Eugene Pickett remembers driving up to his small, 2-acre farm outside Belen in 2017 and seeing 5-foot-high waters flooding the area. It seemed like water was everywhere, including the inside of his home and cars.
“I opened the door to my truck and water just gushed out,” Pickett said. “I was like, ‘Ah, this ain’t good.'”
Pickett, who represents Black Farmers and Ranchers New Mexico and is one of just 60 Black farmers in the state, said he recalled feeling discouraged from applying for relief aid. It’s a feeling he said many farmers of color share when trying to access relief and federal programs.
Farmers of color in the U.S. have long voiced concerns about discrimination in federal programs and relief funds by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In New Mexico, farmers of color have much smaller plots of land compared to white farmers, making it harder to eke out a living in an industry running on small margins.
Now, the federal government is attempting to right that history.
Included in President Joe Biden’s American Relief Plan was around $5 billion for farmers of color, which includes debt relief if the farmers had taken out loans from the federal government.
The addition to the ARP was based on the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, which advocated for debt relief for farmers who qualify. U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico joined Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia in sponsoring the bill.
Luján told the Journal in a phone interview that discrimination against farmers of color has long been an issue in the United States, including in New Mexico, where more than half of all agricultural producers are people of color, according to the most recent farm census.
“There needs to be assurance that every farmer and rancher across America has the same access to these programs,” he said.
He said a recent case of discrimination occurred when the Farm Service Agency told farmers and ranchers relying on acequias to irrigate their fields didn’t qualify for federal drought relief funds. Acequias have been used for irrigation for hundreds of years, especially in northern New Mexico.
“That would disqualify predominantly Hispanic and Native American farmers in New Mexico from … that program,” Luján said.
One of those farmers was Tony Casados, who raises cattle in Tierra Amarilla, a small village in northern Rio Arriba County. Like many farmers and ranchers across New Mexico, Casados’ operation was hit hard by record-breaking drought that’s been persistent for more than a year.
Casados said he didn’t understand why acequias were disqualified from drought relief.
“I would tend to believe that we here in the north have been discriminated against,” he said.
The FSA has since reversed the decision, although Casados said he still hasn’t received any drought relief funds thus far.
While New Mexico has one of the highest percentages of minority farmers of any state, it’s unclear just how many in the state will qualify for debt relief.
Pickett said many farmers of color, who didn’t trust the government based on decades of discrimination, never took out those loans in the first place and therefore don’t qualify for assistance. He estimated only around 800 New Mexicans will qualify.
Rudy Arredondo, president of the National Latino Farmers & Ranchers Trade Association, said the legislation, while helpful, needs to be the first of many steps to help smaller producers compete with larger farms with more resources.
He said his group would like to see a moratorium on farm payments for smaller producers, both white and of color, to help them survive, especially in regions plagued by drought.
“They should be given a reprieve in order for them to be able to figure out how they’re going to maintain their farming operations,” Arredondo said.