Catching Up With … Veronica Womack
Executive Director, Rural Studies Institute, Georgia College, Milledgeville
Veronica Womack’s research includes the Pigford cases, settled in 1999 and 2010, under which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) acknowledged it had discriminated against Black farmers and agreed to financial compensation. She founded the Black Farmers Network to provide education and advocacy. These are edited highlights from an interview.
Q: Tell us about the Rural Studies Institute (RSI). I understand it was established out of concern for disparities in rural areas and an interest in rural development. Is that primarily agriculture?
A: Ag is a big piece, but there are other issues: leadership development, entrepreneurship, physical infrastructure development, changing the mindset of what your community could look like. RSI is a bridge between academics and community.
Q: And what is the Black Farmers Network (BFN)?
A: BFN grew out of my research on agricultural policies. I wanted to specifically look at Black farmers and their relationship with USDA after the Pigford settlements. Many of the farmers I came into contact with were elderly. That was different from what I was seeing in urban farmers. Right now there is a burgeoning urban farm movement within the African-American community, a focus on farming and health. I don’t see it in rural areas. Young people I talked to didn’t necessarily see themselves farming in rural places. That’s where most African-American land ownership is, in rural communities in the Black Belt. [I wanted to] figure out how I can disseminate research and make the public more aware. So I came up with the idea of having a web presence [blackfarmersnetwork.com] that shared the history, shared the research, shared the African-American agrarian experience.
Q: What were the experiences of Black farmers that led to the Pigford settlements?
A: The issue is discriminatory practices within agriculture programs historically. There was great difficulty in African-American farmers being able to have access to credit – ag is all about credit. If you’re not able to get credit, then you may not be able to buy the seeds and equipment you need and pay your workers. It puts you at a very big disadvantage. Many Black farmers, if they couldn’t get money through traditional means, had to go to other means to get resources. Many lost farms. USDA acknowledging its wrong-doing was huge.
Q: The American Rescue Plan that Congress passed this year allocates some $5 billion for Black farmers, most of it in the form of debt forgiveness. Why that is important?
A: These farmers for many generations were not allowed the resources to be successful. They weren’t allowed access to loan programs, to proper outreach and extension efforts other farmers were able to get. This is about undoing generations of wrong. Debt relief is a way to allow farmers to really build up their business. [Editor’s note: In June, a federal judge halted the debt relief program indefinitely, ruling that it is potentially unconstitutional.]
Q: Is helping Black farmers an economic development issue?
A: When we talk about economic development, it doesn’t always have to be that you’re recruiting industry into a community – that’s a big part of it, but for me it’s about local communities being sustainable and what can we do to support the small businesses we locally have, the farmers we have – and building the networks to sustain them in small communities. Overall, the infrastructure of agriculture in Georgia is phenomenal. We have a very strong state ag department. African-American farmers in Georgia also have an infrastructure of co-ops that assist. However, those co-ops need more resources. Many have had to do what USDA was not doing.
Q: What would you like to see happen for Black farmers?
A: I’d love to see a real focus on succession planning, making sure farmers successfully pass farms on to the next generation or that there is some plan for making sure land and ownership are preserved in the community. I’d love for agribusinesses to make a concerted effort to work with Black farmers. A lot are now interested in developing diversity, equity and inclusion programs. So beyond the commercials and the statements, what are you putting into place to use Black farmers as suppliers? We need markets. Walmart, Publix, Whole Foods – help us open those markets up. I’m excited about the diversity focus, but we want markets.