OPINION: Black Georgians dominate Ag power in Congress

Black farmers already a focus

It’s Black history month, but this column is about the Black future. Because if anything illustrates the difference between the past and the future for Black America — and especially Black farmers — it’s the stories of U.S. Rep. David Scott, U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock.

On the night Warnock was elected in January, he famously talked about his mother, who grew up on a farm in Waycross, Ga., “picking someone else’s cotton.”

Rep. David Scott picked the cotton himself on his grandparents’ farm in Aynor, S.C., while his parents worked as live-in domestic help in New York.

“I picked the cotton, I suckered tobacco, I fed the hogs, I milked the cows,” said Scott, who eventually went on to get an MBA from the Wharton School of Business. “God was preparing me way back for this significant time.”

The “significant time” is this moment in American history, with the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging minority communities especially, 17 million children living in hunger, rural communities struggling without broadband access, and Black farmers, in particular, hit by natural disasters, trade wars and COVID hurdles.

Coming in to oversee Washington’s response to all of it are Scott, and Bishop and Warnock, who last month rose to become the three of the most powerful voices in American agriculture.

Scott is now the first Black chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Bishop just began his second term as chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture. He’s also the first Black lawmaker to hold that job.

And Warnock was elected Georgia’s first Black senator and quickly appointed to the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Each will take a leading role not just overseeing farm policy in America, but also funding the country’s school lunch program, food assistance, commodity trading, and rural development.

It’s a uniquely powerful trio for Georgia farmers to rely on, especially after former Gov. Sonny Perdue led USDA for the last four years. But it’s also a new day for a mostly white industry, quite literally built on the legacy of American slavery in the South, to be so heavily influenced by Black lawmakers for the first time in American history.

Dr. Veronica Womack, the executive director of the Rural Studies Institute at Georgia College and State University and a Black Belt scholar, called the three men’s rise “an extraordinary time in Georgia politics in African-American history.”

Womack’s primary area of study is land loss for Black farmers. While Black families owned 19.7% of the family farms in America in 1938, the number has dropped to 1.8% today.

The losses for many Black families came first from being forcibly removed from their land, and later through discriminatory loan and repayment practices, mostly at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA settled a $2.2 billion class-action lawsuit with Black farmers in 1999, but many say they were never made whole.

Although their committee work will benefit the entire state’s economy, all three men are well aware of the ongoing struggles of Black farmers.

“Nobody has paid the price dealing with agriculture as Black people did,” Scott said in an interview. “Doing the hard labor work and doing it for free, as slaves, at the lash of the whip.”

At the top of the House Agriculture Committee, Scott says he’s focused on climate change, making hollowed-out rural communities healthy again through rural development, and making Georgia’s ag industry the strongest in the nation.

But he’s also planning to bring Black farmers in to testify about the discrimination they’re still facing. As chairman of the committee, that’s his prerogative.

While Scott’s job is to write the policy for agriculture programs, Sanford Bishop’s job is to decide which programs are paid for — and how much money they will get.

“For me to now be chair of the Agriculture subcommittee of Appropriations really places Georgia at the forefront of leading agriculture for the United States and across the world,” Bishop said.

The Emory-trained lawyer has served in Congress for 29 years, always in some capacity representing the farmers in his district.

This session he’ll also focus on COVID recovery in rural and Black communities, and “heirs’ property” — land that has been passed down through generations of Black families without ownership structures that make them functional assets.

Shortly after Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff were elected, Bishop told Warnock Georgia would need one or both of them on the Senate Agriculture Committee, since agriculture is the state’s leading industry.

Warnock joined the committee last month. One of the first pieces of legislation Warnock introduced was a bill with $4 billion in emergency relief for farmers of color.

“Black farmers and farmers of color have waited long enough for the help that they’re due from the federal government,” he told me.

David Scott’s House committee approved a similar version of the aid package last week. From the House, the bill goes to the Senate committee, where Warnock’s companion bill is waiting. Eventually, the Appropriations Committee will debate how much money will go along with the policy that Scott and Warnock sponsored. Then Bishop will get involved.

It took hundreds of years, but now all at once, descendants of Black farmers don’t just have a voice in Washington, they are the voice in Washington.

“You have to see God’s hand in this, I can’t explain it any other way, for the three to be in this place. Who would have thought of it?” said Scott. “If that ain’t God working, I don’t know what is.”