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VOL. 125 | NO. 27 | Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Black Farmers Leader Stumps for Equitable Treatment – and Money

By Bill Dries

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Thelma Horton, from left, Conrad Mack and Willie Hodges of Memphis attend a rally sponsored by the National Black Farmers Association seeking $1.15 billion of restitution for loan discrimination by the USDA. Photo: Lance Murphey

A week from a planned political rally in Washington, the founder of the National Black Farmers Association was in Memphis Monday to rally farmers for the political cause.

The Presidents Day rally is the latest chapter in John W. Boyd Jr.’s eight-year fight to make good on a 1999 legal settlement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for denying loans and credit to black farmers.

Boyd, a Virginia farmer, said in his case the discrimination came in the form of a USDA official in his county who tore up his paperwork in front of him, cursed him, spit on him and then told him there wasn’t anything Boyd could do about it.

What is known as the Pigford settlement came with a deadline for black farmers to apply, but many missed the deadline.

Governance, a prelude

In 2008, then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama sponsored legislation to reopen the application process and added $100 million to the U.S. Farm Bill to begin the process. The Justice Department has since claimed in court filings that the $100 million is a cap on any payments.

It’s a point Boyd as well as the Congressional Black Caucus have vocally disagreed with.

President Obama’s federal budget proposal includes $1.15 billion in funding for discrimination claims. But the funding is not yet attached to a bill that would make the dispersal of the money a law.

The Department of Justice is still working on terms of a settlement that will play a large role in how the claim system works and how the money is distributed, Boyd said.

Part of Boyd’s mission as he travels to several Southern states is to explain the complex history of the litigation as well as the twisting path through Congress.

“I want you to call them just as often as they call you to ask for your vote,” he said before giving the Washington phone number of Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen and again urging as many as possible to travel to Washington next week. “We want to put out the biggest question they have in Washington – do these people really exist?”

People and numbers

The number of black farmers is the subject of much debate.

Boyd estimates there are 30,000 black farmers who make a full-time living by farming and another 100,000 who are part-time farmers.

Some of that, he told The Daily News, is a function of the diminishing role small farms play no matter what race the farmers are.

“Agriculture is geared toward large-scale corporate farmers. … Black, blue, white, green or brown – a small farmer should be able to make a living in the richest country in the world,” he said. “I think a lot of the small-scale white farmers have the same issues we have. That’s not just a black farmer issue. That’s a small farmer issue. But what happened to the black farmers with discrimination, I don’t think happened to everybody.”

Finding a legislative home for the money would eliminate the Justice Department cap. Boyd said he will argue the money will help economic recovery overall.

“We understand that there are other things out there. What we’re saying is this issue has been overlooked for so long,” Boyd told reporters. “It would mean an economic boost for the poorest counties in this country.”

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