Deydra Steans shown with her horse Cairo as she ends the day at her farm in Luling, Texas, on October 16, 2021.
CNN  — 

Texas cattle rancher Deydra Steans quit her teaching job three years ago to help save her family’s farming operations.

She was prepared for the strenuous task of herding animals. Steans, 41, usually begins her day at 7 a.m. with her 68-year-old father, Elvin Steans. The pair talk over breakfast and a cup of coffee and then head out onto their ranch to feed cattle. She often drives the skid steer, a subcompact tractor that is used for a variety of farm tasks such as clearing brush and digging holes, across the 220-acre property. Some days last until the late evenings as she takes business calls while on the go to meet with other farmers. But what keeps her up at night are the mounting bills and whether she can make the next payment.

Other days she starts her mornings talking with an Internal Revenue Service officer because one of their farms, a 54-acre property, is facing seizure from the Internal Revenue Service and is up for sale. Last month, she was forced to sell eight calves and a cow to help cover an annual payment for a livestock loan.

Steans is among the hundreds of Black farmers who have been rejected for loans from the US Department of Agriculture in the past two years.

A CNN analysis of recent data from the agency found that more farmers of color, especially Black and Asian farmers, have been rejected for loans while the agency approved more loans for White farmers. The loan disparities persist as White farmers are suing over what they say is discriminatory language after President Joe Biden signed a Covid relief package into law earlier this year. It included $4 billion to help pay off farm loans for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers – a group that includes Black and other minority farmers.

Rejection rates for loans from the USDA were comparable for White farmers and for all non-White farmers in 2017 but diverged sharply after 2019, according to 2017-21 fiscal year USDA data obtained by CNN through a Freedom of Information Act request. The divergence is primarily driven by higher rejections for Black and Asian farmers.

Black and Asian farmers had already been rejected for loans at higher rates than other farmers, but their rejections increased significantly under the Trump administration in 2020 and the first partial year of the Biden administration.

In 2021, the USDA rejected direct loan applications for 42% of Black farmers and 37% of Asian farmers, a five-year high for both groups. Only 9% of White farmers were denied loans in 2021.

The types of loans in the data set obtained by CNN included farm ownership, operating and emergency loans from the Direct Loan Program and farm ownership and operating loans from the Guaranteed Loan Program.

The high level of rejections for loans that the USDA lends directly to farmers stands in contrast to the low levels of rejections for guaranteed loans, which are loans issued by USDA-approved lenders instead of federal loans by the agency itself. When it comes to guaranteed loans, the agency “guarantees it against loss up to a maximum of 90 percent in most cases or 95 percent in limited circumstances,” according to the USDA. Farmers can apply for direct loans at their local USDA Farm Service Agency offices and apply for guaranteed loans at a “commercial lender who participates in the Guaranteed Loan Program,” according to a USDA fact sheet.

Only 2% of farmers of color and 4% of Black farmers were denied loans from USDA-approved lenders in 2021, the data shows. But for direct loans from the USDA itself, a program the agency says is designed to provide financing for farmers unable to find it elsewhere, denials were much higher. The agency denied funds to 20% of all farmers of color and 42% of Black farmers in 2021.

The rejections have severely impacted Black farmers like Steans. She applied for an FSA Direct Operating loan earlier this year for her business Black Gold Resourcing LLC – which aims to help farmers get access to FSA programs – and was denied.

P. Wade Ross, a farmer who’s the chief executive of Texas Small Farmers & Ranchers Community Based Organization, told CNN that a direct loan is “crucial” for a farmer and “in many cases it is a Black farmer’s only resort.”

The 54-year-old has been helping to educate farmers of color for the past seven years. Too often, Black farmers struggle to grow their businesses because they lack the capital, he said. In Texas, those farmers are applying for direct loans to hold on to their land and praying they get approved.

“In many cases, they are asking, where are they going to go to get resources?” Ross said. How are they “going to cover those costs and market and sell without some kind of leverage?”

“It’s crucial to have access to capital,” he said. “Being a farmer is some of the toughest work you will ever do. Look at any business – you’re going to need capital.”

For Steans, a fourth-generation cattle rancher, farming is a lifeline for her family.

Her father and brother are farmers who run four cattle properties in three counties in Texas. The cattle properties are separately owned by members of the family and collectively managed by the family. The family also owns a hay baling business that opened in the early 1970s. Steans’ grandfather had been farming all his life and would go to the fields after working a night shift at a hospital.

But today his granddaughter is behind in her bills and her credit is ruined, which is making it difficult to get approved for loans, she tells CNN through tears.

“I flip everything I make. … I don’t have an operating budget,” Steans said.

Asked about the decline in rejection rates for White farmers and increase for farmers of color, a USDA official told CNN that the change in the pattern of rejection rates may be “more of a reflection of which farmers received effective assistance through disaster, trade and pandemic assistance and which farmers did not, rather than any changes in the loan application or approval process.”

Payments through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which helps farmers who suffered losses because of the pandemic, were given out “disproportionately to White producers compared with those of color,” possibly along with earlier rounds of assistance, the official said.

“Also, people of color have been disproportionately impacted by the effects of Covid-19. We saw this pattern and took short-term actions to address it,” the official said, mentioning the reopening of the food assistance program. “But these disparities are systemic and related to historic patterns and will take a concerted effort to fully understand them and chart a longer-term path.”

CNN has reached out to former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and former USDA Farm Service Agency Administrator Richard Fordyce for comment on the data.

The data is not surprising for Eloris Speight, director of the Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Policy Research Center at Alcorn State University in Mississippi. She worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency under the USDA, for 10 years and said the disparity in the rates is reflective of a lack of diversity in leadership.

“The results speak for themselves in terms of what happened,” Speight told CNN when asked what could have contributed to the rejection spike for Black and Asian farmers. “You know who received the funds, who received the priorities, who received advance notices of what was going to be coming out, and it was your larger White farmers.”

The data also sheds renewed light on the inequities that farmers of color have long faced in agriculture.

A history of discrimination

Over the years, Black farmers have been driven off their land by institutional racism and have faced discrimination from the USDA, said Pete Daniel, historian and author of “Dispossession: Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights.”

In 1920, the USDA counted 925,708 Black farmers, amounting to about 14% of all farmers at the time. There were only 48,697 Black farmers – roughly 1.4% of all 3.4 million farmers – in the United States in 2017, according to the most recent USDA census of agriculture.

Today, farmers like Steans are among the many Black farmers nationwide struggling to keep their farms afloat.

Deydra Steans stands inside the old "Kactus Korral" facility in Luling, Texas, last month.

The payments in Biden’s Covid relief package were intended to cover up to 120% of outstanding debt for each farmer or rancher but hit a roadblock when White farmers filed at least 13 lawsuits claiming the assistance was racially discriminatory.

Daniel, the historian, told CNN that “there was always some discrimination in USDA because it was a White organization from top to bottom,” adding that the real discrimination against Black farmers started after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954.

He writes in his book that after the decision, Southern USDA offices “twisted programs to punish black farmers who were active in civil rights” and administrators in Washington allowed it to happen.

Farmer Tiffany Washington works at her home and farm in Austin, Texas, last month.

Civil rights leaders and organizations, including the NAACP, aided Black farmers facing discrimination from the USDA in the years following the landmark ruling, Daniel writes. In one instance in 1960, the NAACP secured a decree from the Justice Department to stop discrimination by Whites against Black farmers in Tennessee, who were being evicted from farming lands for registering to vote.

Even with intervention at the federal level, discrimination against farmers continued.

In 1999, the class-action lawsuit Pigford v. Glickman was settled out of court and provided more than $1 billion in compensation. It was named after Tim Pigford, a Black farmer who claimed discrimination in applications for USDA programs and financing. But thousands of Black farmers missed the deadline to file claims and another lawsuit was reopened, known as Pigford II. In 2010, then-President Barack Obama signed a $1.15 billion measure to fund a settlement reached in the lawsuit.

Yet Black farmers are not the only ones who have faced discrimination from the agency.

In 2011, the US District Court approved a settlement in the class-action lawsuit Keepseagle v. Vilsack, filed against the USDA by Native American farmers who alleged that from 1981 forward, the agency discriminated against them regarding loan services. It granted $680 million in damages and forgave up to $80 million in debt to Native American farmers, with the last payments in the lawsuit made in 2018, according to Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, one of the law firms that represented the plaintiffs.

‘It’s just been one thing after another’

In Luling, Texas, the financial strain Steans’ family is facing has been exacerbated by the crippling winter storm that hit the state earlier this year, in which her family lost seven cows and a calf.

“We’ve been in survival mode. It’s just been one thing after another,” she said.

In 2017, Texas had 11,741 Black farmers, the most in the country, according to the latest census data from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Black farmers accounted for 3% of the state’s farmers, and three counties in Texas had more than 300 Black-operated farms.

At the old "Kactus Korral," Steans collects pieces from a greenhouse her family purchased for the farm along with partners. This will help with the year-round growth of crops.

The average size of Black-operated farms in the US that year was 132 acres, compared with 441 acres for the average size of a US farm that year.

Steans said her family does not qualify for the new USDA debt relief assistance that White farmers are suing against because they do not have the kinds of loans targeted by the program and have used private lenders. When she first heard about the program, she was skeptical about the agency’s intentions on forgiving Black farmers’ debts.

She also said she is working to enroll her father and uncles’ businesses into the agency so they can benefit from USDA programs.

Last month, the USDA announced it would direct $75 million in American Rescue Plan funding to help underserved farmers, ranchers and foresters connect with USDA programs and services – and to help foster trust.

Financial hardship has also led Steans’ family to list their 54-acre farm for sale. Steans said she has been able to delay its seizure from the IRS through conversations with an agency officer. The farm is not only a business but also a family legacy that they want to pass on to the next generation. The family’s farming operations, along with her father’s oil and gas consulting business, together have a federal tax lien of more than six figures. Her family received some financial relief when they were awarded disaster aid by the USDA through the first round of payments under the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, according to documents reviewed by CNN.

The cattle rig at the Steans' family farm in Luling, Texas.

Steans said her family was denied payment under the second round of the food assistance program because the USDA County Committee that reviewed the application “did not find the documentation supported the entries” on the application, according to a denial letter reviewed by CNN. Steans disputes the committee’s reason for the denial and said her experience is an example of some of the obstacles farmers of color face at the local level with the USDA.

Farmers of color and advocacy groups CNN spoke with described situations in local FSA offices such as being given incorrect paperwork and having applications thrown out. Ross said many Black farmers are reluctant to step into local FSA offices because they feel unwelcome.

Ross told CNN he has not been denied a USDA loan and believes that since he made enough money outside of farming the agency was OK with giving him a loan. But he said Black farmers are not getting a “fair shake” and that many who apply for USDA loans tell him they don’t understand why they were denied.

“Local offices need to have their feet held to the fire and need policing. I’m not going to Washington, DC, to get my microloan, I’m going down to my local office,” Ross told CNN.

The USDA “cannot comment on or verify specific complaints or allegations” regarding discrimination at local FSA offices, an agency official told CNN. The official said the USDA under the Biden administration “has investigated and taken personnel action against employees as appropriate.”

The official also said that “an examination of practices, training and disciplinary procedures related to local FSA offices” will be part of the newly created Equity Commission’s work.

‘On the outside looking in’

Ross, 54, helps run his family’s 120-acre cattle farm in Bryan, Texas, which has been in the family for more than 100 years. He said his great-grandfather escaped slavery in South Carolina and went to the College Station/Bryan, Texas, area, where he worked as a blacksmith and eventually paid off the land twice.

Today, Ross said, many Black farmers in his state are “bootstrappers,” diving into their resources to preserve and maintain land. A bootstrapper, he said, is lucky to farm that land and make extra change to offset the losses.”

“It’s important to understand that farming is a very cash-flow business, not to mention the capital that you need up front for infrastructure just to get started and be operational,” Ross said, adding that it can take years to prep soil for farming.

“In the case of a Black farmer, from our government’s own admission, we’re talking about generations and decades of farms and operations without true access to safety nets. And these are safety nets that White farmers take as a given and are going out farming.”

After years of bootstrapping and barriers to get into market opportunities, Ross said, Black farmers in Texas are “on the outside looking in” when it comes to getting into the agriculture industry. For a Black farmer in the state, it’s “literally like farming with one hand tied behind your back and just hoping and praying that you don’t run into a situation where you need your other arm,” Ross added.

The situation is a tragedy for newer generations of farmers like Tiffany Washington, he said. The wife and mother of four is a veteran who started Dobbin-Kauv Garden Farm, an urban farm, in 2018 to help with PTSD. Her farm is 1.25 acres in the middle of a neighborhood in Northeast Austin, an area that is undergoing gentrification.

Tiffany Washington, right, works at her farm with her son Boston Zanders, 7, left, and  daughter Raeghan Zanders, 8.

Washington, 37, told CNN she was “bootstrapping” when she first started her farm and that her stepfather was her partner until he was killed in a gun violence-related incident. Afterward, she said, she was going to quit but started paying out of pocket using her VA disability funds, support from her husband and side gigs to support the farm.

“Whatever side money we could get to put into the farm, we were doing that,” she said. It wasn’t until after the wave of support for Black businesses fueled by the murder of George Floyd in 2020 that she received more money.

‘What harm am I causing White farmers?’

The White farmers’ lawsuits over the $4 billion the Biden administration included in the Covid relief package compound the Black farmers’ frustrations.

John Boyd Jr., 56, a fourth-generation farmer who is founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association, filed amicus briefs in the lawsuits against the debt relief program in Texas and Wisconsin. He said the program is “life or death” for farmers of color.

Farmer John Boyd Jr. poses in front of his hay bailer at his farm in Boydton, Virginia, in May.(Steve Helber/AP)

“What harm am I causing White farmers by getting justice for Blacks and other farmers of color here?” Boyd told CNN. “Discrimination still exists. We’re not harming any White farmer by getting some help that we should have been getting 30, 40 years ago.”

There are at least 13 lawsuits against the USDA regarding the debt relief program for farmers of color and the agency is proceeding through litigation, Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack said during a White House briefing in September. In June, a Florida judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking the debt relief payments.

A socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher is anyone in a group that has been “subjected to racial or ethnic prejudice because of their identity as members of a group without regard to their individual qualities,” according to a House code. The USDA also said it would determine “on a case-by-case basis whether additional groups qualify under this definition in response to a written request with supporting explanation.”

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, a conservative, and a group of White farmers in the state also argue in a lawsuit that the program is unconstitutional because of racial discrimination. The suit was filed by America First Legal, a group founded by former White House adviser Stephen Miller.

Attorneys argue that the USDA’s definition of “socially disadvantaged farmer and rancher” that excludes Whites is “patently unconstitutional.” They also say the agency is violating the Constitution by “discriminating on the grounds of race, color, and national origin” in the program and that the court should prohibit the clause from being enforced.

“Doing so will promote equal rights under the law for all American citizens and promote efforts to stop racial discrimination,” attorneys wrote in an amended lawsuit.

They also argue that many Americans have ancestry that is “not limited to just one racial or ethnic group,” citing Sid Miller, who they claim has 2% Black ancestry and is Scottish-Irish.

In October, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund filed a motion to intervene in the Texas lawsuit, including six declarations from Black farmers alleging recent USDA discrimination and detailing how the debt relief program could save their farming operations. The group alleges “discriminatory practices by local FSA offices” through reports of Black farmers who had FSA loan applications denied even if they have “significant farming experience, sufficient credit history, and ability to pay back an FSA loan.” They also allege that delays in disbursement of FSA funds when loans are approved “exacerbate their debt.” Lawyers for Miller and other farmers have asked the court to block them from intervening.

“In our society, what is considered fair and what is considered equal has always been in the hands of those in power,” Ross said. “The tragedy is, despite policies and initiatives that say otherwise, certain groups outside of the power structure get what those in power feel are fair, which is usually a moving target based on convenience,” he added when asked about the irony of the lawsuits and disparity in loan rejections.

Tiffany Washington and her husband, Roc Zanders, pose with their children Raeghan, Boston and Brayden Zanders. Her daughter holds the family puppy, Roxy.

Black farmers’ financial struggles highlight the need for farmers of color to educate themselves about programs that would help their businesses, he said. Ross has learned a few tough lessons of his own throughout the years, and now he’s guiding others on not only how to receive aid at the state and local levels – but also to build generational wealth.