Do All Farmers Matter?

Amid a controversy over a plan to provide debt relief to Black farmers, students dig deeply into history to grapple with the question, “Do all farmers matter?”



Share with students that on March 2021, the Biden administration allocated $4 billion in debt relief to Black farmers. The following month, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller sued the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) saying that the allocation for Black farmers discriminated against white farmers.

According to the New York Times, some rural residents who are opposed to the Biden bill have “rallied around a new slogan, cribbed from the conservative response to the Black Lives Matter movement: All Farmers Matter.”

From the outset of the Black Lives Matter movement, some people countered the “Black lives matter” rallying cry with what for them made perfect sense, “All lives matter.” Astute citizens pointed out that if someone battling breast cancer announced, “breast cancer matters,” they wouldn’t be met with “all cancers matter.”

In this lesson, students will review the history of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its relationship with both Black and white farmers and grapple with the question, “Do all farmers matter?”

Black farmers protest
Black farmers protested at the White House in 1997 in favor of the Pigford class action lawsuit. USDA

What Happened to Black Farmers?

Show students the graph in the link below, which traces the steep decline in the number of Black farmers in the U.S.

Chart, line chart

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Next, elicit from them responses to this question:

  • What might be some possible explanations for why the numbers of Black farmers declined by 98 percent during the last eight decades?

Offer one answer to that question by sharing with them the following excerpt from The Counter, a nonprofit group that investigates food issues.

How USDA Distorted Data to Conceal Decades of Discrimination Against Black Farmers:

The department has a long history of discriminating against Black farmers. That sometimes happened in overt ways: forcing people off their land, subjecting them to hostility and contempt in federal offices, and conspiring with banks and land developers to steal their property. But even when that mistreatment took a more discreet form—like routinely denying black farmers the same loans white farmers obtained with ease—its impact was still devastating. USDA and federal farm policy are largely responsible for driving Black people out of farming almost entirely. Black farmers lost around 90 percent of the land they owned between 1910 and 1997, while white farmers lost only about 2 percent over the same period.

Black Farmers Timeline

Using audio and print material, students will now review the history of Black farmers and their relationship with the USDA. They will also:

  1. complete a timeline of the history of Black farmers in the U.S.
  2. compose a short-answer response to the question, “Do all farmers matter?”

Give students a copy of the timeline (see this pdf). The timeline is also included at the bottom of this lesson.

Tell students that with the next two documents, they’ll be able to complete the timeline.

1. Report to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1965

First, invite students to examine an original publication from 1965: “Equal Opportunity in Farm Programs: An Appraisal of Services Rendered by Agencies of the United States Department of Agriculture. A Report of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, 1965.”

Below is an excerpt from page five of the document. Have students highlight eight key words they can use to help them compose one sentence to fill in the timeline for the 1965 (February) entry.

I. THE PROBLEM IN PERSPECTIVE The position of the Negro farmer in America has been dictated to a large extent by the economic and social history of the South and particularly by the problems of Southern agriculture.' The nature of these problems can be seen in the fact that the need for agricultural reform has been a recurrent regional theme and that for decades proposals to bring into being "the New South" have included land ownership, crop diversification, and soil conservation.'

Many of the South's agricultural troubles have long been seen as the lingering legacy of a plantation system based on the dominance of cotton in its social and economic life. While rural America has shared less than our cities in the benefits of national economic advances, Southern agriculture has been even less fortunate and in the rural South the Negroes have benefited least. Among the problems inherent in the plantation economy were a tenancy system founded on exploitation of the Negro and a credit system which made it almost impossible for small farmers to obtain loans for expansion or for tenants to purchase land. 

Example entry:

Key words: Negro farmer; history; benefited; least; exploitation; credit system; impossible; loans

The United States Commission on Civil Rights reported that throughout history, Negro farmers have been exploited and have benefited least because the USDA credit system made it impossible for them to get loans.  

2. Pigford Decision, 1999

Next, have students read about the landmark Pigford decision of 1999. Read the first seven paragraphs only.

Students should summarize the information and fill in the 1999 (April) timeline entry.

Exploring News & Views

1. “You Can Feel the Tension,” New York Times, 2021

Have students read aloud the first seven paragraphs of the New York Times feature “You Can Feel the Tension: A Windfall for Minority Farmers Divides Rural America” below:

2. “Young Black Farmers Defying a Legacy of Discrimination,” Vice News, 2019

Have students watch this 10-minute video:

Ask students to share their thoughts on the article and the video.

3. “U.S.D.A. Plans to Pay Debt Relief for Minority Farmers After Months of Delay,” The Takeaway, 2021

Play this 7-minute NPR audio segment from “The Takeaway” (June 7, 2021). Begin at 12:55 and end at 20:02.

4. Texas Commissioner on why he opposes debt relief for Black farmers

Lastly, play the video below so students hear, firsthand, the reasoning behind the Texas Agricultural Commissioner’s lawsuit against the USDA. Stop the video at the 2:59 mark.


Ask students to share one thought or feeling they’re sitting with after all they’ve read and watched today.  



Have students answer, either in class or for homework, this short-answer question:

  • Do all farmers matter?

In their answer, students should state their opinion on whether they think the $4 billion debt relief for Black farmers discriminates against white farmers and support their argument with evidence.

Timeline: Black Farmers and the USDA

pdf version

1965 (February):



1999 (April)



2010 (December)

President Barack Obama signed a $1.15 billion measure (Pigford II) to fund a settlement initially reached between the Agriculture Department and minority farmers in 1999.

2013 (August)

Compensation payments totaling $1.25 billion were approved for 17,665 Pigford II claims. Over 39,000 were submitted. Farmers began submitting claims in 2011 after the Pigford II settlement was signed into law by President Obama. About $1.06 billion had been paid out earlier on the 15,749 Pigford I claims that were approved (out of 22,721 eligible submissions).

2018 (December)

President Donald J. Trump signed into law a farm bill that provided $867 billion in aid to U.S. farmers.

2021 (March)

President Joe Biden allocates $4 billion in debt relief to Black farmers.

2021 (April)

Texas Agricultural Commissioner, Sid Miller sues the United States Department of Agriculture for racial discrimination for awarding $4 billion of debt relief to Black farmers while excluding white farmers.