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The last plantation

February 3, 2009

by Jessica Hoffmann

In Tennessee, 300 Black farmers take over a USDA office, protesting loan discrimination. – Photo: Greg Campbell, AP
In Tennessee, 300 Black farmers take over a USDA office, protesting loan discrimination. – Photo: Greg Campbell, AP
In 1920, at the height of Black farm ownership, one in seven U.S. farms was Black-operated; by 1992, the number had fallen to one in 100. While the USDA is not solely responsible for this – physical violence, flimsy heir-property laws and other factors are also to blame – the department has played a huge role. From discriminatory lending practices to foreclosures, the agency’s policies have directly contributed to a massive loss of Black land wealth and the rapid decline of the Black farmer, leading some to call the USDA “the last plantation.”

Black farmers are organizing to counter the racist practices of the USDA

Delores Amason’s family has been farming for generations. Her father, Leroy E. Harvey, was a sharecropper who bought 40 acres of farmland in Tillery, North Carolina, through a New Deal program that offered loans to help small farmers own the land they worked. For decades, the family grew cotton, peanuts, corn and soybeans, and bought more acres as they could.

“We weren’t rich by anybody’s standards,” Amason says, “but it didn’t bother us because we worked for ourselves.”

Harvey, like most farmers, relied on cyclical operating loans to pay expenses in advance of the income-generating harvest. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (commonly referred to by its acronym, USDA) was tasked with supporting small farmers who had trouble getting credit from other sources. Yet when Harvey was hurt by early freezes in the 1980s, he fell behind on payments to the agency and found himself struggling to get a regular USDA operating loan. He turned to a private bank and was startled to learn that the USDA had ordered them not to approve his loan, saying they were about to foreclose on his land.

Many Black farmers like Harvey have seen their economic situations hurt rather than helped by the USDA. In 1920, at the height of Black farm ownership, one in seven U.S. farms was Black-operated; by 1992, the number had fallen to one in 100. While the USDA is not solely responsible for this (physical violence, flimsy heir-property laws and other factors are also to blame), the department has played a huge role. From discriminatory lending practices to foreclosures, the agency’s policies have directly contributed to a massive loss of Black land wealth and the rapid decline of the Black farmer, leading some to call the USDA “the last plantation.”

Black farmers are organizing to protest these conditions and to share resources among themselves. As a coalition, they lobbied for changes to the Farm Bill that passed in Congress last year and won a number of important provisions, including halting foreclosures against any farmer who has a discrimination claim pending against the USDA. They are hoping their collective work will finally begin to chip away at the federal agency’s long-standing practice of targeting Black farmers.

The U.S. government itself has documented widespread, ongoing discrimination against Black farmers by the USDA

Black farmers tell stories of USDA officials – especially local loan authorities in all-white county committees in the South – spitting on them, throwing their loan applications in the trash and illegally denying them loans. This happened for decades, through at least the 1990s. When the USDA’s local offices did approve loans to Black farmers, they were often supervised – farmers couldn’t spend the borrowed money without receiving item-by-item authorization from the USDA – or late. And in farming, timing is everything.

Meanwhile, white farmers were receiving unsupervised, on-time loans. Many say egregious discrimination by local loan officials persists today.

Lloyd Wright, who directed the USDA’s civil rights department in 1997-98, remembers a farmer whose land was foreclosed and sold by the government while his civil rights claim was pending. “We found that the Department of Agriculture was guilty, but we really couldn’t compensate him because his land was gone,” Wright reports.

In 1997, a group of Black farmers led by Tim Pigford of North Carolina filed a class-action suit against the USDA. They argued that they had been systematically discriminated against by the agency and that the mechanisms for challenging such discrimination were useless: They’d been filing complaints for years to a civil rights office without knowing that President Ronald Reagan had disbanded it in 1983.

Between 1983 and the late 1990s, Wright says, there was no consistent, functional civil rights office within the USDA. In all, 22,000 farmers were granted access to the Pigford class-action suit and, in 1999, the government admitted wrongdoing and made a $2.3 billion settlement – the largest civil rights settlement in U.S. history.

Yet Black farmers’ feelings about Pigford are mixed. Membership in the class was limited to Black farmers who were racially discriminated against by the USDA between 1981 and 1996. “Fifteen years does not cover the damages that had been done,” insists Gary Grant of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association.

The settlement also created a two-track system wherein farmers could opt for a direct payment of $50,000 or try for a larger settlement by providing extensive documentation. As most farmers hadn’t kept a detailed paper trail, the majority opted for the $50,000.

Although about 15,500 farmers have received the $50,000 settlement, a 2004 investigation by the Environmental Working Group and the National Black Farmers Association found that nearly nine out of 10 Black farmers who sought restitution through Pigford were denied. Worse, the USDA actively fought claims, spending 56,000 Department of Justice staff hours and $12 million contesting individual farmers’ claims. Harvey was one of many whose claims were dismissed on technicalities.

Even if Pigford had been fully implemented, it still would have fallen short of farmers’ hopes. “We wanted land back that had been illegally taken,” Grant says. “That has not occurred.” There were no structural changes made at the USDA to ensure that discrimination would stop.

Wright claims that since he retired in 1998, the USDA hasn’t had a functional system for tracking civil rights complaints. Although the USDA claims to be effectively processing complaints today, repeated requests for information about their process only resulted in officials finally stating they wouldn’t provide information without a Freedom of Information Act request. A May 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office found that management of civil rights complaints by the USDA “continues to be deficient despite years of attention.”

Black farmers have been organizing themselves

Farmer-organizers with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives have created local co-ops to share the risks and profits of small-scale farming over the last 40 years. Ben Burkett, a member and fourth-generation farmer, says, “If it hadn’t been for my local [co-op], I wouldn’t be farming today.”

The Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, with 1,500 members in 21 states, is organizing a North Carolina environmental justice summit, and the Southern Rural Development Initiative is partnering with small, grassroots organizations on initiatives like creating markets where small-scale farmers can sell organic, locally grown food to their neighbors. In different ways, these groups are encouraging local, cooperative economics among Black farmers.

Last year, they went to Washington

A coalition of organizations led by the National Black Farmers Association lobbied to win several important items for Black farmers in what’s known as the Farm Bill, the massive instrument that determines USDA policy. The bill is revised every few years.

One new provision allows farmers who missed the original Pigford deadline to participate in the class action. This could open up the class to as many as 80,000 people. Since the 2008 Farm Bill passed, 800 have already filed suits, and grassroots groups are holding workshops in farm communities to let others know about it. Although they concede that Pigford has limitations, many farmers are still hoping to be among the few to receive some compensation.

The new Farm Bill also established an advisory committee to improve outreach to Black farmers and set annual reporting requirements for civil rights complaints. And there is finally a moratorium on foreclosures against any farmer who has a discrimination claim pending against the USDA. Grant and other activists would like to see more action taken, including restoration of farmers’ land and ruined credit. And the county committee structure through which the USDA makes loans must be reformed, according to Grant, Wright and others.

Dolores Amason’s father, now 93, managed to save his land – but only through bankruptcy and refinancing. The family is now making payments on land it has owned since the 1930s.

Of all the Black farmers who were once the heart of her community in North Carolina, “my father is the only one that’s left,” Amason says. Many of his peers, unable to survive as farmers, went to work in a nearby nuclear plant. As of the 2002 Census, the average age of Black farmers was almost 60.

“How do we get young people who have witnessed these kinds of devastation to realize that someone could actually make a decent living tilling the soil?” asks Grant.

This story originally appeared in the January-February issue of ColorLines. Jessica Hoffmann can be reached at jess@jessicahoffmann.com.

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