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US lawmakers introduce legislation to help Black farmers

A third generation farmer stands amid his farm equipment in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on October 24, 2015. [Reuters]

Lawmakers introduced two bills to help minority farmers this week, aiming to address longstanding injustices in the agricultural sector.

Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock on Tuesday introduced a $5 billion Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act as part of the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief stimulus package. It aims to provide immediate financial relief to Black, indigenous and Hispanic farmers.

The bill would provide direct payments to farmers of color and allocate $1 billion to address systemic racism at the U.S. Agriculture Department, provide legal assistance to farmers of color and grants and loans to improve land access for minorities.

Black farmers have long viewed the USDA suspiciously, and President Joe Biden's administration has pledged to address past injustices.

On Tuesday it expressed support for Warnock's proposal.

"It's a bill crafted to address the immediate need for debt relief among those who have been marginalized and are hurting while also advancing long-term issues," USDA Chief of Staff Katharine Ferguson said in a statement.

Warner's proposal followed a more comprehensive bill introduced Monday night by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker: the Justice for Black Farmers Act.

Booker's bill would establish a new agency within the USDA to purchase land and convey grants of up to 160 acres to eligible Black individuals. It also would create a new Socially Disadvantaged Farmer and Rancher Bank to offer new avenues of lending for farmers once turned away from USDA programs.

"Overtly discriminatory and unjust federal policy has robbed Black families in the United States of the ability to build and pass on intergenerational wealth," said Booker.

The bill includes antitrust measures aimed at large meatpacking companies, provisions for improving livestock market transparency and increasing funding for local food and conservation programs to address climate change through agriculture.

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Discriminatory lending practices, often at local USDA offices, have denied Black farmers access to funds needed to operate, maintain and purchase farmland, resulting in a loss of $120 billion in farmland value, according to a 2018 analysis by Melissa Gordon of Tufts University.

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