Black Farmer Lawsuit

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Marshall Gill sits on the front porch of his ranch-style house just north of Selma, over looking some of his 216 acres of farmland. Guineas cluck in the yard, the security system of choice in the rural south. Gill’s been in farming as long as he can remember.

“I’m a cattle farmer and a row crop vegetable farmer.”

His parents farmed, as did his grandparents. It’s been a tough life, but rewarding, Gill says, even though he’s had trouble getting government support for improvements on his land.

“Putting down plastic, you know irrigation system. And they said they don’t have any money in the budget for it.”

It’s a common story in the rural south, say plaintiffs in a massive lawsuit filed in 1997. Pigford-versus-Glickman claimed that the US Department of Agriculture
systematically denied black farmers loans and other technical assistance offered to white farmers. And, says Gary Grant – president of the National Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association – some of the discrimination was even more overt.

“In the deeper south, people were walking into offices that actually had hangman’s nooses on their walls. Even here in Hallifax county, North Carolina, where I am, a government agent met my father Matthew Grant, who also had a claim against the U.S. government and actually the oldest civil rights claim, and he showed up with a Sons of the Confederate necktie on. All of these are silent methods of intimidation.”

“I never met a farmer in all of the different states in the southern United States that I worked in, a black farmer, that had NOT been discriminated against by the USDA.”

Lukata Mjumbe is the former director of the
Federation of Southern Cooperatives Rural Training and Research Center
, which was created in 1967 to deal with issues of black land loss.

“The reality of racism has been so permanent, it has been so fixed within the lives and the attempt to secure livelihood by black farmers that it’s something that’s almost as normal as a heavy rain one day and a light rain another.”

Even the USDA has acknowledged problems within the Farm Service Agency, the government division responsible for loans and other technical assistance to farmers. In 1999, the USDA agreed to pay $2.3 billion dollars to black farmers who could prove discrimination. The farmers had two choices: a fast track or automatic payment system that required minimal proof of discrimination and paid a one-time $50,000 award and a slower track that didn’t limit the payout, but required farmers to more thoroughly substantiate the discrimination.

“I never experienced anyone turning anyone away.”

Danny Crawford is a white farmer and executive director of the Alabama Farm Service Agency, which he adamantly defends.

“On the contrary, we do all we can to help individuals// we got out to those communities and try to let them know all the programs that we got.”

Crawford says he doesn’t understand why the government settled the Pigford lawsuit, but it did and now, Crawford says, many people who are only marginally tied to farming are looking for a payout.

“I was shocked by the number of people that filed. You know, in my county we had numerous black farmers, I guess 8 or 10 or 12 or so and then when you have 200 that file a claim that you never seen before in your life, you wonder where they come from! You know we just don’t have that many minority farmers in Alabama!”

Nationally, some 94,000 black farmers came forward seeking restitution. But in a stinging report this summer, the Environmental Working Group , a vocal critic of the USDA, alleged that 87% of them, or 82,000 farmers, were denied. Many, because they missed the original filing deadline. Arianne Callendar is an attorney with the Environmental Working Group.

“They did a direct mailing notification of the proposed settlement, but once the case was actually settled, none of the farmers got any direct mailing.”

Callendar says instead the USDA advertised the details of the settlement in places like BET television and Jet Magazine.

“Which wasn’t focused properly for the elderly farmer that was the likely member of the class.”

The notification process was the topic of a congressional subcommittee hearing last month. Congress is also looking into whether the original consent decree went far enough to meet African American farmers’ needs. In January, the congressional subcommittee will consider accusations that the USDA withheld information that would have helped farmers prove their claims. Some black farmers have called on congress to pass legislation forcing USDA to pay. Lukata Mjumbe isn’t sure Congress has the authority to do that. But, he says, there are steps Congress can take, like fully appropriating funds for technical assistance. Last year Congress authorized spending $25 million on such programs, but only appropriated $5.9 million.

“I’ve never come across any farmer, at this point, that has saved their farm or kept their farm or even expanded their farm operation in any significant way as a result of a payout that they received from the Pigford-Glickman case. I can give you a long list of farmers, however, who have saved their farms, who have saved their land, who have continued to do the work that they love as a result of being able to access the right kinds of technical assistance and the right kinds of support that they are entitled to receive from the United States Department of Agriculture.”

But Gary Grant with the National Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association isn’t optimistic.

“We’ve been testifying before congress since 1984 about the plight of black farmers so I’m not sure that it will go anywhere. I would hope that it would, but the issue of doing the kind of band-aiding does not solve the problem. The problem is still the plantation system that’s in place at the United States Department of Agriculture.”

“Obviously, discrimination has not been wiped out as a result of the lawsuit and I don’t think anyone thought that was what was going to happen.”

Again, Lukata Mjumbe.

“If they did, that’s unfortunate because lawsuits don’t do that. A lawsuit is not going to bring about that level of dramatic transformation within an institution, within an agency that has evolved or devolved to that level of operation over a long period of time. What it takes is continued engagement from those that are the most critically important stakeholders, partnerships between policy makers, farmers, farm advocacy organizations.”

And that’s something that all can agree has resulted from the Pigford-Glickman case: increased dialogue about the challenges facing black farmers. Still, there’s a lot of conversation, and perhaps litigation, to be done. Earlier this fall 11 plaintiffs and Gary Grant’s organization filed a $20.5 billion lawsuit alleging USDA loan discrimination against black farmers from 1997 (the year the Pigford case was filed) to 2004.