Farmers: Blacks not treated fairly

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 11, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; Seven years ago, black farmers won a historic settlement from the USDA for discriminatory practices.

Ever since, they&8217;ve been saying they&8217;re still not getting treated fairly.

In what has become a yearly occurrence, the disgruntled farmers, following the lead of the National Black Farmers Association, will make their way to Washington, D.C., April 26 to voice their displeasure with the way the Pigford v. Johanns settlement is being settled.

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&8220;In 1999, black farmers were awarded a settlement from the USDA for discrimination,&8221; Mississippi Chapter President Leroy Smith said. &8220;USDA agreed to pay the settlement, but a lot of farmers haven&8217;t received it.&8221;

Smith was one of those farmers aggrieved by the USDA. He said late approval of crop loans &8212; &8220;There&8217;s nothing you can do with a crop loan in July&8221; &8212; and he said racism at local Farm Service Agency offices effectively ran him, and thousands of other blacks, out of farming.

In 1997, the class action Pigford lawsuit was filed against the USDA.

The settlement, reached in 1999 and entered to the court of U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman, called for each farmer who qualified to enter an arbitration process.

Friedman appointed Randi Roth to oversee the process as the court&8217;s independent monitor.

She was given quasi-judicial power to settle the claims of any black farmer who could prove he or she farmed and applied for some type of USDA assistance between 1981 and 1996 and had been discriminated against.

All claims were to be divided into two tracks, A and B.

Track A was designed to be less time intensive, farmers who had filed complaints were to provide some measure of proof and be eligible for a settlement of $50,000. The USDA would also send an additional $12,500 to the Internal Revenue Service to cover past taxes.

As of the end of 2004 &8212; the report for which came out in December of last year &8212; the monitor had processed 22,369 claims had been approved for adjudication in Track A; 13,532 of those had been found valid, 61 percent.

To date, more than $843 million has been paid to Track A claimants, according to Roth&8217;s 2004 report.

Track B was designed for those with larger, more detailed claims that resulted in actual damage. There was no limit on damages that could be awarded through this track. Of the 238 claims sent down this road, half were either converted to Track A or settled before a hearing.

Eighteen Track B claims were awarded by the monitor, with the average award being $551,587.

The black farmers feel duped by the process for many reasons, the largest being the size of the class itself.

A stipulation in the settlement set a deadline for filing a claim to enter the class, a deadline the National Black Farmers Association feels wasn&8217;t properly advertised to potential litigants, thereby cutting off more than 70,000 of them.

The monitor did allow more than 2,000 of these late applicants to enter, but did felt it was properly advertised and therefore didn&8217;t allow that as an excuse. The court upheld this decision.

Smith said the farmers &8212; 300 from each state, he hopes &8212; will turn out in Washington to protest this and other inequities.

&8220;We&8217;re going to march for justice,&8221; he said. &8220;We&8217;re going to stand at Fourteenth and Independence (in front of USDA headquarters), meet with representatives and try to get these issues resolve.

USDA public spokesman Ed Loyd said the agency is in no way shirking the responsibilities set forth in the settlement and respects their right to be heard.

&8220;We have moved pretty clearly in saying this is something important we want to live up to. If there is an instance where there is some kind of dispute, it&8217;s something we want to know about.&8221;