Volume 12, Number 10 May 17, 2009
Money. What can I do with $50k?
By Dr. Ridgely Abdul Mu’min Muhammad
The Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA) on May 15, 2009 hosted a Town Hall meeting in Tillery, NC between black farmers and the newly appointed Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights of the US Department of Agriculture under the Obama Administration, Dr. Joe Leonard, Jr. Dr. Leonard made it very clear that he was more than just a government employee, he is an activist who has served as the director of the Congressional Black Caucus and as an assistant to Rev. Jesse Jackson in the Rainbow Push organization. His relationship with President Barack Obama goes back to when he was an assistant to Mr. Obama when he was an Illinois state senator.
His job is to review all EEO complaints in the USDA and farmer discrimination complaints against the USDA. He said that he came to Tillery to meet with the farmers and to listen. He started off his day by visiting the local FSA (Farm Services Administration) in Halifax County, NC.
Mr. Gary Grant, president of BFAA, opened up the floor for farmers to tell Dr. Leonard their experience with the Pigford lawsuit and discrimination by the USDA.
Mr. Jeff Hawkins, Macon, NC stated, “I was in Pigford for 10 years and did not get a dime. My farm was taken. My mother hocked her house to get my farm back. I have not been able to borrow since I borrowed from FSA in the 1970s. Some farmers got paid but not me.”
Similar experiences were related by Mr. Leo Jackson, Pineview, GA, who stated in the Pigford lawsuit they were throwing people’s claims out because of many frivolous reasons.
Mr. Griffin Todd, Jr., Zebulon, NC, stated that some got money and others did not. He described how FHA (now Farm Service Agency – FSA) would write a check for $100 thousand to a “similarly situated white farmer” and give it to him, but Todd had to bring each bill that he needed to pay to the FHA agent before he would write him a check. They would give Hue, a white farmer, money in November or December but he would not get his money until April, almost too late to plant.
As more farmers reported how their land was taken from them and other black farmers, Dr. Leonard asked what happened to that land. The farmers responded with stories of how family members, friends, and local power brokers of USDA employees would be given a tip on when the black farmer’s land would be auctioned off. Then they would get the land at below market prices then turn around and sell it to developers to build homes or counties to build schools.
A North Carolina state employee who was also on the planning committee for his county stated that there are plans developed 30 years in advance which would target sets of land needs. Then things would be put in place to get that land by any means necessary. He had actually been involved with blocking his county from taking a black farmer’s land when he found out that they were planning to do so.
Mr. Lucious Abrams, Waynesboro, GA, a lead plaintiff in the Pigford lawsuit, stated that his land has been in foreclosure for 10 years and he has not had a foreclosure hearing, which is his constitutional right. He also stated that he went to testify before Judge Friedman when the fairness hearing on the Pigford lawsuit. He told Judge Friedman that the consent decree was not worth the paper that it was written on and it did not represent the wishes of the lead plaintiffs. However, Judge Friedman, completely disregarded his and other black farmers’ complaints against the “consent decree” and its results. The consent decree as enacted completely vindicated the black farmers’ serious concerns regarding the legal advice provided by Attorney Al Pires.
As the Vice-President of BFAA, a farmer and an agricultural economist, I presented a six slide PowerPoint presentation designed to give Dr. Leonard a brief historical understanding of how the black farmers got in their condition aided by the USDA’s discrimination in the allocation of government subsidies. I started out by showing a picture of the former holder of the mortgage on the Nation of Islam’s 1600 acre farm in Georgia receiving a check for over $840,000 to pay off that mortgage. When receiving the check the mortgage holder said, “Money. What can I do with money? The worst thing I ever did was sell y’all that land.”
So I asked Dr. Leonard what was it that this white man understood and these black farmers understand about the value of land? The black farmers did not go to court to receive a $50,000 check. They went to federal court to stop the USDA from foreclosing on their land, which the Pigford lawsuit did not do. The farmers at this meeting were not interested in just a money settlement, but wanted an opportunity to farm and pass that legacy on to their children and grandchildren.
Then I showed graphs that represented the loss of black farm land from the high of 16 million acres in 1910 to the present low figure of less than 3 million acres and decreasing. I showed the relationship between the “parity ratio” and the loss of black farm land. The “parity ratio” is defined as the price that the farmer receives divided by the cost of his inputs needed to produce his crop or product. The parity ratio started off in 1910 as a one to one relationship, but by 1997 it had dropped to almost 0.4. This means that the cost of production has gone up 2.5 times the price that the farmer receives, i.e. costs have gone up but prices of the farmer’s products have not.
Nonetheless, the US government gave out checks to white farmers to compensate for this increase of cost while finding creative ways to deny black farmers these same subsidies and payments. The USDA would loan black farmers money and hold their land as collateral. Then like a vulture, they would wait until a drought or other natural disaster hit. At which time they would rush to pay the white farmers disaster checks, but deny the same payments to black farmers. Then they would turn right around and demand full payment on the loans due by the black farmers. When they could not pay, the USDA agents continued to add up interest on the debt until they drove the farmer into foreclosure.
In the meantime the USDA put in irrigation systems on a cost share basis for white farmers in the South, but did not help black farmers put in systems. So when the droughts hit, the white farmers turned on their irrigation and watched their crops grow, while the black farmers watched their crops burn up.
Over a ten year period from 1982 to 1992, the USDA gave each white farmer an average of $1,023 per acre in crop subsidies while restricting black farmers to only $274 over the same time period. Since farm land prices in the 1980s ran about $1,000 per acre, the USDA essentially helped white farmers to buy another acre for each acre they had. And of course the land that they bought was the acreage of distressed black farmers.
The mystery of black farm loss is solved and the solution is simple. President Barack Obama needs to write an executive order stopping all USDA foreclosures on black farm land, removing all USDA debt on that land and retuning the land that was foreclosed on: not a “bailout”, not a “handout”, just a “cleanout”. Don’t make black farmer salute the flag while taking their land.