July 20, 2004

Obstruction of Justice: Testimonials

African American Farmers' Accounts of USDA Discrimination


USDA Refused to Even Provide Mr. King with an Application

Calvin King visited USDA's local Lunenburg County Farm Services Agency (FSA) office in Kenbridge, VA in January 1981 to apply for a loan to purchase 27 acres of timber land adjacent to the farm where his parents had been sharecroppers since the early 1900s. The FSA official refused to even provide King with an application, telling him that no funds were available for his loan. "It was common knowledge that certain white farmers got better treatment. Everyone knew that the white farmers were getting loans while [black farmers] weren't. They were not far from us, just down the road, and it was just generally known that they were getting money from [USDA] but we weren't," says King.

King Joins the Civil Rights Settlement and is Denied the "Automatic" Payment, Appeal Still Pending More Than Five Years Later

After learning of the Pigford v. Veneman class action settlement, King sought restitution by joining the settlement in June 1999. He was assigned to Track A, the "automatic" $50,000 track, but his claim was ultimately denied. USDA's refusal to provide King with an application became a major obstacle in his case. He was left with no record that he applied for a loan, "If they'd offered an application, at least they'd have something on file. When you buy a car or go for a job at least they give you an application to fill out."

USDA's practice of withholding information on similarly situated white farmers who received loans also became an insurmountable hurdle for King. USDA refused to provide any information to King, despite having the data within its own files. King attempted to navigate the maze of public documents to prove his case, but failed. King named two similarly situated white farmers in his claim, one of whom he was certain was receiving loans, and another whom he was reasonably sure received loans and owned a large farm several miles from his parents' farm. He later learned that one of the farmers was actually leasing the farm to a white neighbor who operated the next farm over and several other farms in the area, "Had I listed [the other farmer] I would've been ok, but since I named [the land owner], I got denied. That was a mistake I made with the name, and that resulted in the denial. It seemed logical at the time that I assumed [the landowner] was receiving the [USDA] loans. But it's hard to tell in this area where one farm begins and another ends or who is farming what or who owns what. There are no clear boundaries like in the suburbs."

Calvin went back to the Kenbridge, VA FSA office in May 2000 attempting to define the boundaries between the farms, and met with further obstruction. "I wanted to demonstrate to them that the two farm operations were connected just to show how I had gotten the name confused. In the process, the FSA office denied me some basic information that should've been released, such as whether or not the farms were connected, and how. And who was the farmer that farmed the land that year," says King. He explains, "It seems to me that they withheld information that they should not have withheld from me ... but I was not given anything." Ironically, says King, "the FSA office in Fredericksburg, VA ... provid[ed] me with information ... about two black farmers ... if the black farmers' information was released to me, the white farmers' information should have also been released."

In November 2000, King challenged the denial of his claim. Although his settlement claim was filed over five years ago, no decision has been made on his appeal, and Calvin's case remains unresolved today.

King Files New Complaint for Retaliation by USDA for his Participation in the Settlement

King faced retaliation due to his participation in the Pigford civil rights settlement, and filed a subsequent discrimination complaint with USDA. King explains, "I filed an additional complaint against USDA because of ongoing discrimination I experienced after the Pigford suit, and probably because of my involvement in the Pigford suit. After Pigford, I was continually discriminated against." King's experience is that "USDA is not applying the same standard to black farmers that it is applying to white farmers, and that constitutes an act of discrimination against me and all black farmers. USDA law is the same all over the country. The law is the law, and it should be applied equally throughout the land."


USDA's Late Payments Caused Crop Yields to Dwindle

Linwood Brown sought assistance from the Farm Services Agency (FSA) in Brunswick County, VA, from 1980 through 1994. Brown's farm, at the time, consisted of about 80 acres, upon which he grew corn, soybeans and tobacco. Brown is the fifth generation to farm his land, which his relatives worked as slaves. "The old slave house is still here on the property," says Brown.

In Brown's experience in applying for USDA crop loans, USDA would withhold payments until it was too late to harvest the crops, creating a cycle that continually decreased the size of his yields, "I'd apply for assistance around the first of the year, but wouldn't receive the money until June or July. That wasn't enough time to plant the seeds, put the fertilizer and chemicals on at the right time, do all the things you needed to do. So then your yields would suffer, and you'd only get, say, 80% of your crop. Then they'd use that against you in future years saying your yields were low so you can't get the money you need to farm the land." Though he applied for assistance at the same time as area white farmers, Brown's checks would arrive months later, while his white counterparts received faster turnaround. Brown states, "it was a constant struggle for us."

In Brunswick County, African American farmers were required to report to a supervisor to obtain payments expense-by-expense while white farmers were paid in a lump sum. As Brown explains "the black farmers had a supervisor of their [FSA] bank account, where you had to take your bills and receipts to prove that you needed the money. You could only go to the supervisor's office on Wednesday. The white farmers just picked up their check and put it in their pocket, they had no supervision, no questions asked."

Civil Rights Settlement Failed to Provide Restitution

Linwood Brown was part of the Pigford v. Veneman lawsuit, but chose to opt out.

"That process left the burden on the farmer to prove his case. You had to have hard facts to prove you were discriminated against. I went through that and won a partial settlement. But it's not fully resolved. USDA was supposed to come back and pay for the other years that they discriminated against me, but that never took place." Linwood explains, "this same situation has happened to a lot of farmers. They [USDA] find discrimination but they won't pay. They'll fight each one to the end. They'll use taxpayer money to fight against you. The good old boy system is still in place, and working well."

Brown laments the land loss that has plagued African American farmers denied USDA loans and subsidies, "the saddest days of my life I spent watching USDA selling these people's farms. To see that, it was unexplainable. I went and saw some of the sales, when they auction off the black farms. USDA would literally sell the farm and leave the family sitting there under the tree, watching somebody move onto their farms they've been living and working on for generations, some since slavery. Now they don't have a place to call home. When you witness what they are doing here, it doesn't look like you live in America. You just won't believe that this kind of thing, this discrimination, is happening to poor struggling farmers here in America. But it has... it still is. It's still the same today."


Local USDA Office Repeatedly Turned Away African American Farmer and Delayed Fulfillment of Loan

Leon Pulley owns a farm in Butler County, Missouri, where he has grown milo and soybeans for two decades. Between 1994 and 1996, USDA repeatedly delayed loan payments, severely limiting the profitability of his crops. "The way it usually works is that you would file for Farm Service Agency (FSA) assistance in February. You're supposed to get your money in March or April in order to have enough resources to plant on time to reach harvest before the fall rains and frost come. White farmers were getting their money on time, every time. But not the black farmers," says Pulley. USDA delayed payment until as late as September for several consecutive years.

Pulley also experienced obsfucation at the hands of local USDA FSA representatives, "You'd go in, they'd tell you they were busy, to come back later, and so you would come back later and they'd say the same thing again. I got told that every time," Pulley explained. Pulley believes these practices were only aimed at African American farmers, "They [FSA representatives] weren't letting some people get money at all, and others would get the money too late so they couldn't set up in time to harvest so got bad or no crops." Pulley knew of two or three white farmers in similar farm situations who got their money on time, and contends that discrimination is to blame for the disparity.

Pulley signed up for the class action lawsuit and was admitted to Track B. To his disappointment, his case was never heard. He says that his lawyers were inadequate and his case "just fell through the cracks."

Unfair Treatment by USDA Continues

Leon has continued to seek help through USDA programs. Last year, he was turned away and told there was no money. This year, he applied and was also rejected. Leon has reduced the amount of land he actively farms to 20 acres, and has put the remainder of his farm into the wetlands conservation program. Ever since 1996, he has been paying USDA $154 a month toward the debts he has accumulated over the years, debt which, ironically, was accrued largely due to USDA's unjust delays of his loans.


Rejected Twice by USDA, McCray Nearly Gave up on Farming Altogether

Leroy McCray applied to the Farm Services Agency (FSA) around 1990, requesting $5 million in working capital and equipment loans to set up a chicken farm in Sumter County, SC. The local USDA FSA official met with McCray, telling him that no money was available. "They told me to go look for a private loan," he recalls. This story was not what his white neighbors were told, "I knew there were 7-8 white farmers in my area with chicken farms who were getting the money, the same type of loan that I wanted. And they only had high school education and limited or no farming experience when they got their loans. I was a college graduate with lots of experience with different farm animals and operations, and I was getting denied. It didn't make any sense." USDA denials stifled McCray, "I never even got the chance to start the chicken farm like I wanted. I just gave up." Several years later, he applied for another loan, McCray says, "They didn't even take the application I had filled out because they just said there was no money available."

Settlement Presented Difficult Compromise

McCray learned of the civil rights settlement with USDA, and chose to pursue relief through Track A, though he felt that it would not make him whole. "It wasn't an easy decision, I didn't want to just take the $50,000. I wanted to go for the $5 million they had denied me, but it seemed like it would never be resolved if I did that." McCray is one of the few farmers who received relief under the settlement. Despite his success, McCray does not expect USDA's treatment of African American farmers to change. "It's not any better, it's still the same as it was. It's the same plot."


Local USDA Officials Used Common Tactic of Withholding Paperwork to Delay Loans

Alan Diggs and his brother Milton Diggs farm together as the Diggs Bros. Partnership in Southampton County, VA farm. Their story of discrimination is similar to many other African American farmers' accounts: complicated mountains of paperwork, processing delays, and late payments.

Diggs would witness his white neighbors being treated differently by USDA's local FSA officials. "The FSA officer would trickle the paperwork out one piece at a time to black farmers, there'd be 10-15 days in between communications, then another piece of paperwork would be in the mail, 3-4 days lag time, then you fill it out and keep coming back and then there's another paper to fill out. Another figure, another number they needed from you. White farmers were already getting their work done, they weren't getting the extra paperwork we did. They'd get a full package, fill it out, and in ten days to two weeks they'd have their money."

Diggs has survived in farming while many African American farmers have been forced out of farming, "We might be the only black farmers of size doing this any more, a lot of people have dropped out of farming because it's such a hassle, some of the white supervisors in the office try to make it hard. If USDA had made it easier for the black farmers, they might still be in business now. In a sense they just ran them out of business."

USDA Failed to Live up to Promises Made in Settlement

Alan Diggs received $50,000 in the Pigford settlement, but remains disappointed by the treatment he received from USDA throughout the process. Diggs explains, "When the settlement came out, USDA said you were entitled to $50K and they would write off all your debt. I got the $50K but they only wrote off a portion of the debt I owed. During the Monitor review, when I put in an appeal, they tried to tell me that the years that they did not write off were years I wasn't discriminated against. But that's not what they said they were going to do. They said they'd write off all your debt. But they didn't." Diggs believes that priorities shifted during the course of the settlement, "The Bush Administration put this thing on the back burner when they took office. When Bill Clinton was in office, it was a front burner issue. But that changed when Bush got in there."