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New Law Lets Black Farmers Seek Claims

Friday, September 18, 2009

Gannett News Service (Detroit Free Press), Doug Abrahms

Published June 4, 2008

Robert Harrold missed the 2000 deadline for filing a benefit discrimination claim against the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But the cattleman living near Montgomery, Ala., now has a second opportunity to win compensation in a settlement between the USDA and farmers who filed a lawsuit claiming they were denied loans because of race. The farm bill passed by Congress contains a provision that extends the deadline for tens of thousands of black and minority farmers nationwide.

More than 63,000 black farmers who applied late for the settlement were rejected by a federal court, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington research group.

Harrold said he has never received any loans or other financial help from USDA.

"Once I was told, 'You aren't qualified because you don't have enough land and enough cattle,' " he said. "A 45- or 50-acre farm isn't much to some people, but it's a lot to me."

The new law extends the deadline for a 1999 settlement reached between the USDA and a group of black farmers who sued for discrimination. Under the agreement, known as the Pigford case, the agency paid out about $752 million in claims to more than 15,000 black farmers.

But about 74,000 claims were rejected because they missed the Sept. 15, 2000, filing deadline. The new law reopens the filing window until May 2010, though it's unclear how many of those minority farmers can prove discrimination and win a settlement.

The law lowers the evidentiary threshold to receive a settlement, said Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., a lead sponsor of the legislation. The USDA will be compelled to turn over information about loans and benefits made to nearby farmers, data black farmers have had trouble obtaining, he said.

Claims must be filed in Washington, Davis said, and proponents hope these will turn into a class action and be resolved quickly.

"We have made these cases frankly easier to try than the garden variety civil-rights case," he said. "By passing this legislation, Congress has in effect made a finding that there is systematic evidence of discrimination at the USDA over a period of time."

The law lacks money for the USDA to notify farmers about the new opportunity, and Davis said he would try to add funds in future legislation.

In 2000, many farmers weren't notified in time to make a claim before the settlement deadline and others had difficulty locating documents to prove their cases, said Robert Zabawa, a professor at Tuskegee University's agriculture college, who tried to help Alabama farmers in 2000.

But it's apparent that black farmers haven't received as much USDA aid as white growers, he said.

"These are the folks that have received the least over the years," Zabawa said. "It's not a handout. It's something that every other farmer has been eligible for."

Evidence of discrimination

The Environmental Working Group found a growing gap between USDA payments received by black farmers compared with all other farmers. In 1995, black farmers averaged $1,841 in federal payments compared with $4,066 for all other farmers. In 2005, black farmers received $4,291 compared with $13,846 for other farmers.

Linda Winding Barnes said she went into a USDA office in 1997 seeking drought assistance for her dad's farm in Liberty, Miss., where they raised hogs, cotton and corn.

"They told me I had the wrong place," she said. "That's all the effort they gave to me."

Barnes filed late for the original Pigford settlement because she heard about it after the deadline. She plans to reapply.

Keith Williams, a spokesman for the USDA, said he didn't know if the Environmental Working Group's numbers were accurate.

Most farm benefits are entitlements, he said, meaning if the price of cotton or corn falls below a certain price, all farmers regardless of race are eligible to receive payments. He said he couldn't explain the discrepancy between benefits between white and black farmers reported by the Environmental Working Group.

The USDA proposed in 2007 cutting interest rates and deferring payments to socially disadvantaged farmers, he said, and that was included in the farm bill passed in May.

 

Is the new law enough?

John Boyd, who grows corn and soybeans in Baskerville, Va., sued the USDA in 1995 after a manager tore up his loan application in front of him. He had sought a loan to hold onto his farm. It was originally acquired by his great-grandfather, who had been a slave before the Civil War.

Boyd won a court settlement that he can't disclose and subsequently started the National Black Farmers Association to bring attention to discrimination by the USDA.

The new law provides only $100 million to fund settlements, which can't cover tens of thousands of claims, he said. But he said lawmakers will try to add money in future bills.

"When I first started howling about this, I didn't know how many others were being mistreated by the federal government," Boyd said. "I was one of the lucky ones to be able to hold onto a farm that had been in our family for more than 100 years."

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