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Endless Injustice for Black Farmers

Friday, September 17, 2010

By Ken Cook, Environmental Working Group Founder & President

It’s now a done deal. After Congress in July rebuffed several attempts by Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) to win funding for an agriculture disaster aid package that would send generous checks to large Arkansas farms for minimal losses, the White House quickly offered to finance the payments administratively. This Wednesday (Sept. 15), Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the administration had found a way to come up with the $630 million, about half of what Sen. Lincoln had requested.

Using EWG’s widely searched farm subsidy database, we did an analysis of Sen. Lincoln’s initial proposal to find out who’d be reaping the windfall from this federal giveaway. Sure enough, many plantation-scale farms that already receive thousands of taxpayer dollars a year under the skewed and inequitable federal agriculture subsidy system will be eligible for payments to compensate for crop losses of as little as 5 percent suffered in 2009.

Perhaps we should ask every American who feels they took a five percent hit last year if they'd like some government money?

And since Southern growers generally opted to not purchase crop insurance -- unlike their counterparts in the Midwest -- the message to farmers in the Corn Belt is: Don’t bother to buy insurance next time. If you’ve got a Democratic senator in a tight race, we’ll take care of you. It’s a slap in the face to farmers who played by the rules and bought insurance -- only to see less prudent Southern farmers get rewarded with an election-year, Big Government Bailout.

But when it comes to unfairness in farm policies, that’s just the start. Consider the ongoing saga of the black farmers.

After Sen. Lincoln failed to get her disaster aid through Congress, it took only days for White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to engineer the payout to Arkansas farmers in an election-year gambit to boost the senator's sagging reelection prospects.

Meanwhile, thousands of black farmers who endured decades of documented discrimination at the hands of the USDA have been waiting two years for Congress to appropriate $1.5 billion awarded in final settlement of a long-standing court case against the agency. They've had to watch the settlement funds stripped from one bill after another despite President Obama’s supportive words at a Sept 10 press conference:

It is a fair settlement.  It is a just settlement.  We think it’s important for Congress to fund that settlement.  We’re going to continue to make it a priority.

Montana Senator Max Baucus does include the black farmer's settlement in a tax extenders bill he introduced this week. With Congress bogged down in pre-election bickering, however, the prospect of it passing is uncertain.

Don’t think for a minute that the black farmers haven’t noticed the Arkansas boondoggle. National Black Farmers Association president Dr. John Boyd voiced his frustration over the deal today (Sept. 17) in Progressive Farmer:

Boyd has repeatedly tried to draw attention to the lack of a paid settlement. That's why Wednesday's announcement draws his ire.

"I was very disappointed given the president knows our cause and Sen. Lincoln knows our cause," Boyd said.

In announcing the disaster funding, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said he was using Section 32 funds that allow the secretary authority to provide "assistance to producers in order to re-establish their purchasing power." Vilsack said the losses by producers last year had affected their purchasing power. Boyd counters that actions by USDA have hurt purchasing power for black farmers.

"I'm being told there is no real administrative fix for the black farmers, but they can fund money for the disaster funds, and they can find money for nutrition programs," Boyd said. "We lost purchasing power. I'm calling on Secretary Vilsack and the president to fund our settlement using that same definition of lost purchasing power."

That leaves me asking one simple question. If the White House can administratively fund payments to wealthy farmers in Arkansas to bolster Sen. Lincoln's election hopes, why can't it do the same thing for black farmers whose ugly history of discrimination is compounded every day they wait -- empty-handed?

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