Rural communities are facing a devastating crisis and rural America’s are far from reaping the benefits of the twentieth century market place. Family producers who used to be the backbone of the agriculture industry are now nostalgic relics of an era past. The romantic pictures of Middle America and busy small town main streets have been replaced by sad stories of bankruptcy and struggle. Increased demand for market efficiency in all sectors has had devastating effects on independent row crop and commodity producers.
Market concentration of food production and distribution isolates independent producers who are forced to compete with mega agribusiness corporations. Food production is no longer a trusty family business. Instead it has been taken over by a small number of large firms who are able to absorb the down falls of the industry (crop failure and weather treats) and set market prices that are below independent producers actual costs. Concentration in processing, merchandising and distribution has limited family producers’ market of buyers. Instead of buying produce from local farms, large grocery chains ship fruits and vegetable to their stores from regional distribution centers, which are often filled with goods that are shipped in from across the US and the world.
In an on going battle to appease struggling independent producers while still managing to support corporate interests that fund campaigns, policy makers have doled out subsidies to farmers and ranchers, redistributing the fortune that has not reached their pockets. While there is a great deal of lobbying being done to encourage the adoption of policy that will address the escalation of mergers and acquisitions in agribusiness that have reduced market competition and other policies that will enable family farming to again become a profitable business, independent producers dependence on emergency aid and compensation payments for losses in market opportunity is steadily rising.
In some cases prices received for top commodities are almost half of what they were five years ago. In 1995 a producer could expect to receive almost $80 for a hundred pounds of cotton. The USDA outlook in April of 2000 was just over $40. Likewise, corn has gone from $3.24 a bushel to under $2, and rice from almost $10 to barely $6. As the cost of commodities continues to drop more and more farmers are going bankrupt at an increasing rate.
The rural crisis is not partial to any aspect of the agricultural industry or any single rural community. Potato farmers in Utah are struggling as much as ranchers in western Texas and peanut farmers in West Virginia. Dairy co-operatives in California are as desperate for aid as cotton farmers in the southeast and white farmers are suffering from the same low market prices as black farmers. The distribution of aid, however, has not been as indiscriminant. Minority farmers claim that they are being unfairly looked over when aid is distributed and that racial bias in allocation is an additional burden that African American independent producer must contend with.
Following the civil war the US government created the freedman’s bureau to provide assistance to former slaves. Land that was confiscated by the Union was promised to black farmers, along with a government issue mule to plow. In the beginning many African Americans benefited from the programs of the bureau, but following reconstruction many of the policies were reversed and farmers had their land confiscated. For most African Americans, the promise of forty acres and a mule was never kept. Despite the government’s failure to live up to its promise, African American farmers persevered.
By 1920 African American farmers numbered 925,000 and held more than 16 million acres of land. Today, they occupy less then 3 million acres and number fewer then 18,000. Over the last 80 years, as the population of African America farmers has steadily and dramatically declined, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has grown and is expected to administer nearly $15 billion in loans and federal aid to farmers and ranchers in 2000. The USDA was chartered with preserving all information concerning agriculture and administering funding intended to propagate a successful agriculture industry in the United States (Wellstone). Like other federal agencies it promised that, no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation, be denied the benefits of, or be otherwise subjected to discrimination.
Despite this claim, a report by the Civil Rights Action Team (CRAT) stated that the USDA was perceived as playing a key role in[forcing] minority and disadvantaged farmers off their land through discriminatory loan practices. As long as aid programs have been in effect there have been complaints that the Department of Agriculture and the county commissioners have discriminated against African American farmers by denying and delaying their requests for farm loans and other benefit programs.
In 1997 a class action lawsuit was filed against the Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman by Timothy Pigford on behalf of 641 other African American farmers under the Equal Credit and Opportunity Act. The farmers alleged that: 1) The United States Department of Agriculture willfully discriminated against them and other similarly situated African American farmers on the basis of their race when it denied their applications for credit and/or benefit programs or delayed processing their applications. 2) The USDA failed to properly investigate and resolve complaints of discrimination that were filed by African American farmers 3) USDA actions violated statutes of the Constitution regarding civil rights and discrimination.
The USDA’s aid and loan programs are federally funded but distributed on the regional and county level. Rural communities elect a county committee of 3-5 people who appoint a county executive. The county executive is responsible for providing farmers with help in completing their credit and benefit applications and making recommendations to the county committee on which loan and aid applications to accept. Based on these recommendations the county committee decides how federal monies will be distributed. Throughout the country, African American farmers testified that county executives and committees have discriminated against them by denying their applications, delaying the processing of their applications or approving them for insufficient amounts or with restrictive conditions. The 1997 CRAT report accounted conditions and cases that would support this testimony.
In 1996 only 37 out of 8147 county commissioners in the United States were African American. That is less then half of one percent. County committees rarely reflect the racial diversity of the communities that elect them and regionally they do not average out to anywhere near close. In the Southeast US, the region with the highest concentration of African American farmers, barely 1 percent of commissioners were African American (28 out of 2469). In the Southwest they made up only .3 percent, and in the Northwest and Northeast – there are NONE!
The CRAT report, as well as testimony by the 641 plaintiffs accounted to instances where aid and loan applications would take nearly 3 times as long to process if submitted by African American applicants. Farming is an industry that is uniquely affected by time. Planting, calving, breeding and harvesting are controlled by the seasons and varying weather conditions. Farmers cannot often afford to wait out a long application process, particularly one that is unjustified and biased.
In his testimony Alvin E. Steppes, an African American farmer from Lee County, Arkansas recalled a loan application that he filed in 1986. He applied for an operating loan through the Farmers Home Administration (FMHA). Though he complied with all application requirements his loan was denied. As the season went on Steppes didn’t have what he needed to plant crops, could not care for the seeds he did sow and at the end of the year, lost his farm. Steppes experience is not isolated. The CRAT reported countless cases of African American farmers being foreclosed upon, and families being forced out of farming. Those who managed to stay in farming often were subjected to humiliation and degradation at the hands of the county commissioners and were forced to stand by powerless, as white farmers received preferential treatment.
Like Alvin Steppes, Calvin Brown from Virginia applied for an operating loan through FMHA. Brown applied in January of 1984 to cover the planting costs of the coming spring. At his first inquiry, one month after applying, he was told that his application was being processed. A month later he was told by his county executive that there was no record of his application and that he would have to file again. Brown finally received his loan in Late May, long after the planting window had passed. In addition, the nearly useless funds were not directly distributed to him. They were placed in a supervised bank account, which required the county executives signature for all withdrawals.
Farmers are often dependent on borrowing to cover planting costs. What they don’t borrow from the USDA or the bank, they take from their savings, put on credit, skim from their children’s college funds and their own retirement nest eggs. Like FMHA loans, they borrow with the intent to replace their savings after things go to market. It is no doubt that Calvin Brown was forced to scrap together whatever he could to get the season started. When loans are locked in supervised accounts farmers are not able to access the money they borrowed to cover the expenses they incurred while they were waiting for the loan to process. He was not significantly helped when his loan came through mid season, after the investment had already been and the waiting period before the harvest had begun. Locked and monitored loans are frequently required of African Americans farmers but not routinely imposed on white farmers.
A successful farmer in Nottaway County, Virginia, James Beverly went to FMHA for a loan to expand and modernize his hog operation. FmHA approved his loans to purchase breeding stock and equipment and assured him that his final loan to cover the cost of farrowing houses necessary for breeding. After purchasing his stock and equipment he learned that his loan for the farrowing houses was denied. The stock and equipment were wasted and Beverly ended up selling off his land to repay the loan to the FmHA. From these examples and others, it would seem that the decisions of the county committees and the actions of the county executive were intentionally destructive to African American farmers and their businesses. Though laws and charters might be color blind, minority farmers suffer at the hands of appointees who regularly discriminate.
The second claim of the farmers who filled suit against Dan Glickman, that the USDA failed to properly investigate and resolve complaints of discrimination that were filed by African American farmers, was based on the closing of the USDA’s Office of Civil Rights Enforcement and Adjudication (OCREA) in 1983. Farmers who believed that loans, credit and benefit programs were being administered unfairly because of their race or other discriminatory reasons were supposed to be able to file a complaint with the Secretary of Agriculture or with the OCREA. As with other federal programs, and most other public programs, the USDA had a defined procedure that was to be followed, both by farmers and county commissioners, when complaints were filed. Reports from the CRAT indicated that the systems had been defunct for well over a decade.
The Civil Rights Action Team was appointed by Dan Glickman in 1996 to review civil rights issues in the USDA and make recommendation for the future. In researching complaints that had been filed throughout the 80’s and 90’s they found hundreds of thousands of complaints that had never been acted on, and estimate that nearly as many had been lost or destroyed without ever being read. CRAT’s final reported stated that:
Minority farmers [have] lost significant amounts of land and potential farm income as a result of discrimination by Farm Service Agency (FSA) programs and the programs of its predecessor agencies, the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), and FmHA The program discrimination complaint process at the FSA lacks integrity, direction, and accountability and there exists a climate of disorder with in the civil rights staff at the FSA The process for resolving complaints has failed USDA has not acted in good faith on the complaints.
The report served as proof enough to Glickman and the USDA defense team that they must settle quickly and move to reinstate the OCREA and install devises to monitor review structures that had failed previously. The case was filed on October 30, 1997 and was resolved April 14, 1999. A record turn around for a case of such proportion. The case never was brought to trial, but instead was settled in a Consent Decree through the D.C. central court.
The USDA extended the statute of limitation to one year from the file date, October 30, 1998. Any claim that was filed or refilled from as far back as 1982, and could prove a reasonable claim for discrimination, received:
1) A cash payment of $50,000. 2) Forgiveness of all debt owed to the USDA incurred under or affected by the program that formed the basis of the claim 3) A tax payment directly to the IRS in the amount of 25 percent of the total of the debt forgiveness and cash payment 4) Immediate termination of any foreclosure action that USDA initiated in connection with loans at issue in the claim 5) Injunctive relief including one-time priority loan consideration and technical assistance.
Though there was some individual dissatisfaction with the Decree, it was largely supported by both farmers and the USDA. Objections were brought about mostly by the Decree’s failure to provide any forward looking injunctive relief. The Decree does not require the USDA to take any steps to ensure that county commissioners who have discriminated against class members in the past are no longer in the position of approving loans, or provide a mechanism to ensure that future discrimination complaints are timely investigated and resolved so that the USDA does not practice the same discrimination against African American farmers that lead to the filing of the lawsuit. In the final presentation to the court the Decree made no mention of implementing the recommendations of the CRAT or the reform of county committee system to make it more accountable.
The extent to which class members were able to prove their case, and the incriminating extent of the final CRAT report have located these issues as the forefront of USDA concern despite their absence from the Consent Decree. The implementation of CRAT recommendations have become a priority of the USDA and the US Congress. Before the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Related Agencies Committee on Appropriations and the US Senate, Secretary Dan Glickman announced that, [the priority set on civil rights issues by him and Bill Clinton] is reflected in the FY 2000 budget which provides the necessary funding to continue to carry out the recommendations of the Civil Rights Action Team as well as the recommendations of the National Commission on Small Farms which supports our civil rights agenda.
Forty acres and a mule. The government broke that promise to African American farmers, and over one hundred years later they are again braking promises, of loans and aid to James Beverly and Calvin Brown. There is a feeling of distrust and fear toward the USDA as programs and structures that have been put in place have proven to be historically hostile to African American farmers. The success of this case goes far beyond the gains of the settlement. As is the situation in many civil rights and other social movements, a marginalized minority population was able to come together to forcefully impress their dissatisfaction and intolerance for discriminatory systems. In this case they have begun to make the first steps toward ultimate success.