Though racial disparities in American farming have always existed, especially when it comes to who owns the biggest and most profitable farms, the gap wasn’t always this wide. In 1920, for example, there were 925,000 black farmers, about 14 percent of the nation’s total. Now that number is around 45,000, a little more than 2 percent of all American farmers.That’s not by chance: In a 1998 settlement, the USDA admitted to systemic discrimination against black farmers. In 2010, it acknowledged similar actions against Native Americans. In recent years, Hispanic farmers have also alleged discrimination by the federal agriculture agency.
To help rebuild trust between the USDA and the farmers it’s supposed to serve, 2501 provides grants to community-based organizations, educational institutions, and nonprofits that do outreach and training for what the agency calls “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers. That’s a group that has included black, indigenous, Latino, Asian, and Pacific Islander farmers since the program’s inception. In 2012, the grants were expanded to also target veteran farmers. Each demographic the grant program targets has a different history requiring a different solution—many black farmers in the South need assistance getting titles for their land so they can apply for USDA programs, for example, and Native American communities in Oklahoma typically benefit from guidance in navigating the complex legal landscape that comes with farming tribal land.
Henry English, who heads the Small Farm Program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, an 1890s land-grant university in southern Arkansas, credits the 2501 grants with his program’s ability to connect the region’s black farmers to technical assistance for loan applications. “Before this grant, we wouldn’t say anything about the farm-loans program. We would only talk about production,” how farmers maximize their output, he told me. “With , not only do we talk about the program, the money that’s available, we also help them put together the USDA loan applications.”
English and his staff help local black farmers get loans from the local USDA office, which they had viewed warily, given its history of discrimination in the region. English estimates that his staff works with about 200 farmers every grant cycle. “We have a long history of working with them, so they feel really comfortable coming” to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, he said.
But the 2501 Program has struggled to maintain consistent levels of funding, and has been shifted around between a number of USDA offices. When Congress couldn’t agree on a farm bill the last time it expired, in 2012, 2501 lost funding for an entire year. When a new bill finally passed, in 2014, the program still lost half of its allocated funding, going from $20 million a year to $10 million a year. In the four years since, Obudzinski says, that’s had a major effect.