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Vol. 72/No. 10      March 10, 2008

North Carolina: Black farmers
discuss fight vs. discrimination
(front page)
WHITAKERS, North Carolina—Black farmers continue to face racial discrimination in loans and other services at offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That was the view of many attending the 10th annual meeting of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA), held here February 15-17.

Farmers, faculty and researchers from historically Black agricultural colleges, environmental advocates, and officials of the USDA’s civil rights office were among the more than 60 participants. About a dozen were farmers.

“Ten years after the Pigford Consent Decree, farmers are still having to deal with the same old people who are continuing the same old discrimination at the USDA,” BFAA president Gary Grant told the Militant. Grant’s family is currently fighting an effort by the USDA to evict them from their land because of an outstanding contested debt of $54,000. The government claims that with interest the debt has risen to nearly $200,000.

In 1999 a federal judge approved a settlement of a class-action suit against racist discrimination in loans and other services. The suit against the USDA was brought by North Carolina farmer Timothy Pigford on behalf of Black farmers. In the settlement, the government agreed to give each farmer who could provide evidence of discrimination between 1981 and 1996 a $50,000 tax-exempt payment, debt forgiveness, and preferential treatment on future loan applications.

Farmers’ organizations leading the fight to defend land and the right to farm rejected the consent decree as inadequate. Even so, the judge approved it on April 14, 1999. The judge also appointed a monitor to review farmers’ complaints and appeals of denied claims.

Speaking at a panel on the status of Pigford, Stephen Carpenter, senior council for the monitor’s office, said that of the 22,500 farmers who filed for compensation, around 14,000 were approved by a court-appointed arbitrator. Another 65,000 claims were denied because they failed to meet the Oct. 12, 1999, filing deadline. “Pigford is just about over,” Carpenter said.

News reports that a pending bill in Congress would reopen Pigford are misleading, Carpenter told the meeting. He said that if the bill is passed it is not certain that the 65,000 late claims will be treated as a class. The bill provides $100 million for the late claims to be considered, but the claimants may have to pay their own attorneys’ fees, Carpenter said.

“If they see you coming, and you’re Black, the answer is still no!” said hog farmer Eddie Wise. “We’re still facing the same old people, none of them were punished or removed.”

After losing one farm because the USDA refused to provide him a loan, Wise described how he has continued to face obstacles.

In 1993 Wise and his wife applied for a loan to purchase a 106-acre hog farm. Wise said that at first the county loan officer didn’t let him know that the farm had been earmarked for minority farmers. Then officials tried to reappraise the farm to increase the value, but the value actually dropped. Lastly, a white farmer who wanted the farm paid a Black woman to apply for him. She was one of the final two applicants whose names were drawn from a hat. “We won the draw,” Wise said with a smile.

Wise continues to face resistance from the county loan office, which is now demanding that he provide a production history going back three years and a production plan for the new farm.

Mavis Hill is fighting attempts by speculators to buy up land she inherited along with other family members. She explained that in many cases older farmers don’t leave a will explaining how the property is to be divided upon their death. “Some of us want to keep the farm and others want to sell,” Hill said.

Land speculators will approach family members until they find one who will sell part interest in the land. Then they try to get a court to force a sale of the entire property. “My sister grows watermelons on part of the land,” said Hill, “and we plan to stay.”  
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