Iowa Public Television

 

Black Farmers File Claims in USDA Settlement

posted on March 30, 2012


MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - When Roy James needed money to buy

equipment and dig an irrigation well for his father's Mississippi

farm, he applied for a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture

- but was turned down.

     The USDA said it denied the application filed in 1995 because

James had inadequate education and didn't have farming experience -

even though he had a college degree and had worked for years on the

farm that grows soybean, wheat and cotton.

     "I couldn't understand why they turned me down," James said.

"It was confusing."

     He became more frustrated when he found out he missed a deadline

to take part in a settlement reached by black farmers with the USDA

over discrimination claims. The 1999 settlement of the Pigford v.

Glickman lawsuit provided about $1 billion to 15,000 farmers who

say the agency unfairly turned them down for loans because of their

race between 1981 and 1996.

     James said he missed the deadline because he did not find out in

time, but he still filed a late claim. Thousands of other black

farmers did the same - a move that may result in a payout, after

all.

     A second settlement approved by a court in October 2011 is

giving another chance to black farmers with discrimination claims

from that era who were left out of the first Pigford settlement.

Farmers who filed a late claim for the first settlement - or their

relatives - have until May 11 to file a new claim for thousands of

dollars.

     Lawyers involved in the case believe that 40,000 to 65,000 black

farmers are eligible to claim about $1.2 billion under a bill

signed by President Barack Obama.

     Thousands have already filed claims, and advocates say payouts

could be as high as $250,000 in some cases. Factors that determine

how much each claimant gets include the level of damages and losses

they experienced, and, because there is a limited pool of money

available, how many farmers end up applying.

     A panel of people who are not part of the lawsuit or the USDA

will decide if claimants are eligible.

     The Pigford settlements are viewed as a victory by many. But one

group that advocates for black farmers says they are a figurative

slap in the face because they don't cover a long enough time period

and claimants give up the right to appeal if they are denied.

     LaSalle Dudley, 72, filed a claim on behalf of his deceased

older sister and her husband, who were denied a loan in the early

1980s for their cotton farm near Senatobia, Miss. The loan was

intended to buy machinery so Dudley's brother-in-law could give up

manual farming and expand the business. Instead, because the loan

was denied, they were unable to produce enough crops and had to

close the farm.

     Dudley said he hopes to get about $35,000 and would share any

money with his brother. He said the claim is a good way to honor

his sister.

     "They owned the property for so long, and really I would have

loved for it to have remained in the family," Dudley said. "I

would tell people not to be ashamed or fearful coming forward with

what they know happened."

     Black farmers were prominent in the 1920s, when they owned 15

million acres of farmland, said John Zippert, director of program

operations for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.

     But as years passed and they sought loans to maintain or expand

their businesses, many faced adversity. Black farmers seeking loans

from the USDA were often turned down for no explicit reason or were

approved for much lower sums than they needed. As a result, they

had to reduce the size of their farms or sell their properties.

     "The USDA presented itself as the lenders of last resort, but

in terms of black farmers, they didn't fulfill that promise in many

cases," Zippert said. "Many small black farmers because they

couldn't get access to USDA credit and other support, had to go out

of the farming business."

     Today, black farmers own between 3 and 4 million acres of U.S.

farmland, according to Zippert, whose organization represented

farmers in the Pigford settlements. Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia,

North Carolina and South Carolina have the highest numbers of

black-owned farms, Zippert said.

     As properties have gotten smaller, many black farmers have

abandoned traditional row crops such as corn, cotton and wheat.

Now, many are growing fruits like watermelon and mangoes and

vegetables such as peas and okra because they carry a higher income

per acre, Zippert said.

     To be eligible for money under the recent settlement, a black

farmer needs to have sought a loan for his farm between 1981 and

1996. They also must have registered a written or verbal complaint

about any discriminatory treatment they experienced.

     Also, applicants must be farmers who missed the initial Sept.

15, 2000 deadline and filed a late claim for the first settlement.

Zippert said that many did not receive adequate notice of their

eligibility.

     In cases where eligible farmers have died, their heirs can make

claims. In all, about 65,000 black farmers submitted a late claim

for the original Pigford settlement, Zippert said.

     "It's not a general re-opening of the case, and that's caused

some confusion," Zippert said. "You have people who think that

because their parents farmed in the 1940s ... that they are

eligible for this, and they aren't."

     More than 20 firms are helping farmers file for the new

settlement, said Greg Francis, an Orlando, Fla. lawyer. He's placed

ads in newspapers, magazines and on the Internet seeking potential

claimants.

     Francis said his law firm called Morgan & Morgan does not charge

those who file a claim. Lawyers' fees are paid by the court.

     "No potential claimant should be paying anyone either for a

claim form or for assistance in filling out a claims form,"

Francis said.

     Thomas Burrell, president of the Memphis-based Black Farmers and

Agriculturalists Association, argues that money should be available

to any black farmer with a legitimate claim of discrimination, not

just the late applicants from the original Pigford settlement.

     Burrell also said it is unfair because it requires black farmers

to forever waive their right to appeal if they are not approved.

     "The process has never been meaningful, it has never been

adequate," Burrell said.

 


Tags: black farmers Mississippi settlement USDA