Booker, Warnock bring social justice goals to Agriculture panel

Both have called for fairer USDA policies for small, minority farmers

Booker's move to Senate Agriculture could give him a platform to promote legislation seeking fairer USDA treatment of Black farmers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Booker's move to Senate Agriculture could give him a platform to promote legislation seeking fairer USDA treatment of Black farmers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 3, 2021 at 5:00am

The Senate Agriculture Committee will get two new Democratic members who are likely to try to hold the Biden administration to its pledge to address federal policies that adversely affect Black communities and other minorities.

Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, who are both Black, have called for fairer Agriculture Department policies to aid small or minority farmers.

Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., announced the Senate Agriculture Committee’s roster Tuesday. Booker, Warnock and Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., are the panel’s three new Democratic members. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., will be chairwoman. Warnock defeated Agriculture Committee member Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., in a December runoff. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., is also no longer on the committee.

Warnock said during his campaign that he would fight for Georgia agriculture, an important industry in the state. Warnock's platform also called for leveling “the playing field for Black and minority farmers by expanding access to capital for equipment and financial resources and ending discriminatory policies at the federal level that limit opportunities.”

Warnock noted that his state had a significant number of Black farmers although nationally they account for less than 2 percent of all farmers.  

Booker tweeted after his appointment to the committee that "our food system is broken. Family farmers are struggling while factory farms & Big Ag profit. Affordable, fresh food is harder to find in rural & urban areas. 35+ million Americans are food insecure. Excited to join @SenateAgDems to address these urgent issues & more."

He introduced sweeping legislation to address Black farmers late in the 116th Congress with cosponsors Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. His appointment to the committee gives him a better platform to work with Gillibrand, also a panel member, to advance a revised version of the bill this Congress. He could file the new legislation later this month.  

Booker's 2020 bill would have created a USDA program to administer land grants that could move 32 million acres over 10 years to Black farmers. Each farmer could receive up to 160 acres and would be eligible for USDA operating loans and mortgages at low interest rates.

The land grants would expand land holdings of a group of farmers that studies show lost land and wealth over decades because of discrimination in government and private lending that denied Black farmers the financing necessary to retain their property and expand their operations.

The 2020 bill also would have established an Equity Commission to review the history of USDA discrimination that prompted the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit that alleged department officials in county offices denied Black farmers timely loans, debt restructuring and other services from 1981 to 1997 in a pattern of racial discrimination. The federal government ended the case in 1999 with a $1 billion settlement that provided $50,000 per farmer and debt payments to about 16,000 people.

Farmers who missed the deadline set in the original case for filing claims to receive payments filed a subsequent lawsuit that resulted in a negotiated agreement for $1.25 billion in February 2010. The 2008 farm bill provided $100 million of the settlement, but Congress did not approve the remaining balance until November 2010.