of color. The greatest land giveaway in U.S. history, for example, occurred through the 1862 Homestead Act, under which the federal government transferred more than 270 million acres of Native American land to mostly white settlers. More recently, USDA has settled claims of widespread loan discrimination against Native American, Hispanic and women farmers.

“This moment right here was based on the advocacy of Black farmer organizing,” said McCurty. “That’s a fact. But the beauty of it is the commitment of Black farmers to collective liberation.”

Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee voiced a number of concerns about the debt-forgiveness program and unsuccessfully sought to amend the legislation. In particular, they took issue with the 120 percent payment amount and the fact that there is no requirement that farmers show proof of discrimination.

Representative Austin Scott, a Republican from Georgia who sits on the committee, warned that the bill is “ripe for a reverse discrimination lawsuit.”

“This language is much, much broader than the Pigford settlement,” he said. “There’s no proof of discrimination. You, by virtue of the color of your skin or your ethnicity, receive 120 percent of your outstanding loan balance.”

The bill’s backers countered that it was the only way to ensure farmers are compensated for not just the debt but also the taxes associated with debt forgiveness. If the bill were written to explicitly cover farmers’ tax obligations, it risked getting bogged down in congressional tax-writing committees, said McCurty.

The bill allocates $4 billion for the program because the Congressional Budget Office estimates that’s how much it will cost to pay off USDA loans to minority farmers, plus 20 percent. According to The Acres of Ancestry Initiative/Black Agrarian Fund, there are currently “over 17,000 Black legacy farmers [who] are delinquent on their loans to USDA ranging from 5 to 30 years.”

While it’s easy to draw a line from the Pigford settlements to the debt-forgiveness bill, the policy seeks to address even older wounds. The nation is confronting systemic racism that dates back to its founding and is deeply rooted in the history of American agriculture.

The agrarian South was built on the backs of Black slaves. Following emancipation, the federal government promised 40 acre plots to freed slaves in a policy that became known as “40 acres and a mule.” That deal was abandoned less than three months after it was offered, and the debate over how the government can make reparations for slavery has simmered ever since.

Despite that early setback, the number of Black farmers slowly expanded to a peak, in 1910, when 14 percent of all U.S. farmers were African-American. By 2012, the share of Black farmers had declined 98 percent, to just 1.6 percent. Many Black farmers and activists attribute that drop to discriminatory lending and other USDA policies.

Critics of the debt relief bill, like Scott, say it doesn’t belong in an emergency stimulus package and should go through the traditional legislative process.

“This is simply Congress saying that based on the color of your skin or your ethnicity that we’re going to write you a check,” Scott said. “I absolutely see it as reparations. By definition it’s reparations.”

But Wright, the USDA’s former civil rights director, rejected the suggestion that the debt-relief bill comes anywhere close to reparations.

“If you were going to try to compensate for the losses that occurred to farmers and families, then that would be a step toward reparations,” he said. “This is really a step toward doing what should’ve been done in Pigford to begin with.”

This story was produced by the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a non-profit news organization.