Thursday, May 07, 2009

In 2010 Budget, President Obama Offers $1.25 Billion To Resolve Black Farmers' Pigford Claims

Is The Reconstruction Era Over At USDA? National Black Farmers' Association president Dr. John Boyd on the record....

Later today, when the President announces his 2010 budget, which slashes 121 programs and about $17 billion, there'll be one crucial area where spending will increase. Working with his closest advisers, President Obama is attempting to redress the longstanding civil rights grievances of black American farmers, by proposing a $1.25 billion deal to settle the 'Pigford Claims," a longstanding discrimination against USDA.

The funding could benefit as many as 80,000 black farmers, who have experienced decades of unconscionable behaviour from USDA employees, in the form of denied services and racially biased lending practices. Pigford has been an emotional battle spanning multiple administrations and Ag secretary tenures, and the budget announcement is due to years of work by a bipartisan group of farmers, lawyers, and non-profit Ag and justice groups, led by Dr. John W. Boyd, Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) (above). The President inherited the issue when he took office, and both he and Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack pledged to help. The Congressional Black Caucus has been working on the issue too.

But today's settlement offer almost didn't happen.

"After the President got into office, they [administration officials] asked us to wait another two years, because of the state of the economy," Boyd told Obama Foodorama last night. "I said--two years! Some of these people have waited a lifetime already!"

Many of the farmers involved in the settlement dispute are elderly, and many of the younger farmers who will qualify for settlement money saw their parents and grandparents fighting the USDA. Recently, Secretary Vilsack called the USDA "the last plantation," an entirely accurate description of the pervasive culture of "Good Old Boy" behaviour among white, male agency officials at the local, state and federal level. According to lawyers and farmers Ob Fo has spoken with, it was acceptable and routine for USDA officials at every level to "persuade" black farmers that farm services and loans weren't available to them, that deadlines had passed, and to throw away applications for services. Last week, when the NBFA held a protest in front of USDA headquarters on the National Mall, farmers from around the country told stories of discrimination and bad practices at USDA. In every case, the state was different, but the behaviour of USDA officials was the same (pic: two farmers at last week's rally, in t-shirts with their parents' pictures; their parents were involved in Pigford, too).

Boyd said that he had repeatedly pointed out to White House officials that the longer Pigford went unsettled, the more the President would be involved in a situation he had no hand in creating. Top-level advisers, including Valerie Jarrett, have been crucial to resolving the issue, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have been involved, too. Most recently, on Tuesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) introduced The Pigford Claims Funding Act of 2009. Sen. Grassley has introduced various versions of this legislation in the past decade, as have others on Capitol Hill. While still an Illinois senator, the President also sponsored crucial Pigford legislation, which was included in the 2008 Farm Bill.

Boyd is pleased that the President has moved fairly rapidly to allocate money to settle Pigford, especially becasue last week the money being offered to the black farmers was $100 million. Still, Boyd said that $1.25 billion is still a fairly low sum.

"$2.7 billion is a better figure," Boyd said. "We're talking about thousands of farmers, decades of discrimination, people losing their land and going bankrupt, people whose lives and livelihoods were ruined based on the color of their skin. If these farmers had been white, they would have had all the support USDA gives farmers, and I wouldn't still be working on this."

Boyd added that at a time when the government is sending billions of dollars to banks which then turn around and spend the money on executive bonuses and vacations, it's particulalry galling that the Pigford issue has been regarded as just another "small problem."

Boyd farms on the North Carolina/Virginia border, and says he hopes Pigford really will be settled soon, so he can stop coming to Washington. But he worries that Pigford may well get lost again when the President's budget goes to Capitol Hill and is subject to votes (in pic: A farmer from Georgia wears a t-shirt with all the names of those who work on his family's farm...all have been impacted by Pigford).

"I've devoted my life to this," Boyd said. "I just want it to be over. All the black farmers want it to be over. We've waited long enough."

It should be noted that settling the Pigford claims also helps promote other parts of President Obama's agricultural agenda, and to fulfill campaign promises. Most of the black farmers farm smaller, family owned concerns, and the President has promised to encourage this kind of farming.

*Photos by Obama Foodorama, April 29, 2009 at USDA headquarters, Wahsington DC.