U.S. farm aid shortchanges minority farmers: Oxfam

WASHINGTON Thu Jul 19, 2007 7:13pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government has shortchanged minority farmers, providing them with a fraction of the aid given to their white counterparts, Oxfam said in a report on Thursday, as the aid and advocacy group pushed Congress to craft legislation reversing decades of exclusion.

Oxfam's report showed that in 2002, the average African-American farmer in the United States received 37 percent of the aid that the average white farmer received.

Only 18 percent of black farmers got any support at all, compared to 34 percent of white farmers, the group found.

"USDA sees the face of American farmers as white, and it will stay that way unless changes happen in the farm bill," said Minor Sinclair, Oxfam's director of regional programs.

Oxfam has joined a coalition pressing Congress to keep interests of black, Latino, and other vulnerable farmers in mind as lawmakers overhaul agriculture policy. Among the groups' allies are Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Don Payne of New Jersey, both Democrats.

Lawmakers have a way to go before enacting the 2007 farm bill to set subsidy, conservation and other spending for five years. The House Agriculture Committee is voting this week on its version of the bill.

Oxfam and its allies are pushing for a tenfold annual increase for minority-targeted outreach programs and up to $500 million over five years for measures to help minority farmers become more competitive. They also want the Agriculture Department to keep better track of minority farmers and do more outreach to farms on Native American reservations.

"I see these millions of dollars going out to all these other people ... and we're getting chump change," said Don Bustos, a Hispanic-Native American with a small vegetable farm in New Mexico, told an audience on Capitol Hill.

Minority farmers from around the country were in the U.S. capital this week to plead their case.

Oxfam's report cites an evolution in American agriculture, from a preponderance of small family farms in the Depression era, the hardscrabble years that gave birth to modern farm supports, to large "agribusiness" operations today.

In 1920, African-American farmers owned 15 percent of U.S. farms; in 2002, they owned just 1 percent, Oxfam said. The number of farms owned by Latinos is growing, though.

The disparity laid out between small- and large-farm owners is striking. In 2000, small farmers received an average of $1,552 in subsides; large farms got $43,385.

"If you don't have, you don't get," said Lloyd Wright, an African-American farmer in Virginia.

Another problem, they said, is that many minority farmers do not grow the five commodities accounting for the lion's share of subsidies -- cotton, rice, wheat, corn and soybeans.

Keith Williams, an Agriculture Department spokesman, said the Bush administration hoped to increase access for minority and beginning farmers by, for example, increasing a target for those groups in giving operating loans.

(Additional reporting by Charles Abbott)

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