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USDA Unapproved: The Struggle of the Independen Black Farmer

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USDA Unapproved: The Struggle of the Independent Black Farmer

By  on September 25, 2013

Independent Black Farmers

On Thursday, September 5, 2013 a small collective of independent Black farmers from all over the southern region protested in front of the CNN hoping to get the media giant's attention in helping them get their voices heard: George Hilderbrandt from Leavenworth, Kansas; Dr. Muhammad from Terrell County, Georgia; Michael Stovall from Town Creek, Alabama; Issac Decatur from Scottdale, Georgia; Morsie Porter from New Orleans, Louisiana and Ferrell Oden from Birmingham, Alabama.

For several decades the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been referred to as, "The Last Plantation," by the mentioned farmers and hundreds of  others because of the agency's known practices of: racism, sexism and more.

Monica Davis published an article on November 19, 2007, entitled: Something's Rotten in the Land of Cotton-and in the USDA Too. She states in the article, "Illegal land sales, land theft, loan bias, document forgery, collusion and conspiracy continue to drive farmers out of business. Black farmers and white farmers are still losing billions of dollars in farm land, because of crooked land deals and insider collusion. Conspiracies which often involve county real estate agents, federal farm loan officials, bankers, deed recorders, and, in some cases, county judges and the victims' own family members, are enriching insiders at the expense of the taxpayers."

The very few Black farmers that exist today are struggling from day to day with no available options to help them maintain their farms, their families and most importantly, their livelihoods.

The USDA provides loans to help farmers with their farming operations. Farmers that are not able to secure financing through regular bank sources often turn to the USDA as a last resort, and the agency tries to provide a gateway to long-term success for many of our nation's farmers.

In the article, "The Last Plantation': Black Farmers Vs. USDA," published on December 11, 1996 in the Washington Post by Michael A. Fletcher, he reported that, "financing is the lifeblood of farming, whose practitioners generally take out large loans, based on the next crop, to cover their considerable operating expenses. Farmers who cannot obtain financing face bankruptcy, and the USDA is the lender of last resort for those shut out of the private credit market."

But the agency has also caused major hardships to minority customers by not providing the same lending options that it provides to their White counterparts. There has been recorded testimonialsfrom Black farmers that accuse agency reps of the USDA of bluntly calling them racial slurs and told the farmers that they didn't meet qualifications simply because of the tone of their skin.  The Washington Post article goes on to state that, "between 1982 and 1992, the number of Black farmers in the United States dropped by 43 percent, from 33,250 to 18,816."

A 1990 House Committee report states the reasons for the disappearance of Black owned farms was because of the lack of education; the tendency of Blacks to own smaller, less efficient farms; and the declining interest in farming among younger Blacks.

During the Bush administration the USDA was accused of improperly mishandling over 13,000 cases on the grounds of discrimination. When the Obama administration took office a pledge was made to change how the general public perceives the USDA, and how they handle their programs for "ALL" farmers. President Obama tapped former Idaho governor, Tom Vilsack, to lead that initiative as the new Secretary of Agriculture to redevelop a new image and lead the new initiative of change.

Vilsack then tapped, Dr. Joe Leonard, as the Assistant of Secretary of Civil Rights in the USDA's office of the Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights. Leonard's job is to investigate matters of discrimination that has been reported to the USDA and determine if further actions is warranted or not. Leonard reported that 3,000 of the 13,000 had warranted further investigation.

For example, Mr. Ferrell Oden, a Black farmer who was one of the collective farmers that was protesting the USDA in front of the CNN Center. His complaint of discrimination by the USDA was taken up by Dr. Leonard. Mr. Ferrell applied for a loan with the Farm Service Agency (FSA), but it was ultimately denied because of the reasons of Ferrell's education and experience.

Dr. Leonard's thorough investigation found that Ferrell had an extensive background in farming, and was well educated through Tuskegee University system. Dr. Leonard filed the 25-page Program Complaint No. 09-2094 that outlined a number of pieces of evidence of that proves Ferrell's accusation of discrimination holds merit.  Dr. Leonard  advised possible resolutions to resolve the matter, but Ferrell's and along with other racial discrimination accusations remain to be unresolved without any efforts to resolve them.

We have reached out to the USDA on several occasions to seek a comment about the accusations of the Independent Black Farmers, but they did not respond by the time of the publishing of this article.

We were placed in contact with Lawrence Lucas, the president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, and asked him why does he think the USDA is treating Black Farmers the way that they are doing.

"When an agency finds that their people has been discriminating. You would think that they would go the extra yard to resolving this complaint in a fair and just manner. In lieu of doing that, they forced Mr. Oden into the court system, because they would not give him a reasonable settlement in terms of the damages that he was requesting. That is typical of the USDA when they find themselves guilty. They find ways to not resolve the complaints even when they have findings of discrimination," says Lucas.

Mr. Lucas goes on to speak about other cases similar to Mr. Oden's, such as, Mr. Michael Stovall, "he too had a finding of discrimination. There was a breach of the settlement agreement. They again forced him into the court system. It's difficult for any farmer to hire an attorney, so the farmer goes into the court depending on the court system, which is not fair within itself. The U.S. Government uses the justice department to fight these farmers and it is done unfairly."

All awhile the farmers are seeking their day in court, their cases are being ignored regularly and pushed beyond the statute of limitations. There is a two-year statute of limitation order that farmers must take into consideration if seeking legal action for their complaints.

"The USDA has the reputation for being the worst discriminating agency in the federal government, because of the many lawsuits and complaints by minority farmers and employees for years. They have spent millions if not billions of taxpayers' money resolving complaints."

Failing to see their day in court and due to the statute of limitations of their cases, there has been a number of Black farmers over the years that has lot their properties that were previously owned by prior generations and lifelong farming operations to bankruptcies, foreclosures and etc.

Mr. Lucas said that he would like to see more accountability within the USDA, and see them start a program that is effective in handling their complaints. He suggested if someone files a complaint there should be someone to come and speak with the person that filed the complaint, and evaluate it in a timely manner. If the person has a question about the legality process or any issues, the agency should sit down with the farmer and/or employee to have a good faith negotiation to resolve the complaints.

Mr. Oden, Mr. Stovall and many others are still seeking assistance from the USDA, but more importantly, they seek the agency to acknowledge their own mistakes and address their concerns as customers of the federal government.

The collective of farmers don't expect the USDA to respond to my email and calls due to their history of not communicating with others in the past, and afraid of acknowledging their history of mistakes in the public media.

About Miles J. Edwards