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VOL 3. NO. 29 Monday, July 30 - Sunday, August 5, 2001
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Black Farmers Still Struggling with USDA
By Avonie BROWN

Gary Grant (standing) in a meeting with other black farmers and government officials.

"Let's get together and get some land; raise our food like the man."

-James Brown

Last year at a concert coordinated to help raise awareness and funds for the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFFA) by local performer Cheikh Diop, he said something that still resonates with me today. He said, "If we understand our history in this country, we know that black farmers have been central to the economic development of this country yet they have had to struggle to retain their land. If we don't get involved we will loose complete control of something as fundamental as our ability to feed ourselves."

As one who has spent most of her life in the concrete jungles of Toronto and now the Washington, D.C. area, the realities of farm life are truly foreign to me. But I know that beyond the neatly packaged and displayed foods in area supermarkets is a farming culture firmly planted in a system of racism. At its height in the 1920s black farmers owned 15.6 million acres of farmland nationally, today they own less than 1.5 million acres and decreasing daily.

The Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA), a grassroots, volunteer organization, was created in 1997 in direct response to the staggering decline in African-American farmers and landowners.

Since the filing of the class action law suit Pigford v. Glickman in August 1997, there has been much discussion on the plight of black farmers across the country, but clearly not enough because there remains relative ignorance of the issues, said Gary Grant, president of BFAA. The situation is insidious, clearly motivated by racism and extends back decades. Grant's own family has been struggling for over 25 years to retain their livelihood and their land. This former farmer of peanut, corn, cotton and soyabean, now invests more time developing political strategies and making legal challenges than he does farming the land. This focused fight is necessary because the opponent is formidable.

Black farmers are in a fight for their survival against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), second only to the Defense Department in size, and its "good old boy" network.

The systematic equities black farmers face are inherent in USDA's very structure. Most of the Department's programs are implemented by local committees known as the Farm Service Agency (FSA). These agencies are usually staffed by whites who, black farmers charge, "have engaged in racial discrimination and practice racism at the highest level."

Black Land Loss Facts
In 1920, 1 in every 7 farmers was Black.
In 1982, 1 in every 67 farmers was Black.
In 1910, black farmers owned 15.6 million acres of farmland nationally.
In 1982 Black farmers owned 3.1 million acres of farmland nationally.
Between 1920 and 1992 the number of black farmers in the U.S. declined from 925,710 to 18,816 or by 98 percent.
In 1984 and 1985, the USDA lent $1.3 billion to farmers nationwide to buy land. Of the almost 16,000 farmers who received those funds, only 209 were Black.
Almost half of all black-operated farms are smaller than 50 acres.
In the late 1980s, there were less than 200 African-American farmers in the United States under the age of 25.
Today black farmers represent less than one percent of the American agribusiness.
--Courtesy the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association

At its best farming is a high-risk business with market fluctuations and the increasing unpredictability of the weather. Additionally, the expansion of the agribusiness has meant that small farms are being swallowed up by large corporations because they don't have access to elaborate distribution networks as well as the latest scientific and technological advances. In addition to these challenges black farmers must contend with the racist practices of both private and public institutions particularly lending institutions.

Private lending institutions have been notorious in their denial of loans to black applicants in all sectors. Farmers, it was believed, had an advantage because the federal government had created numerous subsidy and loan programs to protect the national food source. But the class action lawsuit makes it clear that there too racism was a norm. These black farmers have exposed the role of the USDA in illegally denying them credit and acting against their interests.

It has been documented that FSAs across the country refused to give farmers loan application or lost their completed forms. And for applications that made it through this arbitrary system, it took 220 days on average for loans from black farmers to be processed while white farmers had their loans processed in 60 days. These extensive delays often meant the loss of a crop and/or the loss of black farmland. Lands previous held for generations were lost in foreclosures and tax sales and often sold to wealthy white farmers or agribusiness.

In lieu of the overwhelming evidence, even former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman admitted that the history of racism is pervasive and that USDA has not done enough to end these practices. So when Judge Paul Friedman signed the Consent Decree between the USDA and the black farmers in April 1999, some believed that the class action suit had in fact succeeded in getting the federal government to provide some economic redress of the situation. But that has not come to pass, said Grant.

"The government is using the Consent Decree to put farmers out of business. They have set up a bureaucratic maze designed to frustrate the farmer and cause them to give up," Grant insisted.

While some $3 billion was allocated, Grant said that over 40% of farmers who are making their claim via Track A are getting rejected at the first stage. "Under Track A, the claimant completes a claim form, which is submitted to an Adjudicator. The Adjudicator's decision is based on the claim submitted by the claimant and any information submitted by USDA pertaining to the claim. This is the more streamlined track and most of the claimants - over 20,000 to date -- have chosen it," USDA records show.

"Track A was suppose to be the easy step. They told us it would be as easy as tying your shoe," said Grant. "Yet we are being rejected in significant numbers. And if you choose to appeal the process it puts you into the same category as the Track B claimants, where you have to produce a preponderance of evidence." The net result -- the loss of more black farmers and black-owned farmland.

"We are just beginning to see this happening because farmers are getting their rejection notices and when they see the amount of paper work for the appeal many are saying `forget it, its just not worth it.' Over this four year process we have lost thousands more farmers," said Grant.

"It is by design and they will continue to do this because their intent is to do away with us. After a while they will win the waiting game. Most of the farmers are elderly so they are just waiting for them to give up and go away or simply die," lamented Grant.

He was quick to warn that even if farmers ultimately get some money the situation is not over. As Grant pointed out during his Oct. 99 Presentation to The Subcommittee On Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition, And Forestry, "the two major problems that have hurt black farmers the most are: 1) discrimination on the part of the USDA; and 2) the lack of access to capital. The Pigford v. Glickman Consent Decree does nothing to address these too perilous issues. Even the so called $50,000, which USDA and its Civil Rights Department have convinced the rest of the nation that black farmers have already gotten, is no where near an amount to put any farmer back into farming nor remove all the `bad' debt and bad credit gained from this racist government agency's mess."

Grant said that after all this there has been no firing of agents across the country who have discriminated against farmers. Farmers are still encountering racism and discrimination when they go into the local USDA offices. A farmer in Virginia went into a local office and the agent opened his desk drawer to show him his gun and told him it was loaded. The agent was sent home for one day.

"They claim 18 people have been disciplined or terminated. We asked who or where? We do know that the state director for Mississippi, where there were the largest number of complaints, was moved to Washington, DC and put into the department of civil rights," said Grant.

He pointed out that black farmers have been targeted with a new set of intimidation tactics. The FBI has been doing investigations on farmers who have received their money and the IRS has been notified that some have received a settlement when they have not. "All these forms are meant to harass and demean the black farmers who are trying to recapture a minute portion of what's been taken away from them," said Grant.

A change in administration has not stalled the agenda of BFAA. On March 29, 2001 Grant and other members attended a briefing sessions at the White House. They had an opportunity to meet with President Bush and about 12 other African-American business and political leaders. Grant also presented the President with a letter that read in part, "Of the approximately 60% of the farmers admitted to the class, fewer than 10% of those approved for monetary relief have been granted DEBT FORGIVENESS. USDA employees who discriminated against Black farmers are being permitted to assess the successful claims for debt forgiveness. The continued delays of payment and other tactics against class members threatens more than 1.5 million acres of land to be lost due to the Consent Decree. We therefore petition you, the Chief Executive Officer of the united States of America, to require that just compensation be paid immediately to all African-American farmers party to the Pigford vs Glickman Consent Decree and that settlement be made expeditiously to those claimants wrongfully denied settlement pursuant to the terms of the Consent Decree."

While the struggle against bureaucratic racism continues, Grant said that it is equally important that the black community nationwide gets educated about the issues of the black farmer. He admits it's an uphill battle. "We have to find a way to awaken our own people who continue to deny where we have come from. We don't want to be reminded that we were enslaved and suffered through Jim Crow. In the denying of all that we have let the land get away from us," said Grant.

"When we were Colored and Negro we were much more connected and self-sustaining. We had grocery stores that sold goods produced by local black farmers and we supported those stores. Why is it that integration meant we had to give up our economic power?" queried Grant.

As a report on www.blackonomics.com informed, blacks in urban areas depend on large supermarket chains for fresh foods yet there are a mere 19 black-owned supermarkets in this country. And the quality of the foods available in black communities is suspect at best and the result is we are eating increasingly poisonous foods while white folks are sustaining themselves with food of a better quality. You have to have money to get quality food when once it was just a matter of stepping out your back door to gather food. Today, if you are interested in your health and wellbeing you have to be willing to spend the extra money and travel to better facilities usually found in white communities. "Despite this most of our city cousins don't seem to see the connection between the struggles of the black farmer and the quality of their lives," said Grant.

"We believe in the Kwanzaa principle of Kuchichagulia, `self determination,' because if you don't own land in this nation you are a mere refugee dependent on the `mercy and goodness' of those who have," said Grant.

For more information about the BFAA and the ongoing fight to preserve black farmlands call 252-826-3017 or visit the website www.coax.net/people/lwf/bfaa.htm

To comment on this or any other story email editor@metroconnection.info.

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