Nate Bradford’s relationship with the USDA started about two decades ago, when he was fresh out of college, and decided he wanted to be a rancher.
He needed land and a loan to buy it. So he went to the branch of the USDA that deals with loans, the Farm Service Agency.
He got one loan to buy 160 acres of land and another loan to buy cattle. Soon enough, he had a herd of about 100 cows.
But several years after Nate got started, something out of his control happened. A drought.
It raised the prices of the hay Nate needed to feed his cows. At that time, he wasn’t growing hay yet on the ranch, so he had to buy the feed.
NATE: And I couldn’t afford to buy the hay at that, at that time.
Nate says he needed another 10 grand to buy enough hay to get through the winter.
So he made a tough decision: sell some cows to make enough money to feed the others, and to cover the next payment on his livestock loan.
But the buyers knew about the drought. They knew that producers like Nate were desperate.
NATE: At that point the vultures, it’s like, yeah, he ain’t got no money, you
know, I ain’t giving you shit. I’m here to pay you nothing for your stuff, you know,
because where you gonna go with your cows? You ain’t got no hay. You ain’t got
no grass, you can’t… So they just giving us nothing for the cows.
In the end, the sale made enough for Nate to buy the hay, but not enough for him to make his loan payment.
And that’s really when Nate’s trouble with the FSA started — with this one, important loan. A loan central to his business.
Because of the drought, Nate hoped his loan officer could give him some flexibility. That’s what FSA loan officers are expected to do — although it can depend on the office and its leadership.
FSA loan officers are often well-versed in the ups and downs of agriculture, especially in their local markets. And they know shifts in the weather or the markets can suddenly, dramatically change a producer’s profits.
And so, when Nate talked to his loan officer about the drought, he thought the officer might take it into account and give Nate some flexibility by restructuring or changing the terms of his loan.
But instead, Nate says the loan officer told him to sell more, almost all, of his cows. And then, the FSA would write down the loan.
They’d reduce what Nate owed the FSA, to make it easier for him to keep up his payments.
NATE: I chewed on it and thought well, you know, this could be the end ‘cause once I sell these cows that’s the factory. So we going, you know, I can’t get the factory back once I done sold the factory.
After all, what’s a rancher without cattle? Without his main source of revenue?
But if he couldn’t make his loan payments, Nate’s debt would pile up and he could end up losing a lot more than his cattle.
So Nate decided to sell his cows.
In the middle of a winter storm, he took 52 cows, 8 calves, and 2 bulls to the stockyards.
NATE: It was snowing, it was raining and I was getting stuck. And we was
hustling cows. So we get ’em all up to the sale barn.
The bad weather lasted so long that the cows were stuck at the sale barn for a few weeks. While they were there, Nate says he had to pay for their food and care.
Between that, and a bad market because of the drought, by the time the cows sold, Nate didn’t make much profit from them.
NATE: I sold them in the snowstorm. It was like, you know I mean if you can look, you can imagine somebody, you know, hear this story as a rancher you probably be like shoot. Yeah, you gave ’em away. So I gave the cows away and um went back into the Farm Service Agency and never restructured my loan. And at that point, that’s when the battle began.
The Farm Service Agency didn’t restructure his loan.
His loan officer didn’t do what Nate says he promised to do.
Come spring, Nate still had his old loan payments to make and just a few cows.
And that was just the start.
My name is April Simpson and from the Center for Public Integrity, this is The Heist.
What we’re telling you today is Nate’s story.
We confirmed with documents where we could, but it’s mostly his version of events. We asked officials at the Farm Service Agency for their side of the story, but they said they can’t talk about individual borrowers because they’re prohibited from sharing personal information.
So we don’t know what we don’t know.
But here is what’s important: Nate’s story illustrates many of the documented problems of Black farmers who are trying to make it in agriculture. So many of those problems involve access to credit.
For many Black farmers, the contact they have with the USDA is local… through offices at the state and county level. Those offices, the Farm Service Agency, manage programs like farm loans. When farmers and ranchers can’t get a loan from a regular bank… and they often can’t… the FSA is their lender of last resort.
There are decades of clear, strong evidence showing that the FSA has deliberately discriminated against Black farmers.
And at the heart of that discrimination, is how the FSA manages loans.
When a farmer falls behind on their loan, the FSA can use a bunch of tools to collect on debt.
In the past, Black farmers have said the FSA pushed them into financial instability and then used those debt collection tools harshly. Black farmers believed that, over decades, the FSA tried to force them off their land and out of business.
I wanted to know whether those mechanisms of discrimination are still at play today — affecting younger Black farmers and ranchers, like Nate.
One of the reasons I wanted to focus on Nate, is because his story shows us some of the ways the FSA can sink a rancher’s chances of making it – one decision at a time.
Nate’s story is complicated. It spans more than 20 years.
There are lots of financial terms and details. But bear with me. After hours of talking with Nate, he suggests three key ways the Farm Service Agency made it harder for him to succeed.
Here’s the first way:
When Nate sold those cows in the snowstorm – sold the factory, as he put it – he went from owning about 100 cows to just a small herd. He basically had to start from scratch again.
NATE: It takes years to get back to the numbers.
But Nate still had his land, his house, and his commitment to becoming a full-time rancher. He wasn’t going to just give up.
With a smaller herd, the loan payments were likely to be even harder to make than before. So Nate says that he kept trying to get his loan restructured to get some financial breathing room while he built his herd back up.
But Nate’s second loan officer, the one who told him to sell the cows, left. Nate remembers that there was a lot of turnover in the FSA around that time.
NATE: They started consolidating offices and stuff, shutting down offices and
moving people here and there. And so my application got moved.
So Nate explained everything to a new officer who didn’t know his history or what he’d already been through with the FSA, how the drought had hit him, or how selling all those cattle cut so badly into the ranch’s potential profits, making G Line more unstable.
Nate says that he had to tell all of this to the new officer, convince him that G Line could make money and thrive, if the FSA would just restructure his loan.
The officer came to Nate’s house for a meeting about all of it.
NATE: Just nothing, nothing good enough. And pretty much ended up with the
man sitting there in this front room here telling me I can’t afford this place and I just need to sell it.
When Nate told me this, we were sitting at his oval dining room table, surrounded by warm maroon walls.
A carved wooden G Line Ranch sign was by the table. And it was hard for me to imagine how much it would hurt to be told, in this home he shares with his wife and children, his safe space, that it can’t be yours anymore.
NATE: Sitting in this house looking at that same entertainment center I got today telling me that I can’t afford this place.
APRIL: What was going through your mind?
NATE: You dirty dogs, you know? They pretty much talked me into selling my cows. I mean you just, these are things, you know, if anybody listening out there you know dealing with these people. They’re not working for you. They’re working to get you out this business.
They’re working to get you out of this business. This is what I hear a lot from Black farmers: that what the Farm Service Agency really wants is to push them out of the industry.
And I can see how Nate got to that conclusion. Because the FSA could have helped him get through the drought without selling any cows. According to Nate, there was money set aside for him, in his supervised bank account.
A supervised bank account is part of some FSA loans. The account has money from the loan, and also money from profits a farmer or rancher might have brought in. But to spend the funds in the account, the borrower needs approval from the FSA, according to the plan or agreement that the FSA and the borrower had in place.
An agency handbook says, borrowers may have “limited financial skills with cash management” — so these types of accounts are supposed to ensure funds are spent properly.
Nate says he asked his loan officers to release that money to build his herd back up, but the officers refused.
NATE: That was the easiest thing to do but what I honestly feel like is at that point you know when you, I just wasn’t in his eyes worthy of it, you know what I mean? I’d, you know, been counted out, stereotyped.
During this time, the FSA exerted its power in a second, big way. It used a tool to collect on Nate’s debt: offsets.
Offsets are kind of like garnishing someone’s wages, but it’s not an employer doing it: it’s the US government.
Many farmers rely on subsidies from the USDA to survive. They are a buffer for all the things that can go wrong in agriculture: they might include payments to get through a drought or a nasty winter.
Over the past couple of decades, subsidies have made up anywhere from 8 to 46 percent of the average farmers’ income. They’re often the deciding factor in whether or not a farmer makes any profit.
But if a rancher is behind on a loan, the FSA can take some of that subsidy money and apply it to their loan payments, right when they are most likely to need those funds to make it through a tough spot.
NATE: I mean, I needed everything, you know what I mean? It’s just somebody always taking your money before you get your money. How you ever gonna position yourself to make any money? Know what I mean?
Here’s what I really want to emphasize about the FSA’s power: Its loan officers have a lot of discretion in how they manage loans.
They can choose how helpful to be. They can choose to offer a rancher flexibility during a drought — or not. They can choose to release funds to help a rancher build their herd back up — or not.
Nate saw the FSA’s full power in action earlier, when the FSA did agree to defer payments on smaller loans he had taken out.
But now, Nate says, every loan officer he dealt with kept choosing not to help him when it came to this big, important loan.
So, Nate was left with his small herd and his big loan payments, and he tried to stay afloat. He decided to grow hay on his land, and sell it to other ranchers. He bought a tractor so he could do that.
He put his spare time and savings, including his 401k, into the ranch, all while raising kids and working a full-time job. He was doing everything he could do — but he wasn’t getting the support he needed from the FSA.
And remember, if you need a loan as a rancher, there might not be anywhere else to turn to. So Nate says that he kept going back and forth, back and forth for years, trying to get the agency to restructure his loan.
And then, after President Obama was elected, Nate says something did change at the FSA.
NATE: I don’t know what’d maybe happened in there but um we went from afford it—we can’t afford it, to now they’re gonna restructure our loan. We’re gonna come back in 5 years and we’re gonna um look at, assess your operation but we’re gonna look at it in 5 years.
Over those 5 years, the loan was going to be deferred: Nate was not expected to make payments on it. And having this big loan set aside for 5 years felt like progress.
He was hoping that, at the end of the 5 years, when the FSA came around to finally restructure his loan, things would turn around. His loan payments wouldn’t be so big. The FSA had even promised to write off some of Nate’s debt.
And that brings me to the third way the FSA used its power against Nate.
NATE: Dust off this stuff. Just kinda gives me chills thinking about it.
To tell me, and our producer Camille, about what happened after those 5 years passed, Nate brings over big file folders full of paperwork held together by binder clips.
It takes him many trips, between the dining table and the hallway, to pull it all out.
NATE: In this business of dealing with FSA, you have to, you know, you end up being an appraisal guy, shit, man, I had to, it gets so complicated. You know what I mean? ‘Cause you just, it’s like so much level of knowledge that you know because they don’t care. People will rob you.
CAMILLE: You have to learn about a lot of things you probably prefer not to have to learn about.
NATE: Exactly. I just wanna put some seed in the ground and watch the grass grow. Right? Feed cows, but I learned about appraisals. If I could afford, I would just pay somebody to figure all that stuff out for me, but, uh, just kinda kind of gotta do it all yourself.
After the five years had passed, as part of restructuring his loan, the FSA appraised Nate’s property. The appraisal would help the FSA calculate Nate’s assets — and, how much he would owe the agency.
An appraisal is basically trying to figure out: How much is your property worth? How much would you make if you sold it?
So after years of Nate struggling to hold onto his land, his business, and his house, an FSA appraiser, a stranger, showed up on Nate’s land to assess it.
NATE: The appraisal guy comes out, he just, he had an attitude when he
come out and real snobby. And you can tell he was well coached on when he came out to do what he did. You know, I didn’t want him in my house. I tell him, you know, just come round, you can just appraise it by square footage and stuff like that. And he was, he just, just arrogant and an asshole about it all.
Nate didn’t like his attitude, but what bothered him more was the outcome of the appraisal.
In 2009, the appraisal valued his property at $280,000. In 2015, the appraisal landed at $460,000. That’s a difference of $180,000 dollars in just six years.
Now, you might think, hey that’s great: don’t you want your property to be more valuable?
But, in this case, the high appraisal gave the FSA grounds to not forgive as much debt as Nate had expected five years earlier. The FSA could argue that, if he just sold land, he could pay off his debt.
NATE: If you’re worth X, Y, Z we’re not going forgive that amount because you’re
worth it. You sell that, you’re going to get this and you’d make this.
Sitting at the dining table, with all these file folders open, Nate’s pointing to the old appraisal and the newer one. He says the FSA did these appraisals differently:
Here’s one of his examples: there’s an old, rusting barn on Nate’s property that he wants to tear down. He says it’s basically useless right now. In the first appraisal, it was valued at around $4,000. This time, it was valued at $17,000, a 300% increase.
Another example: when you appraise a property, you look for comparisons, other properties like the one you’re assessing. Nate says instead the appraiser compared his land to places that are worth more per acre.
NATE: So it’s kinda like, I don’t know how it is in New York, but you got the rich
side and you got the poor side. So you roll out here and see to get your appraisals high, where do you go? If you want high, you gonna go to the rich side. All that evidence in here, all this right here shows what he did. And then you can take the old appraisal, which is when we bought this place, look at the approach that they took. It was not the same approach. [Nate’s talking starts fading out]
Nate seems so frustrated, talking about the appraisal. It was meant to be a moment for him to start over with the FSA. But instead, he saw the FSA making the same kinds of decisions: decisions that hurt his chances at succeeding.
But Nate knew the appraisal wasn’t right. There was no way his property would actually sell for $460,000 — so he fought back.
NATE: So I hire us an appraiser and my appraiser comes down a lot less.
About $70,000 less.
Nate ended up in a hearing with the National Appeals Division of the USDA. Judges at these hearings issue determinations that the USDA is supposed to follow. But they have no authority to actually enforce their decisions.
NATE: It was ruled in my favor that the numbers were screwed. Because it’s not
Even though the judge decided in Nate’s favor, a second assessment from the FSA came back pretty much the same.
After all the back and forth, what the Farm Service Agency ended up forgiving was about 7% of his 2010 debt.
So Nate calls this a “hijacked” appraisal, because he says it doomed his chances of getting his loan restructured in a meaningful way.
He had waited all those years to get some debt written off and ultimately, Nate says it was worse than just a waste of time because the write-down meant he couldn’t get any additional loans from the agency.
NATE: You can go to the Farm Service Agency right now and borrow one point
something million dollars, but guess who can’t go borrow that money? Me. Any loan, any servicing, guess who can’t go back to the agency? Me.
Nate says that he’s been told both that he could take out more loans, and then that he could not.
He says he gave up trying to figure out what was true. I looked into this, and found out that technically Nate could be eligible for more FSA loans but he would have to go back and pay off the debt that was forgiven and, even if he did pay it back, another loan wouldn’t be guaranteed.
NATE: Ain’t nothing but paperwork to them but this is your dream. This is your life that they dealing with but they don’t care. It’s just numbers and at that point they trying to figure out how to get you out of the system.
I reached out to the Oklahoma FSA about Nate’s story, and about bigger questions of discrimination against Black farmers and ranchers. They referred me to the Washington headquarters, which did not respond to my questions.
To be fair, as I mentioned, it is not allowed to share details on specific borrowers.
But there are a few things we learned about patterns at the agency from data we were able to see.
According to that data, Black borrowers had the highest loan delinquency rates among all racial and ethnic groups, between fiscal years 2015 and 2022.
Black borrowers of direct loans — like Nate had — are nearly four times as likely to default on their loans as white borrowers.
The disparity could be the result of a number of systemic problems Black farmers face: less access to or participation in helpful farm loan programs; a lack of cash flow that means farmers are merely surviving from one year to the next; or a lack of flexibility from their loan officers.
Today’s Farm Service Agency leadership says they are deeply committed to ensuring equitable treatment of farmers and ranchers.
The federal Administrator of the FSA, Zach Ducheneaux, says that its farm loan team is institutionalizing an approach that’s built for flexibility and “exercising discretion in favor of the producer instead of keeping them out.”
I had the opportunity to ask Ducheneax more about that:
April Simpson: You mentioned that farm loan programs, or lenders will have a lot of discretion in how they manage loans, and my understanding is that they’ve always had a lot of discretion in how they’ve managed loans. So I’m wondering, how do we know that this time will be different, especially for black farmers?
Zach Ducheneaux: Well, I mean not to be blunt, but I don’t think you’ve ever had an Fsa Administrator that says your job is to get out there and get to yes, where you can. And the Secretary has demonstrated his commitment to this in the selection of folks that are serving this cause and, our goal Now for the remainder of our time here is to start to institutionalize this and work on a culture change in the agency of exercising that discretion to the benefit of the producers in our farm loan team. Lenders that are, you know, you. We don’t consider our team lenders. That’s our commercial credit partners and we have limited influence on them in what decisions they make. Our relationship in our guaranteed loan programs is with the lender to mitigate their risk. And the lender’s relationship is with the borrower. So there’s some work that we hope to do in that regard as well to ensure that, as a participant in that transaction, we are taking a look at what’s in the borrower’s best interest.
Essentially, if a producer has a guaranteed loan from one of the USDA’s commercial lenders, Ducheneaux is saying the FSA can only do so much to help them. However, when it comes to FSA direct loans, he says that the agency wants to meet farmers and ranchers where they are…
It’s the kind of flexibility that could have helped Nate when he was in trouble with the FSA.
Willard Tillman, is the executive director of the Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project, an Oklahoma-based organization that works closely with the state’s small minority farmers, including helping them to navigate USDA programs. Tillman told me that the agency had been unfriendly to Black ranchers like Nate. When they went into the office, they weren’t treated as clients, he said. They were treated as risks.
But Tillman says the operations of younger farmers like Nate may be more sustainable now because they understand how the system works.
Nate says throughout this long battle, he felt deeply alone. He had no one to turn to for advice or help. He didn’t know any Black farmers who had figured out how to get what they needed from the FSA.
And here he was, at the end of a two-decade fight, also unable to get what he needed from this agency. He had tried doing what they suggested, he had tried fighting back, but either way he kept losing.
NATE: The Blacks in this business, they didn’t survive. They didn’t beat no cases. They didn’t win nothing. If they did, those older guys, they kept it a secret. They might have been going through and you never knew it. And I think a lot of producers did that. I mean, ‘cause it’s kinda shameful. Right? You know, you feel ‘cause in the beginning of this deal, I’m gonna open up to you guys but in the beginning, you know, it’s embarrassing. Um, it’s just you know, you a man, you losing your stuff. Oh, you should just pay your bills. You know, but then when find out and get educated you see how these other producers been staying in business. How easy it is to stay in business if you got somebody working with you, not against you.
A Civil Rights report issued by the USDA in 1997 describes it as one of the last federal departments to integrate, and to include women and minorities in leadership positions. The report says it’s considered by many to be stubborn and slow to change.
Tracy McCurty is an attorney and the Executive Director of the Black Belt Justice Center. She has spent decades working with Black farmers affected by USDA discrimination and talking to her helped me connect Nate’s experience to a much bigger history.
MCCURTY: You would often hear farmers talk about acts of sabotage where their loans were either denied, delayed so they didn’t receive the funds in a timely manner. You’ll hear farmers talk about having to drive 40 miles to the FSA office, only for the loan officer not to be there.
Nate’s dad told me about watching loan officers help white farmers with applications, while he was sent home with a big stack of forms to figure out on his own.
And if Black farmers were approved for a loan, they might get the money late in the season — too late for it to help increase their yield, which meant they’d have a hard time paying the loan back.
And then, the FSA could use the same tool they used on Nate – offsets – to cut into their subsidy money.
MCCURTY: Many of the Black farmers did not participate in these subsidy
programs over the last 25 years because they knew that USDA would just offset it and take all the resources from them. So imagine what Black farmers have been denied over the last 25 years. It was a tool to cripple and destroy the Black agricultural land base.
One of the striking things about USDA discrimination is that it’s far from a secret.
When I first started reporting on this, there was lots of documentation: research reports, congressional hearing transcripts, carefully reported articles, all detailing decades-long, systemic discrimination.
In the 1960s, during the civil rights era, when other agencies were trying to reform, the USDA was doubling down on discrimination.
MCCURTY: We actually have civil rights reports that go back to 1965. We have a copy of the DJ Miller report from 1996, The CRAT Report, and these reports documented pervasive anti-black racism in the delivery of loans, in the delivery of subsidies, in the delivery of disaster assistance and conservation programs.
These reports are damning. The Civil Rights Action Team or, CRAT, report from 1997 — which was written by USDA employees — found that “managers at the USDA operate in a system that does not hold them accountable when they break the law.”
Despite all the documentation, the USDA hasn’t done much to address discrimination. In fact, President Reagan actually dismantled the USDA’s Office of Civil Rights — it reopened in 1996.
But during the entire George W. Bush presidency, there was only one finding of discrimination out of something like 14,000 claims.
That just doesn’t line up with what I hear from Black farmers and ranchers.
So much of what we know about USDA discrimination comes from testimonies in hearings and lawsuits, from interviews and letters: those all create a strong impression that the department has robbed Black farmers and ranchers of land and wealth.
But I’ve been trying to sharpen that impression through USDA data: through the department’s own numbers.
I want a systemic understanding of how the USDA manages the loans of Black farmers and ranchers.
And I want to know if the discrimination of the past is still at play today.
I talked about the data my colleagues and I have requested with one of our producers, Camille.
CAMILLE: When you’re after that kind of data, how can you try to get it? What
tools are available to you?
APRIL: The tool that I use is a FOIA request or a Freedom of Information Act
request, and it’s something that is available to anyone to request government data, documents, and other information that may not be publicly or readily available.
CAMILLE: Tell me about the FOIA you filed. What did you ask for?
APRIL: A colleague and I filed this large FOIA seeking information about loans and offsets. And we wanted all that information aggregated by month, the county of residence for the applicant, their ethnicity, race, gender, and we requested that information from January 1st, 1995 through whenever they would process the request.
CAMILLE: Basically it sounds like what you asked for would give you information about change over time and demographic information about the people those loans and offsets were applying to.
APRIL: Exactly. Ultimately, we got a final response. But it did not have all the pieces that we requested. So we got loan application denials by demographic group, but we didn’t get it by demographic group and location. Or at the county level we could say like what percentage of loans are delinquent, but we couldn’t tell you on top of that, the race of those delinquent borrowers.
CAMILLE: Does the USDA have any kind of reputation for being difficult with FOIAs?
APRIL: Yes it does. And it’s kind of funny when I talk to sources about these challenges, they just say so matter of factly, like, you know, you’re not gonna get that, you’re not gonna get that. But we keep pressing forward.
CAMILLE: What do you make of that?
APRIL: I don’t know what to make of it sometimes. I mean, I feel like I’m here just to do my job and I have to, you know, make every effort to try to get what I need. But when they tell me that, and these are folks who’ve been, you know, doing advocacy work with USDA or I guess, you know, in opposition to USDA for a long time and have some, have even worked within USDA, it makes me feel like, or wonder, if I’m being a bit naive.
CAMILLE: How do you think, not just the data, not just the data you hopefully get, but like what it has been like to get the data fits into the story we’re telling about Nate and the USDA and all these other things?
APRIL: You know, Nate and other folks talk about how hard it’s been for them to advocate for themselves and to reach some of the people that they need to reach who could help them, so that they can, you know, at the same time they can do their jobs and they can thrive and move forward. But they’ve also hit these walls and I see similarities in that way. Like we’re all just trying to do our jobs and press forward, but we hit up against these systems that make that work difficult.
CAMILLE: So you know you haven’t gotten what you asked for. It’s been a while, you’re trying to report this story. What is the course of action that CPI is taking?
APRIL: We are fortunate to have a lawyer on staff who files lawsuits on our behalf. And so he is working on filing that for us.
After all these years of fighting with the FSA, one of the things that bothers Nate the most is that no loan officer, no administrator from the FSA has said: we were wrong. We didn’t give you the support you deserved.
He wants some accountability.
NATE: Sometimes you gotta get disciplined, that’s the way it works out here in the private sector where, where I come from. You on your job, you screwing up your ass is grass. You’re out.
Next time on The Heist, how Nate’s struggles with the FSA connect to the history and struggles of his hometown.
NATE: My hometown Boley, Oklahoma. It was built on agriculture. Black Wall Street, North Tulsa. It was built on ag.
This season of The Heist is hosted by me, April Simpson and brought to you by the Center for Public Integrity.
This episode was written and produced by Camille Petersen.
Our team includes Kiarra Powell, Wilson Sayre, Sara Nics, Keishel Williams, Dan O’Donnell, Mc Nelly Torres, Matt DeRienzo, Jamie Smith Hopkins, Lisa Yanick Litwiller, Ashley Clarke, Vanessa Lee, Charlie Dodge, and Janeen Jones.
Our fact checker is Peter Newbatt Smith.
Data reporting by Joe Yerardi.
This episode was mixed by Louis from Story Yard.
And this podcast was produced in partnership with the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.
Special thanks to Rural Advancement Foundation International USA.
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