BYROMVILLE — When Sylvester Bembry inherited the family farm in Hawkinsville from his parents, he inherited the debt that came with it. Debt that he doesn’t want to pass on to the next generation.
“All we can do is pray about it," he said. “And hopefully it will work out.”
For decades, Black farmers have struggled to overcome financial hardships while the federal agency tasked with aiding them is riddled with discriminatory practices. With a history of racially biased lending programs under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 17,000 Black farmers indebted to the agency have been driven into foreclosure.
Many of those Black farmers — desperate for help — surrounded the bed of a pickup truck at Jibbs Vineyard in Byromville Tuesday. In a town with a population of a little less than 600, dozens showed up to hear Georgia's first Black U.S. senator promise change.
With his election, U.S. Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock has pledged a mission to put long overdue relief into the pockets of the suffering farmers and do his best to tackle larger racial injustices written into the framework of the USDA. He’s made good on the first step of his promise: $5 billion written into the most recent federal COVID-19 relief package specifically to help aid the recovery for farmers of color.
"I know you've been waiting a long time,” Warnock told the crowd in Byromville. "And you've been struggling a long time. But know that we're here with you. And for you. And when we help the Black farmers, we're not just helping the Black farmers, we're helping the agricultural community.”
But with the slow trickle down of dollars into farmers’ pockets and the USDA again being led by Tom Vilsack, who many say fell far short of addressing racial inequities under the Obama administration, Black farmers are wary.
While hopeful of Warnock's promise, some Black farmers say they are not blind to the obstacles in changing a bureaucratic system that has discriminated against them for decades.
"The only way these 17,000 Black farmers could get out of this debt is to die,” said Eddie Slaughter, a third-generation farmer from Buena Vista. “... A landless people is a helpless people.”
In 2017, according to the USDA, only about 49,000 farmers out of 3.4 million across the country were Black — with 2,870 of those in Georgia. The number is down from nearly a million Black farmers a century ago.
But people don't need to look far back in history for evidence of blatant racial discrimination in agriculture, Warnock said. Last year, Black farmers received “next to nothing” in coronavirus relief.
“This discrimination that we're talking about is not just historic discrimination,” he said. "You don't have to go back that far. Last year, Black farmers received one tenth of 1% of the USDA COVID-19 relief. I don’t have to go back to Reconstruction or the Civil Rights Movement."
Dr. Dewayne Goldmon, a third-generation farmer from Arkansas and the USDA’s first appointed senior advisor for racial equity, recognizes the work to be done. In an effort to build back trust, Goldmon stood with Warnock on the back of the pickup truck and faced skeptical farmers.
“We're going to relieve the debt and restore your confidence in USDA in one move. Because you should be able to come back to the door, apply for a loan, and be treated fairly and equitably in the execution of that loan, and be able to do business,” Goldmon said. “... The goal is to fix USDA so you will feel welcome coming back in.”
Farmers told Warnock and Goldmon stories of pending foreclosures, veterans unable to access USDA resources to start their farms, others who couldn’t get loans from the Farm Service Agency. In conversations after the event, many detailed hardships that fueled their distrust in the USDA — trust that, they said, may never be won back.
“We've had such an adversarial relationship over the years. When you walk into the USDA you really walk into a hostile environment,” Slaughter said. "And because nobody has ever been punished for discriminatory practices they do, everybody feels comfortable doing it.”
Despite how badly he needs money for equipment to revive his farming operation, he said, he won’t be turning to the USDA for help and others echoed the sentiment.
“If you go stick your hand in a hole and a rattlesnake bite it the first time, and you go back the second time, and stick your hand and he bites you again,” said Lucious Abrams, a Waynesboro farmer. “What do you think he’ll do the third time?”
Warnock clinched the influential position as chair of the Senate subcommittee that oversees agriculture during his first term in office, adding the weight of responsibility to oversee change to fairer treatment of Black farmers in Georgia and nationwide — including cultivating a relationship of trust.
“This is something that goes back from generations, for generations, people have experienced discrimination, often at the hands of their own government — at the hands of the USDA,” he said. “And what I hear and feel as I move around in communities like this is the longevity, and the depth of that pain and disappointments.”
Warnock said he expects the coronavirus relief he spearheaded to come to farmers of color in a matter of weeks.
“That deep distrust was built over years, it didn't happen overnight," he said. "But the best thing we can do right now is to deliver this. I think if we deliver on this commitment, that will go a long way in beginning to rebuild trust.”