More than $400,000. Nearly half a million.
That’s what Nate Bradford Jr. owed the USDA in 2010.
He’d done his best to keep up on his loan payments — working the night shift at an off-farm job, spending his weekends and vacations trying to make his ranch profitable, investing his 401k into his business.
And for years, Nate fought for some flexibility on his loans to make them easier to pay off.
But after all the arguments and hearings and offsets and appraisals — in 2015 Nate still ended up being responsible for paying nearly all the debt that had been written off from his loans.
So, he is pressing for a powerful tool: debt relief.
Nate even contributed to a legal brief with The Rural Coalition about why debt relief was so important for Black farmers and ranchers.
And in March 2021, it seemed like maybe, finally, Black farmers and ranchers would get that debt relief. In the midst of the pandemic, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill.
And within that massive bill was a new program for Black farmers and ranchers – and other farmers of color — a program that provided $4 billion of debt relief.
NATE: Oh, man, I feel like, you know, I had a new beginning. We could take all that paperwork, throw it in the trash, and just look for the future.
This was a huge moment for Nate, and for Black farmers and ranchers across the country.
It felt like recognition that they’d long wanted from the USDA — that the agency had discriminated against Black farmers, pushing many of them into crushing debt or out of business altogether.
The USDA’s website even included this statement about the American Rescue Plan:
“For generations, underserved farmers have struggled to fully succeed due to systemic discrimination, USDA programs that do not adequately meet their needs, and a cycle of debt.”
I’m April Simpson, and from the Center for Public Integrity, this is The Heist.
Debt relief for Black farmers and ranchers ties together a lot of what we’ve followed this season.
It’s what Pigford claimants were promised — though many didn’t end up getting it.
It’s part of the flexibility Nate kept asking the FSA for, without much success.
And it’s what Nate hopes can help him pass on a thriving, sustainable business to his kids — he doesn’t want them to spend their lives fighting to get out from under debt to the USDA, like he has.
Debt relief would make it possible for Nate and many other Black farmers and ranchers to create a meaningful legacy for their families — to pass down land, wealth, and tradition.
After the American Rescue Plan passed, Nate talked to other Black farmers who were excited about what debt relief could mean for their businesses and their lives.
And, listen, if you think it’s hard getting a bunch of people on a Zoom call at the same time, imagine coordinating a group of busy farmers and ranchers who might be out on a tractor all day, and then heading out to work an off-farm night shift.
NATE: So we was running around man, group texting, messaging all the Black
producers I know in the state, you know. We was trying to find time to get on that 9 or 10 o’clock, uh, zoom call, and seeing when this is gonna happen. Cause we know this is gonna be big. This is gonna change a lot of lives.
Some state offices of the USDA had started sending out letters to farmers of color, telling them how MUCH of their outstanding debt it would cancel. Some of the ranchers Nate talked to had already gotten theirs.
NATE: I was remembering I was looking for my letter and I didn’t receive my
letter. And I was like, oh crap. You know, here we go, Oklahoma, ain’t gonna send it out.
Even though he didn’t quite trust the Oklahoma USDA office, Nate kept waiting for his letter.
But within weeks of the debt relief package passing, lawsuits started cropping up across the country — white farmers were arguing that the debt relief program was unconstitutional because it was based on race, that it was discriminatory against them, white farmers.
In June 2021, a federal judge in Florida blocked implementation of the aid to farmers of color.
After years of trying to get the USDA to do something about his debt, and never getting what he fought for, Nate was frustrated that these white farmers could stop an entire program — and so quickly.
NATE: When I found out that they was going to appeal, my first thought was like,
man, look how fast this happened. When I found out that this thing was gonna go to courts, I become so passionate about it because I remember calling attorneys, calling, trying to dig. These people possied up and immediately had stuff in the court and shut the whole damn thing down. I’ve been in the ditches for years trying to get these people to do right for years. And I ain’t been able to call nobody up for no speed dial and make shit happen.
Nate did eventually get his letter from the USDA, several months after the debt relief program was first announced. And after the lawsuits trying to shut it down had already been filed.
NATE: The brakes had been put on it all. So it was just bittersweet. There’s a
letter. Oh yeah, finally got it.
Nate had hoped for a new beginning, a debt-free future.
Instead he was stuck, waiting, holding an overdue, maybe outdated letter.
MCCURTY: When Pigford 1 was in its early stages, I remember as a law
student wanting to work on the case.
We heard from Tracy McCurty earlier this season. Tracy is an attorney and the Executive Director of the Black Belt Justice Center. She’s spent her entire career fighting for debt cancellation, starting in the early 2000s with her work on the Pigford case.
MCCURTY: I worked as a law student my first year on the Pigford
lawsuit and this work feels very much like a full circle moment because we’re still fighting for justice.
APRIL: How does it feel after all these years to still be talking about some of these same issues that you worked on as a law student?
MCCURTY: Defeated at times. So we can look at the Pigford lawsuit, then you have the American Rescue Plan Act that was halted by a subset of white farmers. Black folks are the only folk in this country that can have federal legislation passed and enacted and still not get justice.
Tracy says the case for canceling Black farmers’ debt is rooted in a long history. She traces it all the way back to the founding of the US, to denying rights to Black Americans, especially rights to land ownership.
MCCURTY: What we are seeing today is the legacy of enslavement. The
righteousness of the farmer’s claim for debt cancellation actually rests on the long arc of that history, both the immediate history with USDA and going back to a system in which Black people were property and were excluded from owning property. So now as the farmers come forward and claim what is rightfully theirs for debt cancellation, it is actually being treated as a gift or a giveaway. In other words, it’s not being treated as a claim for which they have a right. It is being treated as something that maybe the government will give if it chooses to, maybe it will be treated as a form of welfare, when in fact it is actually a right that they have, that they are due under law and that has not been recognized.
While the American Rescue Plan’s debt relief program was held up in courts, the Senate drafted new legislation.
The new legislation rescinded the previous debt program and replaced it with a new one that does not prioritize farmers of color.
It’s open to any farmers who are under “financial risk” or are considered “distressed borrowers.” There are separate funds for farmers who believe they have experienced USDA lending discrimination.
Whereas the first program focused on farmers of color, the new bill does not. It was passed as part of the Inflation Reduction Act in August 2022.
And the lawsuits filed by white farmers? The issue at their center didn’t matter anymore, since the Inflation Reduction Act’s debt relief program did not target farmers and ranchers of color.
MCCURTY: We had to advance race neutral legislation that would be all inclusive of even subgroups that have benefited from racial hierarchy in this country. This says how far we have come in this country. And the fact that the Democrats, so many of the, uh, Democratic leadership, their response has been, everything has to be in response to the fear of white farmers filing another lawsuit instead of doing what’s right and just. And I remember having a conversation with my mentor, Lloyd Wright, the former director of Civil Rights about this, and I was so angry. And one of the things Mr. Wright shared with me, he said, you can get upset, but you’re gonna have to accept the fact that in order for Black farmers to receive anything in this country, white farmers are gonna have to receive the lion share and be centered. I’m still wrestling with that, but I think that was the compromise of the Inflation Reduction Act.
For Black farmers to get anything, make sure white farmers could get something too.
MCCURTY: Now, I would share this debate between two Black farmers in the Black agrarian community around the Inflation Reduction Act that I think is illuminating for your listeners. One elder said, ‘Senators Booker and Warnock gave us a fish sandwich, and y’all are complaining about the bones’ referring to the Inflation Reduction Act. And another farmer countered, ‘No, they promised us a fish sandwich and all we got were the bones.’ Both are true, multiple truths. They’re both true. The reality is that the flaw is implementation.
That’s something I’m following about this program: whether the implementation actually delivers on what lawmakers promised the program would achieve.
The Paycheck Protection Program is a prime example of why it’s so important to track this. Congress wanted the Small Business Administration to target certain groups, like small businesses in low-income communities and businesses owned by people of color. But that didn’t happen. And by the time the agency notified lenders of the priority groups, the funds were nearly dry. In the end, most loans went to businesses that already had more access to resources.
The USDA is making the call about how the debt relief funds are distributed. The agency knows it has trust issues with farmers, so it’s working with several third-party organizations to administer the discrimination program and to assess which applicants should get the lending discrimination funds.
But to really know whether the program is helping Black farmers and ranchers specifically, we need data from the USDA.
Data that we don’t have… and can’t get.
The agency says it’s not tracking the racial demographics of participants in the Inflation Reduction Act program for distressed borrowers… because Congress didn’t specifically tell it to collect that data.
The department has said that it wants to bring more racial equity to its work but I was curious how they would do that without tracking racial demographics.
I got the chance to ask two USDA officials about it.
Zach Ducheneaux is the Federal Administrator of the FSA. His colleague Dr. Dewayne Goldmon is the Senior Advisor on racial equity to the Secretary of Agriculture.
Dr. Goldmon told me that unlike the American Rescue Plan, the Inflation Reduction Act has a different purpose.
Goldmon: And so the emphasis on that program is to get more farmers thriving. Deal with, uh, some chronic problems that have addressed farmers of color, but also other farmers who, for any number of reasons, haven’t been able to quite fully participate in, in programs and, and, and operate their farms or ranches at, at, at efficiency. And so, um, because the emphasis in The Inflation Reduction Act was on distressed borrowers. We have been following that mandate and focusing on distressed borrowers and, and, and, and allowing the program to be implemented as mandated by congress.
April: I understand what you’re saying. Uh, but there are numerous advocates and members of Congress who wanna push the department to be more accountable to what’s happened in, in the past. And they argue that the absence of race data in determining government policy means the department doesn’t have the appropriate tools to tackle racial equity. Can the department achieve racial equity when it’s not confronting race? Dr. Goldmon.
Goldmon: Well, I think it’s. Difficult. I mean, you bring up a, a, a good question, but, but I’ll share with you one of the things that we discovered and, and, and this became pretty obvious as we started implementing the American Rescue Plan. Um, when, when we started, we found that there were a large number of farm loan borrowers. Who did not indicate their race. Now as a third generation black farmer in Arkansas, I understand, because when you have a history of discrimination, uh, there is some reluctance in checking that box that identifies you as black or Native American or Latino on, on a farm loan application.
I say all that to say that. You know, I, understand the desire to wanna see, um, you know, the, the, the racial breakdown, but that’s not the intent of the law. And so what I’m, what I’m really more concerned with is making sure that we continue to advance programs that make people comfortable indicating where they are. So that when, you know, if we get to a point where we, where we need to pull the data, Then, we’ll have data that’s certainly more reliable, uh, based on better service into all of the producers that we’re trying to, that we’re trying to reach.
So, let’s pause.
He says, in the past, farmers haven’t checked the box indicating their race or ethnicity on forms… maybe because they were afraid of the department’s history of discrimination.
But Dr. Goldman thinks, if the department can build trust with farmers going forward, the farmers may be more likely to volunteer that demographic information… which could then help the USDA develop programs to help farmers and ranchers who may have been discriminated against.
All that makes sense, but… it sounds slow, and there are a lot of “ifs” and “maybes”. And it still doesn’t explain why the department isn’t collecting whatever racial data it can in the meantime.
Ducheneaux: Well, I’ll, I’ll jump in here. So, program data isn’t the only data that goes into determining equitable distribution and fair treatment of everybody.
That’s the Federal Administrator of the FSA, Zach Ducheneaux.
Ducheneaux: There’s also the National Ag Statistics Service, uh, every five years does a ag census and we don’t get full reporting in that from some of our stakeholders in the minority segment as well. You know, that and getting that body of data is really what’s gonna help us track outcomes. More so than just delivery of programs.
The USDA has released some data about the Inflation Reduction Act program—but it’s from the state level. So we know, for example, that Oklahoma has the largest number of distressed borrowers receiving funds through the Inflation Reduction Act.
BUT we don’t know how many of those distressed borrowers are Black, nor how much total funding Black borrowers are getting from the program.
What we do know is that the IRA programs are for all farmers and ranchers, regardless of race.
Dr. Goldmon: You know, race is not the only factor that we consider as we’re trying to reach equity. But when you look at the history of USDA, you know, uh, it is very difficult to, to make significant improvements if we don’t at least acknowledge that there are disparities that exist among the different races of customers that we’re trying to, uh, trying to assist and, and, and try and figure out a way to address those disparities in a very transparent and, and, and productive way.
In many ways, it sounds like the FSA is adapting to the new legal environment since the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action programs in higher education earlier this year.
Ducheneaux: The goal that we have within the Farm Service Agency and the, and the directive that we’ve got from Secretary of Vilsack is to ensure that we’re serving everybody equitably. And equity isn’t just about race. Equity is economic circumstances. Equity is diversity of production practices. Equity is where you’re at in the food supply chain. So we’re taking that very seriously and doing our best to ensure that the improvements we make for everybody also serve those that have been less well served in the past. And we’re working to try to reach all of those within the bounds of the law in a way that we can continue to do it without fear of litigation stopping us from executing.
Outside of the limitations of the Inflation Reduction Act program, Ducheneaux and Dr. Goldmon shared a few things that the department is doing to improve outcomes for farmers and ranchers of color generally.
They’re making administrative improvements like reducing the length of the paper loan application, and rolling out an online version with a fast track approval process.
Dr. Goldmon and Ducheneaux also talked about working with third-party groups on the all-important task of improving access to capital and land.
They talked about funding research and education at minority-serving institutions, to help train future generations for agriculture jobs… and funding an Equity Commission that’s already released recommendations for how the department can improve its services for underserved farmers.
And they’re taking a new approach to farm loan making and servicing that exercises discretion in favor of the borrower. It’s an approach that Ducheneaux says will get more capital circulating in rural economies, for bigger economic impact.
And farmers who can successfully prove that they suffered from discrimination in farm lending programs will see their offset amounts factored into the financial assistance they receive.
So although the Inflation Reduction Act doesn’t include language about Black and other farmers of color, the USDA is taking steps to address the root causes of racial discrimination in agriculture. And that may benefit them.
After the break, we’re going back to G Line Ranch.
A lot has changed since we first sat around Nate’s dining table talking about debt relief. So I called him to find out what he thought about the Inflation Reduction Act.
APRIL: So Nate thank you so much for setting aside some time to talk with us. I
really appreciate it.
NATE: No problem.
Right away, it seemed like Nate was disappointed – and frustrated – by how things played out.
NATE: I mean, it’s just a lot of politics and, um, not really trying to move, move things forward. It’s just, you know, um, it’s kind of a cat and mouse game. Not a lot of clarity out there for, uh, Black farmers and ranchers as far as, um, any opportunities, stuff for us.
APRIL: You’ve said before that you want accountability from USDA. Do you feel like the debt relief passed in the Inflation Reduction Act gets you that?
NATE: No. Nothing I heard kind of help directly support us.
There was a moratorium on USDA loan payments for farmers and ranchers of color while the original debt relief program was on hold.
And after the Inflation Reduction Act passed, the USDA covered what many distressed borrowers would have paid during that period so that they didn’t have to retroactively make those loan payments.
Nate benefitted from that.
It also covered the next scheduled payment for many distressed borrowers.
But, the debt relief in the Inflation Reduction Act is so different from what Nate and other Black farmers and ranchers hoped for from the American Rescue Plan… He says it’s hard to even compare the two programs.
It’s like they’re not even in the same universe.
NATE: You say comparison I mean it’s a big comparison. So we talking about debt relief, they would’ve paid Black farmers and ranchers off. So this deal, you know, did not touch any, you know, touch any of that and you know, like I’ve, uh, shared with you guys years of denial papers, um, insufficient servicing of loans, you know, where you just have to go back and forth with these people and figuring out how to weather the storms and not have money. Uh, just always just kind of going through all that, you know, depending on somebody that was saying they was there for you, but that never was there for you in the midst of a storm. So I just feel like they should have, they should have honored the first deal.
APRIL: What happens if you don’t get any more debt relief?
NATE: Black farmers and ranchers, it’s a dying deal. This industry has changed so only ones who gonna survive now is people who are big operations. So, Black farmers and ranchers here are not big operations. So what you’re gonna see is them leave on out. Because what I’m finding a lot of ’em is just saying, you know what, I’m just gonna sell. Maybe, you know, me and my wife would just pay our deal and stop farming ‘cause I’m not making enough money to justify it. So what you’ll see is, you know, this is it. It’s gone.
But, debt relief or not, Nate is still trying to create a legacy for his kids, a profitable business that he can pass on to them.
Nate’s sons are already really involved in G Line Ranch. At the corral, when we first met Nate and his family, they were our best guides to the family’s work on that hot, Oklahoma Saturday.
Nate’s eldest son, Nathaniel Trevon Bradford — he goes by Tre — was who actually told me and our producer Camille what was going on. Like, what they were using their horses for.
TRE: So basically we’ll help use them to, uh, split off the cows and the calves. So you don’t have like cows running over calves when they’re running around the pens and stuff, just to avoid ’em getting hurt.
He talked us through what they were gonna be doing — vaccinating and deworming their cows and why that’s important.
TRE: ‘Cause basically if a cow’s got too many worms in her body, they’ll basically
suck out the nutrients of whatever she’s eating.
Knowledge passes down in ranching, from one generation to the next. Tre has been learning how to do this work since he was a kid.
CAMILLE: What are your favorite memories from growing up on this land?
TRE: Huh. Favorite memory is when I used to have an old horse, he was short. He was almost like a Welsh pony. His name was Track. And, uh, we would go out here and run around and I try to rope a, you know, I might try to rope a bull and I had a little bitty kid rope at the time and a small saddle and I’d think I was really doing something.
Tre’s studying civil engineering at Oklahoma State. He has a whole other life there, away from the country life he grew up knowing.
TRE: Honestly. Yeah. If you just look at me and I’m just walking on campus, you’re not gonna be able to tell, you know, I’m probably wearing shorts and some sliders or something going to class, you know, you’ll never know unless I say something and they be like, oh my gosh, really? Like, you know, like a lot of people get surprised about it, but it’s, you know, a rare deal I guess you could say.
Tre knows there aren’t many Black ranchers these days.
He’s planning a career in engineering, but he wants to also keep one foot here, on his family’s land.
Tre says a few years ago he actually got a youth loan from the USDA, to buy his first cattle. He went into the application knowing what his family had been through with the agency.
TRE: I went and got 25 head of cows, which ain’t too much, but you know, when you’re 19, 20 years old, you know, that’s a decent amount starting out, you know, by yourself. But you know, they kind of made the paperwork really like extenuous as far as like the requirements. Like I met the requirements, but, you know, they always, they kept asking for, you know, multiple different things that, you know, was like, really, why do you need this? You know? Even like, wanting to see oh can I get your manager or your boss’s number or something? Like, why would you need their number? I gave you, you know, I gave you the information you needed. That’s all you need.
And more recently, Tre got another loan for beginning farmers and ranchers from the USDA, to buy some land. I find it pretty remarkable that Tre wants to keep ranching, despite everything the Bradfords have been through with the USDA.
TRE: It’s important for me to come back cause, you know, I want to, honestly, right now we’re like building a legacy and we’re carrying like on a tradition, you know. We’ve had cows for quite some time. My dad and I have been in the business for 20 plus years, you know, so I want to keep that going, you know, and honestly get other people like me into like this, you know, this realm. There’s not a lot of individuals like us, you know, still running cows and stuff. So I don’t wanna be the last one.
Tre wants to see more Black-owned ranches start up, rather than watching them vanish.
Nate’s younger son Fabian is also committed to making the ranch work. He even learned butchering so that G Line could add another potential line of revenue: processing deer meat.
FABIAN: G Line and me, uh, I guess go together like, like cereal and milk, I guess
you could say but I kind of, I brainstorm that idea up and that’s kind of been a big part of our branding, you know? And I plan to keep on being a part of it. And building this through ideas and, um, entrepreneurship really is a big thing in my eyes. Looking for new avenues and trying to connect with new people to build this brand. My family, they started small, you know, and we’ve progressed.
Fabian says all this work isn’t just about keeping G Line, or the Bradford legacy, alive. It’s also about their hometown, Boley.
For Fabian, the ranch’s success would help Boley too by bringing energy back to a town that was vibrant during its golden years — a place where Black people thrived despite Jim Crow era violence and segregation, a hub for Black businesses but one that has been declining for decades.
FABIAN: Finding a way out of no way. As you see, like Boley has nothing, nothing in it really it’s previously past years it’s had nothing, no spotlight, no type of hope I guess you could say. And these past few years have really been important as far as drumming up a new story. Boley has already had a past, it needs to have a future.
The future of ranchers like the Bradfords and their hometowns, will be shaped by the USDA. By how the department gives, or denies, support to ranchers.
Standing on Nate’s family land, so close to the Georgia Line, where Black migrants came to find opportunity and escape Jim Crow, I can see why we keep pursuing data on how the USDA’s policies actually affect Black farmers and ranchers.
Black farmers and ranchers have lost their land, been robbed of it. A way of life has been disappearing too, largely because of government discrimination and how, despite lawsuits and legislation, many folks would argue that that discrimination has gone un-rectified.
But Nate and his family are going to keep showing up at the corral, on Saturdays, in the sweltering heat — that’s the cowboy way.
And, Fabian wants us to keep showing up too, to be around to see G Line succeed.
FABIAN: Keep, keep coming back. I guess. Stick around, I guess when one day when the success story is being really major, you know what I mean, I would like for you guys to be kind of like, hey, we, we were one of, we were the first ones to come out there and sweat with them.
During a break in the work, Fabian helped us say goodbye to the whole family, including Nate.
NATE: Well alright, well holler at us if ya’ll ever need something, you know,
something happens on the way out, we’ll be around here all day.
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 and Kiarra Powell.
Our team includes 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.
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.
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