Black farmers want quicker USDA action on claims

A key black farmers group says the Agriculture Department is still not moving quickly enough to resolve civil rights claims.

The National Black Farmers Association said it is scheduling a protest Tuesday at USDA headquarters. The announcement comes despite a lengthy civil rights memorandum released last week by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and President Obama's nomination of Pearlie Reed, a former chief of the USDA Natural Resources and Conservation Service, as assistant secretary for administration.

Vilsack told the Atlanta-based Federation of Southern Cooperatives in February that he would like the position raised to the level of undersecretary. As USDA's top management official, Reed would work with Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Joe Leonard Jr. to resolve the agency's 3,000 outstanding civil rights claims and improve ties with minority employees and minority farmers. The Clinton administration appointed Reed, a career civil servant, as the NRCS chief in 1998. After being forced by the Bush administration to take a lower level position, Reed left the government in 2003.

In his memorandum, Vilsack suspended all Farm Service Agency farm foreclosures for 90 days to review loans involving possible discrimination. He is also consulting with the Justice Department on how to resolve claims not covered in the 1999 settlement of Pigford v. Glickman, a class action suit. The 2008 farm bill included a provision, known as Pigford II, allowing black farmers who filed cases after the original 1999 deadline to revive their cases. In addition, Vilsack is sending Jim Miller, undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, to speak to a National Black Farmers Association meeting Wednesday. Leonard is scheduled to testify that same day before the House Agriculture Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry Subcommittee.

John Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association, said in a statement that the protest was necessary despite these USDA actions because many black farmers are still waiting for compensation. Other farm groups disagreed. Ralph Paige, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, called Vilsack's efforts last week "historic." Jerry Pennick of the Land Assistance Fund, a group affiliated with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, called the protest "counter-productive and self-serving."

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