As one of the thousands of black farmers participating in a $1 billion settlement (reached in April 1999) with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Eddie Carthan, a cotton, wheat, and soybean farmer in Tchula, Mississippi, was looking forward to a check to amend decades of wrongdoing.
As of September, there were more than 7,000 claimants (classified as Track A) in the class-action suit Timothy Pigford et al. v. Dan Glickman. Each claimant received $50,000. Carthan and Gary R. Grant were part of a smaller group of farmers (classified as Track B); each received between $100,000 and $800,000 because they were victims of more serious forms of discrimination.
But for Carthan and Grant it was too little, too late. “We had to struggle for three years not to lose the farm,” said Carthan who was denied loans three years in a row because USDA officials said he didn’t have enough experience to be a farmer. Carthan said he knew that wasn’t true be-cause “I have two master’s degrees and [I] was born on the farm.”
After struggling to keep a farm that has been in his family since the 1930s, Carthan is now renting out his 700-acre farm and leaving the fields because he said it’s too expensive to maintain in a system where majority white farm commissions refuse to make loans to black farmers.
Grant is now renting out his 40-acre farm in Tillery, North Carolina.
In the early 1900s, there were nearly 1 million black farmers, but according to the Black Farmer & Agriculturalists Association there are now fewer than 18,000 black farmers in this country. That’s less than 1% of all U.S. farmers.
Grant, who is president of the Black Farmer & Agriculturalists Association, said that even though farmers in the settlement are getting checks, the process is slow and many farmers are too far in debt to maintain their farms.
“We were asking the government to write off the farmers debts,” says Grant. “They do this for other countries, why couldn’t they do this for the 20,000 farmers in the settlement?”
Farmers have to borrow money for equipment and seeds in the spring and then they pay off their loans and debts in the fall after the harvest.
Unlike grants doled out by other government agencies, USDA funds are controlled at the local level. Alexander J. Pires Jr., lead counsel for the farmer’s discrimination suit, said this is where the problem lies because most of the 3,000 county offices, which control the programs across the country, are majority white.
“The problem is that the USDA is a very, very white-controlled racist institution and it’s the only federal agency where the local jurisdiction controls the money,” said Pires, adding that the bar was raised extremely high for black farmers to obtain loans.
“Many of the farmers who have applied for compensation under the suit are being rejected on minor technicalities like misspellings,” said Grant.
But Charles Rawls, general counsel for the USDA, rejected charges that the independent third party adjudicators assigned to make the judgments are being finicky, but