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US Secretary of Agriculture pledges to help black farmers return to land during Georgia shutdown

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A plan to ease the debt of black farmers championed by Senator Raphael Warnock remains in limbo, but during a trip to Atlanta on Monday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he hoped that a solution would come, whether it was through Congress or the courts.

“We file briefs, we file motions, we do discovery, we move forward so that if something goes wrong in Congress, the judges will ultimately make decisions and we’ll take it from there,” he said.

Farmers are waiting for $ 4 billion in federal funds to offset decades of discrimination in USDA lending. A Florida federal court judge has suspended the grants pending legal action from groups who claim that not providing the funds to white farmers is also discriminatory.

Vilsack brushed off the claims in a news group after giving a speech at the American Farm Bureau’s national convention at the Georgia World Congress Center.

“What people don’t fully understand is that the acts of adversity that may have occurred years ago have a cumulative impact and effect, making it harder for these farmers to fully, completely benefit. USDA programs, ”he said. “And so by providing some debt relief, we’re sort of trying to level the playing field, if you will, for these farmers.”

Another solution would be to bring relief for all farmers in need, regardless of race, as part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan. But the future of the president’s spending bill is uncertain after he failed to gain enough Senate ground late last year.

“In the meantime, we want to make sure these farmers understand that no foreclosure action will be taken, that we’re going to sort of put everything on hold until we get a resolution and clarity either from the courts.” or Congress, ”Vilsack said.

Vilsack’s opening speech was largely industry-focused – he pledged federal support for farmers seeking more climate-friendly operations, pledged to put pressure on China over agricultural trade, and presented a plan to relieve pressure on the country’s supply chain.

“I think over the next year or so we’ll start to see this supply chain start to catch up with demand, and hopefully we’ll start to see more price stability, and hopefully we will be in a position to reduce these costs and continue to maintain good revenues, ”he said.

The president gave a video speech to the crowd a day before his scheduled in-person visit to Atlanta. During his three-minute remarks, Biden said he would crack down on meat packers, whose profits eat away at ranchers and raise prices at the butcher’s counter.

“Look, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, capitalism without competition is not capitalism, it’s exploitation,” he said. “We are investing up to $ 1 billion in US bailout funds for new and expanded meat and poultry processing. So we will strengthen the rules on packers and stockyards to protect farmers and ranchers. We have a bipartisan group of senators who are currently working on legislation to make livestock markets more transparent, because these are not Republicans or Democrats, Red States or Blue States, they are about ensure that your contributions are recognized and that your challenges are met.

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After his remarks in Atlanta, the secretary made a short jaunt south of East Point to the headquarters of the Federation of Southern Co-operatives / Land Assistance Fund, a non-profit organization that supports farmers and communities. black and underserved landowners, where he participated in a panel discussion. and renewed the commitment to increase the number of minority landowners in the South.

Vilsack previously served as agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama, and his selection by President Biden has caused a stir among some civil rights leaders and black farmers who say he has failed to fight racial discrimination and which particularly underline its treatment of USDA personnel. Shirley Sherrod of Albany.

Sherrod lost her job in 2010 amid public outcry after a conservative blogging site posted deceptively edited excerpts from a speech she gave that portrayed her as being prejudiced against white farmers.

One of the roundtable participants was Amber Bell, who represents the Charles Sherrod Community Development Project, named after Shirley Sherrod’s husband, and who is part of the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education founded by the couple.

Bell described some of the projects the group is working on to help underserved farmers in southwest Georgia, including a regional food hub and training programs to help them prepare for climate change, such as adopting new irrigation methods.

“I really like the notion of ecosystem, because that’s really what we need to develop for historically underserved producers, it’s an ecosystem that serves them,” Vilsack told Bell. “You are trying, I think, to model this, and please give Shirley my sincere regards. “

After the discussion, Bell said the network of about 160 farmers participating in their projects is very concerned about the fate of the debt relief program.

“It’s huge, and it’s really important in South Georgia because it’s a rural community where there aren’t as many opportunities or jobs in the area,” she said. . “So young people find it difficult to return to the land because they have no work off the farm, and too often farmers of color struggle to create wealth, there is therefore has no way of living off the land and feeding families. of the earth. So if they are able to alleviate the debt, it is an obstacle that they do not have to endure to try to get back to the land or to transfer the land to the next generation.

Cornelius Blanding, executive director of the Federation of Southern Co-operatives / Land Aid Fund, agreed. He said he had worked with the USDA for 25 years and saw the gap between black families who were historically denied benefits and white families who received them.

“And certainly because it was stopped because of this lawsuit, a lot of them started to really look forward to it and started planning operations around it,” he said. “So if this debt relief doesn’t go through, I’m afraid a lot of black farmers go bankrupt, a lot more will.” If this debt relief passes, we believe it will be one of those tools to help save some of these black farms, some of these black landowners.