MILWAUKEE — The American Rescue Plan, passed earlier this month, includes $5 billion in aid for debt relief for socially disadvantaged farmers. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), that group includes Black, Hispanic, Asian-American and Indigenous farmers.
This is assistance some say they've been waiting generations for.
Robert Pierce decided to get into farming about three decades ago.
"I grow lots of stuff. Whatever goes to a farmer's market and stuff like that, I grow."
He also runs Neighborhood Food Solutions in the Madison area.
But his years in the farm industry haven't come without challenges. Like other Black farmers across the country, he's often faced trouble accessing and buying his own land. So, he's always leased the land he farms.
"It's just the process of being able to get loans to buy land, and I just never had enough," Pierce said.
Discrimination, he said, probably played in role in his inability to get some of those loans.
The struggle of owning land and having debts on loans is a struggle dating back to slavery, broken promises following the civil war and continued discrimination from USDA.
"This is not just episodic, it's historic," said UW Madison Associate Professor of Environmental Justice Monica M. White. "It's not just a moment, it's something that the entity that was established to support farmers was actually discriminating against farmers."
And over the years, that has resulted in fewer and fewer Black farmers across the country. That decline can especially be seen in the last 100 years.
According to USDA data, in 1920 14% of all farm operators were Black. By 2017, that number dropped under 2%.
In Wisconsin, .07% of farms are Black-run, which is just about 70 farmers across the state.
"[Farmers of color] haven't been given equitable treatment, not just equal treatment but equitable treatment, when it comes to these types of programs," said Wisconsin Farmers Union Government Relations Director Nick Levendofsky.
The American Rescue Plan is trying to make up some of that by offering aid to farmers of color.
"When people say 'why Black farmers?' Because the history of not paying for labor during slavery, not giving the 40 acres and a mule, and all the ways Black farmers have been discriminated against," White said.
About $4 billion of the funding is pledged to erase debt for socially disadvantaged farmers with loans involving USDA. The rest is earmarked for training, technical assistance and other programs.
"This is really the beginning of righting some wrongs in our country," Levendofsky said.
Pierce and White say this aid is just the beginning of the conversation. More support and access to land are still needed.
"If you can give them the land and some of the equipment, or a way to educate and show them how to do this, that's the way to do this and get by," Pierce said.
White said, "We cannot allow another generation to ask the question of whether or not there will be Black farmers, but make sure we provide the support to ensure that for future generations."
For more of White's work and research on the history of Black farmers, click here.