Black farmers have beef with the USDA: loan denials spark legislation proposal to protect African American farmers – proposed USDA Accountability and Equity Act

Black farmers have beef with the USDA: loan denials spark legislation proposal to protect African American farmers – proposed USDA Accountability and Equity Act – Brief Article

Kelly Smith

In December, members of the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) held a march in front of the White House–complete with tractors and a mule–to mark the one-year anniversary of their ongoing grass-roots battle against more than three decades of documented discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its employees. Led by John Boyd Jr., 33, of the NBFA, the group alleges that loan officers who dole out USDA loans to farmers have largely ignored black farmers. The USDA’s failure to investigate their civil rights complaints, the group contends, has denied the farmers access to government-backed loans and forced thousands from their land. Indeed, the percentage of black farmers has dwindled from 14% in 1920 to less than 1% in 1997.

But now, politicians are listening. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has frozen foreclosures on farms where the owner has filed a discrimination complaint. The investigation has taken so long partly because the USDA closed its civil rights division in 1983. He now hopes to have the civil rights enforcement unit fully reinstated early this year.

Boyd also alleges that despite the heightened attention, black farmers received only 4% of the $1.9 billion in farm ownership loans issued by the USDA in fiscal year 1997. In addition, no black farmers received any of the 161 emergency loans doled out during that same time period. But according to a spokesman at the USDA, by law, emergency loans can be distributed only to farmers in federally declared disaster areas. However, the USDA refuted his claim, saying that 1.3% of those emergency loans went to African American farmers and 20% went to Hispanic farmers.

Since then, Congresswoman Eva Clayton (D-North Carolina) has introduced legislation–H.R. 2185, “The USDA Accountability and Equity Act”–to prevent similar discrimination practices from happening in the future. Her proposal would make loans more accessible to disadvantaged farmers and change the way county supervisors and committee members who sit on the loan committee are appointed. For example, three to five of the committee members would be elected by the farmers in the county they represent, and two will be appointed by the secretary of agriculture.

Meanwhile, Boyd is planning more marches and continued pressure on the USDA to fully fund and monitor federal programs that issue operating and equipment loans to minority and small farm owners. He also plans to urge the agency to help execute a technical assistance program to teach farmers how to fill out loan applications. “There’s widespread discrimination,” says Boyd, “and there should be a widespread effort to reverse it.”

For more information, contact the National Black Farmers Association at 68 Wind Rd., Baskerville, VA 23915; 804-447-7825.

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