U.S. Sen. Warnock works to remedy decades of USDA discrimination against Black farmers

A farmer plants corn into a cover crop of barley. Photo courtesy of U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

WASHINGTON—The arrival of U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in Congress earlier this year coincided with an overdue recognition of the historic discrimination inflicted on Black farmers by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The farmers’ plight has emerged as a major priority for Warnock, a Georgia Democrat whose victory in a January special election runoff handed his party a slim majority in the Senate for the first time in a decade.

Rev. Raphael Warnock speaks to supporters outside the Cobb County election headquarters Dec. 17, 2020. Credit: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder.

Senate Democratic leaders who want him re-elected in 2022 are also highlighting Warnock’s key role in moving legislation and crafting policy to provide economic relief to Black farmers across the U.S. and in the Peach State.

On top of that, the House Agriculture Committee—long a bastion of mostly white farm-state lawmakers—now is headed up by its first Black chairman, Rep. David Scott, a Georgia Democrat whose inaugural hearing reviewed the decades of losses faced by Black farmers in the U.S.

A third Georgia Democrat, Rep. Sanford Bishop, is the chairman of the powerful House subcommittee on agriculture appropriations.

“All of these factors created a perfect storm for African American farmers and farm issues to be at the center of public policy,” said Dr. Veronica Womack, the executive director of the Rural Studies Institute at Georgia College and State University and a Black Belt Region scholar. The region includes counties from Virginia to Texas with large African American populations.

Preventing more land loss

Warnock won a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, where even as a freshman he chairs a panel that oversees agriculture production and programs such as crop insurance, trade, food assistance and credit.

The U.S. Capitol. Credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

As one of his first acts in Congress, he co-sponsored—along with other Senate Democrats—the Justice for Black Farmers Act, first introduced last year by Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat.

If passed and signed into law, the act would create policies to end discrimination within USDA, prevent further land loss for Black farmers and restore land that has been lost. It would also provide land grants to encourage the next generation of Black farmers to enter the industry.

Black farmers have faced systemic discrimination in loans and subsidies over the years, resulting in heavy debts and land loss, members of Congress were told at the House Agriculture hearing called by Scott.

“Land ownership allows people to be able to tap into the economy of the region,” Womack said. “Land is a passport into that economy.”

In the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, Black lawmakers worked to carve out $5 billion to assist Black farmers. Much of the framework for that plan was pulled from a bill Warnock introduced shortly after being sworn into office, the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act.

“I was proud we were able to pass my Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act that is going to help begin leveling the playing field for farmers and farming families of color so they can not only recover from the devastation of this past year, but finally have the tools and assistance they need to thrive that they’ve long been denied due to systemic discrimination by USDA,” Warnock said in a statement to the Georgia Recorder. 

Georgia’s agriculture industry, producing everything from chicken to blueberries, annually contributes $73.3 billion to its economy and about 1 in 7 Georgians work in farm production, according to the Georgia Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest agricultural organization.

In Georgia, there are about 2,870 Black farmers today, out of 50,000 Black farmers across the country, according to USDA data.

In sharp contrast, in 1920 there were roughly a million Black farmers, across the U.S., making up about 7% of the farming landscape. Black farmers currently make up just 1.4% of the nation’s farmers. White farmers account for 98% of rural farmers, according to USDA.

Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta before his election to the Senate, has a personal connection to farming as well. During his victory speech after he defeated former Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, he reflected on his mother’s journey.

In the 1950s, Verlene Warnock spent her summers as a teen picking cotton and tobacco, before she became a pastor, he said.

“Because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator,” Warnock said after he was the projected winner of the Georgia Senate runoff.

Farm tour  

As Warnock gears up for his re-election campaign for a full six-year term, he’s also coming off a tour of farming areas of Southwest Georgia, including Peach, Sumter, Lee, Colquitt, Terrell and Worth counties.

Warnock while there touted his work in helping the American Rescue Plan pass. He also listened to concerns, met with both leaders and small farmers and wound up the tour with an appearance with Bishop, the House appropriator.

“The farmers here in Georgia have needs and priorities that are a little different from the folks in the Midwest or in other parts of the country,” Warnock said during his tour of Colquitt County, in an interview with Farm Monitor.

“I’m here to learn all that I can about the challenges that they face so that when we put forward public policy, we make life better and not worse, easier and not harder,” he said.

Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, said that Warnock’s agriculture tour was important for a senator representing a state with an enormous agriculture industry.

“If a legislator doesn’t develop a reputation for being responsive to the needs of his or her constituents, that could actually prove harmful to them in the next election,” she said. “So he’s doing this to be responsive.”

She added that the farming tour showed his constituents that he is invested in the industry and is willing to listen to the needs of farmers.

“He grew up in Savannah, he lives in Atlanta, so he could easily be painted by an opponent as being out of touch with the needs of half of the state who don’t live in a metropolitan area,” Gillespie said. “And so by talking about agriculture issues, he is sort of addressing that issue.”

Georgia and the Senate

During the past few months in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has kept both Warnock and fellow Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff in the spotlight, stressing that the passage of the massive American Rescue Plan was possible due to their wins in Georgia.

During a February press conference, Schumer said Warnock pushed for funding of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and “debt relief to Black farmers who have been ignored for far too long in Georgia and elsewhere.”

“These talented fighters are actually delivering on their promise when they ran, that they were actually going to bring real help, that elections have consequences, that the difference between having Ossoff and Warnock in the Senate is very real to the vast majority of average folks in Georgia and in the country,” Schumer said.

Schumer was the one who convinced Warnock to make the run for Senate, according to the New York Times.

Warnock raised an eye-popping $5.6 million in his first quarter of campaign fundraising, according to recent Federal Election Commission records.

The Blue Senate 2022 PAC, the Senate Democratic leadership PAC, contributed more than $40,000 to Warnock’s campaign, and the Warnock Victory Fund PAC contributed more than $400,000 to his campaign, according to FEC reports.

Even though Warnock won his Senate runoff with 51% of the vote, Gillespie said that Democrats should assume that they are underdogs and go out and find every possible Democratic voter and get them to the polls in 2022.

“So the way that Warnock can do that is make sure to not just find every eligible voter in central Atlanta that turns out to vote, but you also make sure that you find every rural Democratic voter who is more likely to be a person of color and make sure that they turn out to vote as well,” she said.

Warnock in his time in Congress also has been a critic of a new election law in Georgia that voting rights advocates say will disenfranchise voters of color as well as rural residents.

Democrats in Congress in reaction to that and other new voting initiatives in states are trying to pass a massive voting rights and campaign finance and elections reform package.

“A lot of these states have already passed this terrible legislation,” Warnock said, according to Capitol Hill pool feeds. “These voter suppression bills we’re seeing coming out of the state legislatures make this issue absolutely urgent. We understand the urgency, and you will see us move the legislation forward quickly.”

As 2022 approaches, Warnock so far only has two Republican challengers, Latham Saddler, a former Trump official and Kelvin King, a prominent Black construction executive.

Former Republican Sen. David Perdue, who lost his re-election campaign to Ossoff, said he doesn’t plan to attempt a comeback despite filing paperwork to explore a run against Warnock. Former Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), declined to run against Warnock.

Broadband, land grant colleges

Other upcoming policy issues related to Black farmers and agriculture in general include improved broadband as well as earmarked funds for land grant universities that would be included in the $2 trillion infrastructure bill proposed by the Biden administration, known as the American Jobs Act.

On Twitter, Warnock has expressed his support for broadband to “help close the gap between rural and urban communities.”

Lawmakers should also consider exercising oversight over USDA programs such as county offices where most Black farmers experienced discrimination in the form of denied or delayed loans, said Dr. Ralph Noble, the dean at Fort Valley University’s College of Agriculture, Family Sciences, and Technology.

He added that in addition to broadband, he hopes lawmakers like Warnock consider allocating funds to HBCUs and the 19 land grant universities to provide training for farmers, adding that land grant universities have established connections with farmers in their communities.

“To make sure these programs and policies are impactful,” Noble said, Congress needs “to connect with those schools and those universities who have programs that historically work in those communities.”