The head of the National Black Farmers Association blasted plans to award $1.5 billion in federal subsidies to farmers affected by last fall’s heavy rains — while African-American farmers have yet to receive the $1.25 billion the federal government owes them from the settlement of a class action discrimination lawsuit.
And as the Senate wrangles over how to fund the settlement of the lawsuit — which argued that the U.S. Department of Agriculture routinely discriminated against black farmers — the impacted growers are losing land, and a number have died, said John Boyd, founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association.
“They call it politics, but I call it discrimination,” Boyd said of the government inaction, “because every political figure who knew how badly these farmers were treated and needed that settlement, would not engage in partisan politics, and continue to deny these people who can’t defend themselves.”
WATCH JOHN BOYD DISCUSS THE ISSUES BLACK FARMERS ARE FACING
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The disaster subsidy proposal, spearheaded by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Arkansas), chair of the Agriculture Committee, would provide $1.1 billion for cotton and rice farmers who lost crops last year due to heavy rains in Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi, as well as $400 million for farmers in other states. Large farms would disproportionately benefit from the subsidies, and the largest portion of the aid—some $270 million—would go to Arkansas, Lincoln’s home state, according to a study released this month from the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit environmental and public health advocacy organization.
The disaster subsidy plan was initially included in a small-business bill Democrats have been trying to pass, along with the provisions for the black farmers settlement, Boyd said. Both proposals were removed, but White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel reportedly pledged to secure the $1.5 billion disaster subsidy separately.
“We’ve been trying to break through the ice of the subsidy (issue) with no success,” Boyd said. “I want the same sense of urgency they were willing to put in place for the white farmers crisis. I want the same sense of urgency to help fix the black farmers plight.”
The settlement stems from a 1997 lawsuit against the USDA, Pigford vs.Glickman, which alleged the agriculture department discriminated against black farmers between 1981 and 1996 when they applied for federal loans for farm ownership, equipment and operations, and then failed to investigate their complaints. The suit was settled, with many affected farmers opting to receive a $50,000 payment.
But more than 70,000 claims from farmers who’d submitted them after the filing deadline were not considered. In February, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder announced the $1.25 billion settlement for the late filers, which, once OK’d by Congress, would supply settlement payouts on eligible claims.
The settlement funding approval has failed more than a half dozen times in the Senate, Boyd said. Meanwhile, a number of the African-American farmers waiting for the settlement have grown aged. Others have died. On Thursday, Boyd will deliver a eulogy at the funeral of longtime National Black Farmers Association organizer Calvin “Dick” Morgan Jr., 81, of Dinwiddie, Va., who’d hosted association meetings at his house and had demonstrated at several black farmers protests in Washington D.C.
Many farmers have become frustrated and suffer from low morale after little tangible resolution more than decade after they initially filed their claims.
“The farmers, right now, don’t have a lot of trust in the federal government and the USDA, that they’re going to do the right thing,” Boyd said, adding, “It’s getting more and more difficult to tell the farmers that we’re so close, yet so far.”
Boyd called on President Obama to intercede if the Senate fails to fund the settlement. He said he supports and respects Obama greatly, and if the Senate can’t approve the funds, Obama should step in.
“I’m sure he already knows, but I want to sit down with him and tell him the importance of getting this done,” Boyd said. “We need him to put his foot on the neck of some of the leadership in the Senate.”
The discrimination against the black farmers, along with the debacle surrounding the forced resignation of former USDA official Shirley Sherrod, highlighted a systemic bias in the Department of Agriculture, Boyd said.
Sherrod appeared in Alabama Saturday with NAACP President Ben Jealous at a rural development conference, where she revealed that she is set to meet with Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Tuesday. It will be the first time she has met with Vilsack since her resignation last month over a portion of speech she made, released by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, which was edited to make her sound like she was racist against whites. Boyd said he’s known Sherrod for 15 years, and never believed she would discriminate against anyone.
He said just as Sherrod was forced to quit her job, “heads should roll” over the discrimination against black farmers. “Nobody’s been fired, nobody’s been terminated, and yet this black lady who they thought had mistreated a white farmer (was forced to resign),” Boyd said. “It’s a triple standard.”