LaGRANGE, Mo. — Shade Lewis had just come in from feeding his cows one sunny spring afternoon when he opened a letter that could change his life: The government was offering to pay off his $200,000 farm loan, part of a new debt relief program created by Democrats to help farmers who have endured generations of racial discrimination.
It was a windfall for a 29-year-old who has spent the past decade scratching out a living as the only Black farmer in his corner of northeastern Missouri, where signposts quoting Genesis line the soybean fields and traffic signals warn drivers to go slow because it is planting season.
But the $4 billion fund has angered conservative white farmers who say they are being unfairly excluded because of their race. And it has plunged Mr. Lewis and other farmers of color into a new culture war over race, money and power in American farming.
“You can feel the tension,” Mr. Lewis said. “We’ve caught a lot of heat from the conservative Caucasian farmers.”
“socially disadvantaged farmers” — Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and other nonwhite workers who have endured a long history of discrimination, from violence and land theft in the Jim Crow South to banks and federal farm offices that refused them loans or government benefits that went to white farmers.
The program is part of a broader effort by the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress to confront how racial injustice has shaped American farming, which is overwhelmingly white. Black farm advocacy groups say that nearly all the land, profit and subsidies go to the biggest, most powerful farm operations, leaving Black farmers with little. But in large portions of rural America, the payments threaten to further anger white conservative farmers.
The plans have drawn thousands of enraged comments on farm forums and are being fought by banks worried about losing interest income. And some rural residents have rallied around a new slogan, cribbed from the conservative response to the Black Lives Matter movement: All Farmers Matter.
Mr. Lewis is part of a new generation of Black farmers venturing back into urban plots and small rural farms, driven by a desire to nourish their communities with healthy food and create wealth rooted in the land.
Growing up in LaGrange, a city of 950 along the Mississippi River, Mr. Lewis would scoot a toy John Deere tractor through his mother’s apartment and pretend he was farming the carpet. He joined 4-H, farming and business groups in high school. He started farming at 19, with a few cows and dreams of ending the day with his own dirt on the soles of his boots.
1.4 percent of American farmers. Most are concentrated in the Southeast and Texas.
These days, Black farmers have forged online networks that function as their own digital homemade farm bureaus. They celebrate first turnip harvests, ask whether fertilizer made from fish can revive wilting plants and commiserate about navigating government programs and the isolation of being the only Black farmers in their counties.