The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 74/No. 10      March 15, 2010

U.S. Black farmers
discuss new settlement
(front page)
WASHINGTON—On February 18 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Justice Department announced a $1.25 billion settlement to resolve long-standing claims of discrimination in loans by thousands of Black farmers.

This settlement follows more than 10 years of protest activity by farmers to correct injustices coming out of the 1999 settlement of the historic Pigford v. Glickman class-action lawsuit.

The announcement came just days after hundreds of Black farmers across the South—from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Richmond, Virginia—joined demonstrations and meetings, demanding equal treatment for all farmers and for Congress to appropriate additional funds for compensation. These were the largest protest actions by working farmers in some time, reflecting their refusal to acquiesce in face of ongoing government discrimination, packaged in ever higher mountains of bureaucratic red tape.

The Barack Obama administration is hoping to put an end to protests by Black farmers. “With the settlement announced today, USDA and African American farmers … can move on to focus on their future,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.  
‘Pigford v. Glickman’
In 1999 Black farmers’ claims of decades of discrimination by the USDA were upheld in federal court. The Pigford settlement ordered the government to give claimants a $50,000 payment, debt forgiveness, and preferential treatment in future loan applications. Farmers who could provide stringent proof of greater losses could apply for a larger settlement. Farmers were told that the $50,000 payment and debt relief would be awarded to claimants that provided a “reasonable basis” for finding that they had been subject to racial discrimination.

But to file a claim, farmers had to have been farming between the years 1981 and 1996 and be able to demonstrate that they had been denied a USDA loan and that a similarly situated white farmer in their area had a loan granted.

The outcome of the settlement was far from what farmers were told would happen. Of the 22,547 claims that were considered, 41 percent were denied. Many farmers didn’t even learn of the settlement until after the initial deadline, resulting in some 75,000 claims being filed “late.” Only 2,200 of these were considered for compensation as part of the 1999 settlement.

Payments and debt relief in the first Pigford case totaled about $1 billion, $200 million of which returned to the government in the form of taxes.  
‘A bittersweet victory’
The second, most recent settlement, was agreed to by attorneys for the major organizations representing Black farmers and the USDA and Justice Department. It must now be approved in federal court, and funds appropriated by Congress. Only farmers with pending claims from the original settlement can apply, which includes as many as 75,000 farmers. No new claims will be accepted.

A ceiling on payments has been set at $1.25 billion, including $100 million already appropriated in the 2008 farm bill. The payout to individual farmers—not to exceed $50,000—will depend on how many people refile claims, according to Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli of the Justice Department.

“This is a bittersweet victory,” said John Zippert, program director for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC) in Epes, Alabama. The FSC, founded in 1967, helps Black farmers fighting to hold onto their land and has aided many farmers in navigating the rough waters of the case.

“This is a positive step, but it’s an ongoing fight,” he said. “We have to help as many farmers as possible get $50,000, and if $1.25 billion is not enough, we have to demand more money from Congress. There are battles ahead to get loans and programs for Black farmers who are still farming. The younger farmers are not included in this case.”

“If farmers in the earlier settlement got $50,000, how can you give people less than that now? Farmers need to discuss this settlement and learn what it really is,” said peach farmer Robert Binion, 56, from Clanton, Alabama, who attended recent rallies in Montgomery, Alabama, and Washington, D.C. “This is ‘hush money.’ What they need to do is make the system fair.”

“This settlement is a day late and a dollar short,” said Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association, of Tillery, North Carolina. “I hope it will bring some relief. But how many farmers [who originally filed claims] are still alive, still on the farm, still operating?”

“We are holding the president, the USDA, the Justice Department accountable for getting this done,” said National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd. “The farmers in this case are old. They deserve some relief now, and if we have to go back in the future for more funds, we will.”
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