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Georgia Sen. Warnock under pressure to meet promises to Black farmers



BYROMVILLE, Ga. — The crowd that thronged U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., as he arrived in Middle Georgia represented a cross section of the state’s agriculture industry: They harvested cotton and corn, tended pecan trees and timberland, raised chickens and cows.

But two things tied the dozens gathered amid the tidy rows of crops at Jibb’s Vineyards on a cool recent morning. They were all Black farmers trying to navigate the pandemic-stricken landscape. And they were all tired of waiting for long-promised federal aid to ease generations of systemic inequality.

Lucius Abrams said as much as he spoke to the gathering of growers from all corners of the state. They have heard the vows before from other politicians and bureaucrats about federal aid that never came. Simply put, the farmer said, they had good reason to feel snake-bitten.

“If you go stick your hand in a hole and the rattlesnake bites it a first time, then you go back in a second time and stick your hand in and he bites you again, what you think he’ll do a third time?”

Such is the challenge facing Mr. Warnock as he tries to live up to expectations after a runoff victory that made him the first Black U.S. senator in Georgia history — and made him one of the top Republican targets in the 2022 election.

Hopping on the back of a pickup, Mr. Warnock opened by saying he “just dropped by to tell you that help is on the way,” and the crowd roared back: “Finally.” But later, in a more candid moment, the Democrat acknowledged the pressure of making good on the promises.

“I feel it. Even though I’m one actor in this whole process, I feel the responsibility of that, of doing everything I can to finally deliver for these people,” he said, adding it’s the reason he’s pressed agricultural officials with “absolute urgency that we get this done and we get it done right.”

Distribution challenge

A newly minted member of the Senate Agriculture Committee — a coveted assignment in a state whose largest industry is the $74 billion agricultural business — Mr. Warnock helped secure a $5 billion infusion into the $1.9 trillion federal coronavirus relief package to help disadvantaged farmers of color.

Now the challenge is how to effectively distribute the funds — and how to use the cash to address broader racial injustices. Under the Trump administration, federal data shows much of the economic bailout money to help farmers went to larger — and predominantly white-owned — operators.

As Mr. Warnock told the crowd, Black farmers received a small fraction — about 0.1% — of Mr. Trump’s coronavirus relief for American farmers last year.

More broadly, Black farmers lost more than 12 million acres of farmland over the past century, and only a small number remain.

Federal data shows that there are fewer than 50,000 Black farmers in the nation, accounting for only 2% of agricultural land.

“This discrimination we’re talking about, it’s not just historic discrimination. You don’t have to go back that far,” Mr. Warnock said. “We know that the tide really doesn’t lift all boats. And what we know from experience is that doesn’t automatically happen.”

Many in the crowd nodded their heads, pointing later in interviews to systemic inequities that prevented them from securing loans and joining agricultural programs. Willie Williams comes from a line of farmers who grew corn, cotton and tomatoes over generations. Now, he’s worried about keeping the family legacy going.

“I’ve applied for help, but I just got thrown through all sorts of hoops,” Mr. Williams said. “I know I qualify, but nothing has happened. The senator is out there addressing what I’m experiencing — now he needs to make it happen.”

‘Swinging for the fences’

A part of the $5 billion in funding will go toward covering outstanding debt for farmers and offering new training programs. Some would also help historically Black colleges and universities finance research.

But the foundation of the program is a racial equity commission tasked with revising U.S. Department of Agriculture policies to bring more fairness and root out discriminatory practices.

Dewayne Goldman, the department’s senior adviser for racial equity, stood beside Mr. Warnock on the pickup truck and promised to make the USDA an agency “you will feel welcome coming back in.”

“I’m swinging for the fences. I understand your plight,” said Mr. Goldman, a farmer himself with a business that grows soybeans and rice in southeast Arkansas. “We know racism has a cost across all agriculture.”

That was the message, too, from Mr. Warnock as he arrived to a hero’s welcome in this town of roughly 600 people, part of a weeklong swing through rural Georgia while Congress was in recess. Phones and tablets recorded his every move, and the crowd enjoyed barbecue after a selfie with the senator.

“He’s been up there six months and done more than the rest of them already,” said Eddie Slaughter, a third-generation farmer from Buena Vista, Ga., who has compared federal agricultural policies to “economic terrorism” against Black growers.

‘We have to deliver’

The visits to Dooly County and other farm-heavy areas illustrate Mr. Warnock’s focus on communities of color in rural Georgia as he gears up for a 2022 re-election campaign. But the initiative has also alienated Republicans in areas that already tilt heavily conservative.

U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde, a freshman Republican from northeast Georgia, called the plan a form of reverse racism against white farmers. And U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, who represents a stretch of rural Tennessee, said he can’t imagine telling farmers in his district that “help is on the way — but only if you’re a certain skin color.”

Mr. Warnock and his allies say that view ignores a long history of racism targeting Black farmers. The Democrat heard story after story of growers still struggling with that legacy: at the edge of insolvency, stymied by the federal bureaucracy and unable to secure loans to buy feed, seed and equipment.

“Every day I’m going to be leaning in, holding the department accountable, making sure that these people don’t lose their farms to bureaucracy and failure to deliver,” Mr. Warnock said after a round of discussions. “We have to deliver.”

Mr. Warnock’s supporters are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, to a point. Carlton Tookes, who grows pecan trees and corn, said he wants to believe that Black farmers will get more federal aid. But, he adds wryly, “I’ve seen it all before.”

“This might be different. We’ve got a senator that’s indebted to us,” Mr. Tookes said, referring to soaring Black turnout that helped Mr. Warnock oust a Republican incumbent. “All I can do is trust him — and hope that he lives up to his promise. Because we can’t do anything if we don’t got anything.”

If Mr. Warnock doesn’t live up to the promise, the farmers suggested he won’t get such a warm welcome his next visit. Marvin Lawrence, who operates a hydroponics farm in Reynolds, Ga., said he’s failed to secure even small loans for hay and other crucial supplies.

“We’ve been scratching by for years, and all we can hope is that he’ll deliver,” Mr. Lawrence said, nodding to the senator as he disappeared in a crowd of supporters.

“For all my folks who picked cotton and peanuts, this could be a vindication,” he added. “We’ve got confidence in him — but we aren’t playing around in Georgia.”