Earlier this year, the USDA updated the process by which female and Hispanic farmers may file discrimination claims. This was largely a response to a number of claims over the last decade filed by farmers claiming they had been denied farm loans due to their gender or ethnicity. One significant case is Love v. Vilsack, a class action lawsuit filed by a group of female farmers against the USDA. The case was filed in 2000 and has yet to be finally resolved. Another class action case, Pigford v. Glickman, claimed that the USDA discriminated against African-American farmers in a similar fashion. In 2010, after some confusion regarding farm bill funds that could be made available as compensation for the farmers involved, the claimants were ultimately awarded $1.15 billion. Similar claims have been filed by Native American farmers, as well.
The updated claims process increases the maximum compensation for female and Hispanic farmers from $50,000 to $250,000 and provides a streamlined litigation process. This is a step in the right direction, but does not address the root of the problem.
In the United States, farming is predominantly the province of white men. In the corporate, corporate organic, and small-scale organic food systems, white men run the show. As a result, female and minority farmers are often not taken seriously.
Why does it matter who grows our food? There are many reasons. The most obvious is that, as with any profession, no one should be discriminated against on the basis of gender or ethnicity. It is simply unconstitutional.
But it goes deeper than that. Food is one of the most basic necessities of life. Knowing how to grow food gives a person or group considerable independence. That is one reason that many people enjoy gardening – it is satisfying to know how to grow one’s own food and know that it is not absolutely necessary to rely upon the grocery store, or even the farmers’ market.
Giving power over this basic, life-giving necessity to one group is an act based – at least partially – in a desire for control and an attempt to maintain the status quo. By making it difficult for women and minorities to do something as fundamentally important as growing and selling food, the USDA is making a powerful statement about where it feels the power in this country lies.
What’s more, granting control of farming primarily to white men leads to a groupthink mentality. There is much that needs to be reformed in our food system. We need to promote the effective methods of farming without chemicals and in concert with nature that are found on small, organic farms. We need to support local farming and strengthen local food systems. Perhaps, if the nation’s farming population were more diverse, we would enjoy a more productive conversation on how to accomplish these goals. That is not to assume that all white men think alike. But surely opening a dialog with individuals whose experiences are more varied would be more likely to produce new ideas.
Organizations like the National Black Farmers Association are working to address this problem. The non-profit community organization works to educate the public about the discrimination experienced by minority farmers and to mobilize African-American farmers with the goal of increasing awareness about the issue. Similarly, non-profits like People’s Grocery in Oakland, California are educating urban residents about discrimination against female and minority farmers.
With the work of non-profits like the National Black Farmers Association and People’s Grocery, as well as the efforts of the USDA to redress discrimination claims, it appears that progress is being made. However, there is still much that needs to be done if attitudes toward female and minority farmers are going to truly change.