AMNA NAWAZ: The number of self-identified Black farmers in the United States has dwindled over the last century, in part because of discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The agency is the economic backbone for most American farmers through its financing, insurance and research and education programs.
Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from Oklahoma, where, despite roadblocks to federal aid, there's a concerted push to help Black and other underserved farmers survive.
LEROY BRINKLEY, Rancher: I knew I was going to do this since I was 7 years old.
First time I pretty much got on a tractor with my uncle, and I knew I love agriculture.
Wouldn't give it for nothing in the world.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Did you know how tough it was going to be?
LEROY BRINKLEY: No.
I do now.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For 50 year old Leroy Brinkley, self-described hermit, this 80-acre farm with nearly three dozen beef cows is his comfort zone, a labor-intensive full-time job, but it is one he has to finance by working at least as long off the farm as a heavy equipment mechanic and truck driver.
Why isn't farming by itself a full-time occupation?
Because the work certainly is full-time, right?
LEROY BRINKLEY: Yes, the work is there, but the money is not.
Economically, I don't see this working just by itself.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: When he began farming three decades ago, Leroy Brinkley tried to get a loan from the USDA.
But at the local office, he says he was turned down and turned off by the experience.
LEROY BRINKLEY: I brought the papers, and it was just no support.
I could tell from the get-go I wasn't going to get help.
I tried it anyway, trying to be nice, polite.
I still didn't get the support that I needed from it.
So, I couldn't bother with it anymore.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: An experience all too familiar to Black and minority farmers.
JOHN BOYD JR., President, National Black Farmers Association: We have clearly been dumped on worse than any other race in this country by our own federal government.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: John Boyd Jr. is president of the National Black Farmers Association and a fourth-generation Virginia farmer.
He says African Americans have been systematically excluded from programs that enable farmers to acquire land and build wealth, and unfairly targeted for foreclosure.
JOHN BOYD JR.: The government has to start living up to its commitment, and they have to start treating Black farmers with dignity and respect.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The government has settled two class action lawsuits in the past 25 years.
TOM VILSACK, U.S. Agriculture Secretary: Socially disadvantaged producers were discriminated against by the United States Department of Agriculture.
We know this.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And, in 2021, the Biden administration included billions in debt relief for minority farmers in its American Rescue Plan.
But lawsuits from white farmers, claiming reverse discrimination, held up the program.
In response, Congress repealed it last August, instead setting aside money in the administration's Inflation Reduction Act now for so-called distressed borrowers.
WILLARD TILLMAN, Executive Director, Oklahoma Black Historical Research Project: There a lot of opportunities there under this administration that a lot of people are not taking advantage of.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Willard Tillman;s organization is a resource that connects minority farmers to complex government farm programs.
He says there's a rare opportunity to bring these farmers into the system from which they felt alienated.
WILLARD TILLMAN: If they don't understand it, they're ain't going to mess with it.
So that is where we come in.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: They don't trust the government.
WILLARD TILLMAN: They trust me.
I don't take dirty water to them.
If it is good for them, I tell them yes.
If it's not good for them, I tell them no.
LEROY BRINKLEY: Survive with these cows.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: With the help of Tillman's group, Leroy Brinkley enrolled in a program last year called CARE, Conservation and Agriculture Reach Everyone.
LEROY BRINKLEY: Those blackbirds, you see how they started?
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It paid him $70 an acre for 40 acres, which he used to partner with a local elementary student to bring goats to graze on the invasive species.
LEROY BRINKLEY: Want to try to get this covered with a cover crop.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: This year he has participating again, getting support to plant more grass for his herd to graze on.
LEROY BRINKLEY: Fifteen hundred dollars in seed ought to get it.
SARAH BLANEY, Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts: Yes, well, time, yes, for your time.
LEROY BRINKLEY: Yes.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Sarah Blaney runs the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, which administers the admittedly modest CARE program.
SARAH BLANEY: Our specific program is smaller, but our hope is that this is maybe the first introduction to that process and makes them a little bit more comfortable with the idea of working with government, so that, when they're ready to go apply for those bigger contracts, they know the right questions to ask.
They know what their rights are.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: A more immediate challenge for Brinkley is the months-long drought across Oklahoma, which has almost tripled hay prices this year.
So it costs you about 700 bucks per week to feed this group?
LEROY BRINKLEY: Yes.
This is very expensive this year.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Some of his expenses have been offset by a $50,000 loan he received through the Native Creek Nation, where he is an enrolled member, money that was guaranteed by the USDA.
LEROY BRINKLEY: It did not grow me any.
It just kind of took the curves off some things.
Maybe the next time, the next go-around, when this operation is up fully and running, it may make a difference.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The Black Farmers Association's Boyd applauds efforts like those in Oklahoma, but he says the money now available is a fraction of what would have come to minority farmers under the debt relief program that was repealed.
JOHN BOYD JR.: We were promised 120 percent debt relief, and we didn't get it.
It looks like to me, every time Black farmers are promised something in this country, we don't get it.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The USDA declined an interview request, but, in a statement to "PBS NewsHour," said, given court injunctions that tied its hands, the goal was to get relief to farmers quickly, adding that: "The Inflation Reduction Act provided $3.1 billion that will allow USDA to work with distressed borrowers, and for those farmers that have suffered discrimination by the USDA farm loan programs, Congress allocated to $2.2 billion."
But Boyd says the government broke a promise and a contract with minority farmers, and he is suing the USDA.
JOHN BOYD JR.: When they changed the language to distressed, it opened it up, and white farmers were able to get their loans and stuff current.
There are far more white farmers than there are Black farmers in this country.
We are less than 1 percent.
We are facing extinction.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Back in the early 1900s, Black Americans owned some 16 million acres of farmland, a number that was down by 90 percent by the turn of the 21st century.
Here in Oklahoma, there once were more than 50 all-Black towns built around agriculture.
Clearview is one of just 13 that survive today.
SHIRLEY NERO, Resident of Clearview, Oklahoma: My family moved here in 1902, when the town was established.
My dad had a 40-acre farm.
This is where I will stay until I pass away.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Shirley Nero and her husband, Donnie, both had careers as educators, Donnie eventually becoming president of Connors State College.
But they were both pulled to return to this tiny town 80 miles east of Oklahoma City, population about 50.
SHIRLEY NERO: Most of those people that settled here were freed men.
When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, the first bill they passed was the Jim Crow law.
And this was a place of freedom.
They could express themselves.
They could actually support themselves.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: As the years went on, the population and Black-owned land eventually began to dwindle.
SHIRLEY NERO: Our school got down to 32 in the high school, and then that is when they closed it, in '64.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The Neros built their house and now breed cattle here, a rare reverse migration, they admit.
DONNIE NERO, Rancher: We see so many of the young people today, their parents or grandparents have had land for so many years, but that almighty dollar speaks.
And, when it does, they are going to move, and the farms are going to be lost.
And when you lose the land that you have, and you now find yourself in a condominium somewhere, the value does not -- doesn't equate.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: For his part, Leroy Brinkley is open to participating in more farm programs, but, based on experience, says he is not counting on anyone but himself.
LEROY BRINKLEY: I have got a little piece of a home.
Had to move some hurdles out of the way, but I am making a go of it.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Fred de Sam Lazaro in Haskell, Oklahoma.
AMNA NAWAZ: And Fred's reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
And there is more online, including a look at the lives of Black farmers through a photographer's lens.
You can see those images at PBS.org/NewsHour.