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Black Farmers Asssociation
The Reverend Willie J. Burns is a black family farmer. Years ago, increasingly high operating costs in an increasingly unprofitable business forced him to turn to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for financial help. He applied for an operating loan (to help buy seed) and, unlike many of his white neighbors, he got his loan late, in the middle of the growing season, when much of its value (but not its interest) had been lost. He was put, again unlike his white neighbors, on a supervised loan, meaning the USDA needed proof he was spending the money appropriately. He wasnt allowed to access his money without his loan officers permission, and the running around, which he had to do to prove he was buying farm equipment eventually cost him days of labor, depleting his yield. This costly process repeated itself for several years. When he complained to his loan officer, the officer threatened to put Burns out of business. The USDA felt it was justified in following through on that threat and began the foreclosure procedure that would eventually have separated him from his livelihood
Burns, one of 18,000 black farmers to seek reparations in a lawsuit against the USDA, managed to hold on to his property. Many others were not so lucky. Similar stories of unequal treatment are so common that many black farmers think discrimination is national policy. Eddie Slaughter, vice president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association (BFAA), complains, this is standard operating procedure, that discrimination is actually supposed to take place because youre black.
BFAA has been working for years to obtain justice for the black farmers suffering. Recently it looked as if they had succeeded when they reached a widely publicized settlement with the USDA. Farmers who passed a simplified claims process were promised $50,000, full debt relief, and other legal rewards. But, Tom Burrell of Tennessee remarks, Weve been duped again. All it is is more discrimination The original expectation that over 80 percent of the claims would be approved was made farcical by the enormous quantity of denials. Thousands of farmers were refused the right to file and most of the settlements that were reached did not include the promised debt relief. Many farmers received their check and owed it right back to the USDA. They remain in continued danger of foreclosure and farmers still in the claims process have been told by representatives of the government that they will lose their homes as soon as a decision leaves the courtroom.
Discrimination cost Burns over $400,000 in lost revenues (the settlement was worth far less) and he worries that nothing is being done to correct the problems which brought him to court in the first place. Not one USDA employee has been fired for the widespread discrimination and farmers fear vengeance after a settlement, which, according to BFAA president Gary Grant, was not even a slap on the wrist. The worst punishment handed down by USDA authorities is the one-day suspension of a man who brought a loaded gun onto federal property in order to threaten black farmers. He still holds the same position as before and continues to hold power over their loan applications.
Several farmers, after winning their claims, have received letters informing them that their payment has been delayed. While black farmers are used to late and non-existent payments, many are disappointed. Lawyers of the Land Loss Prevention Project found wording in the settlement which allows the USDA to default on all payments without legal consequences. Sure, you get your letter saying youve won, but they really dont have to pay you, explains Burrell. BFAA is now entrenched in a difficult appeals process aimed at undoing the settlement and bringing their case back to court. Many of the farmers who signed on now claim that they were misled by their lawyers, being told that victory would be as easy as tying their shoes, and that quick resolutions would help them return to their crops as soon as possible. BFAA remarks that recent, horrifying, and contrary developments have received little press. While the media were highly enthusiastic about the case before a settlement, agricultural discrimination is now seen as a dead issue. However, the struggle has widespread importance, contends BFAA, because what happens to black and minority farmers now will be the fate of other small farmers in the near future. The farming population, black and white, has declined significantly in recent years and the rise of monopolistic corporate agriculture is making it harder and harder for those still on the land to compete. The USDA has been cutting back on programs designed to keep small and medium farmers in business, and has shown a distinctive bias towards agribusiness. The USDA forgave nearly $14,000, 000 in bad debts to chicken giant Frank Purdue in the same year it began foreclosure on small, black farmer, Mathew Grant, who had paid back 90 percent of a much smaller debt. BFAA members and many others believe that minority farmers are being targeted because they do not have the numbers or political support necessary to mount significant resistance. They claim that once they are out of the way, family farmers in general will be substantially weakened and will be unable to defend themselves against the USDAs final assault.
Black farmers have held on for longer than anyone expected. Governmental reports in the 1980s and 1990s predicted that there would be no black farmers left by the turn of the millennium, but there are several thousand still working their farms. These holdouts will not last long if the USDA is allowed to continue its current policy. A successful legal appeal seems to be BFAAs only opportunity to stall the suffering of the black farmer and to prevent the end of family farming. Z