Black farmers press USDA challenge

Black farmers press USDA challenge

GARFIELD, Ga.-John C. Newkirt walks back to the sun-beaten, double-wide trailer and disappears for five minutes, returning with a faded, hand-drawn map that outlines every division within his own 147-acre farm and the land he inherited from his father-374 acres, in all. The weathered black farmer traces the jagged boundaries of the property in southern Georgia with a calloused index finger. "It's good work," he says, referring to his decades of farming. "It kind of hurts."

Newkirt grew peanuts, corn and soybeans until 1990, when he lost his land and all of his farm equipment in a government foreclosure after he failed to pay back enough of an earlier loan from the Department of Agriculture. After working for five years in Washington, Newkirt bought his land back, but he couldn't afford to buy equipment. Now he rents his land to a sharecropper.

Newkirt's troubles really started in 1984, when the local representatives of the federal department first denied him a loan to run his farm, for reasons he describes as racial discrimination. His troubles haven't ended.

Though they might-at least partially. An amendment attached to the proposed Agriculture appropriations bill for fiscal 1999, which is expected to emerge intact within the next couple of weeks from a House-Senate conference, would let him sue the government for discrimination even though the prevailing two-year statute of limitations has expired.

That language, as well as other actions by Agriculture and Congress, have made Newkirt guardedly hopeful-although still more guarded than hopeful.

He bases his claims of discrimination on experiences he and other black farmers had at Agriculture's local extension offices, which offered them smaller loans than white farmers received or denied them loans altogether, citing improperly filled-out forms. A departmental audit last year found that in several southeastern states, including Georgia, local offices took an average of three times as long to process loan applications from African-Americans as to handle those from Caucasians.

At least 600 black farmers around the country are suing Agriculture for discrimination in granting loans. Alexander Pires, a lead attorney in the $2 billion class action lawsuit-Pigford vs. Glickman-described Newkirt as "almost Mr. Typical Black Farmer." His age-68-is typical, along with the size of his land and his damage claim of about $200,000.

Newkirt is typical in another way: If the statute of limitations isn't extended to reach back into the 1980s, "he's a dead man," Pires said. All of Newkirt's claims stem from sometime between his first filing in 1985, after he was denied a loan, and his foreclosure in 1990.

During the 1980-84 drought, the local Agriculture loan officers gave smaller loans to him than to white farmers he knew. In one year, he asked for $15,000 but received $8,000, and was told it was because he hadn't paid his previous year's $20,000 loan in full. But a nearby white farmer "in the same boat," Newkirt recounts, asked for $50,000 and got it.

Even in the good years, he sensed some racial discrimination. In 1982, he said, an official from the local Agriculture extension service visited his farm and told him: "Newkirt, you have a good peanut crop. In fact, you have a good crop all around. . . . Now if your face was of another color, you'd be the farmer of the year in Emanuel County."

"I knew that if I was to farm," he says, "I would have had to be able to borrow more so that I could produce more, because the chemicals was higher. The fertilizer was higher. The diesel was higher. The equipment was higher. Labor was higher, and all those disadvantages fell on me. And I could not address the financial disparities to offset those differences, so I had to go out of business." Having less money to start with, Newkirt argues, limited the amount of seed and chemicals he could buy and thus the size of the crop he could grow, limiting his profits.

He wasn't alone in his plight. Federal statistics depict black farmers as a dying breed. The most recent Agriculture figures show that the proportion of U.S. farms owned by blacks plunged from 14 percent in 1920 to 1 percent in 1992.

Concerned that their cause might be forgotten amid scandal in Washington, 100 or so black farmers rallied in front of the White House on Sept. 11. "America needs a movement other than sex," proclaimed Joseph Lowery, chairman of the Black Leadership Forum Inc. "America needs a movement to break the dirty, racist, discriminatory record of the United States Department of Agriculture."

For the black farmers, protests have worked before. After they first demonstrated in front of the White House in December 1996, lawmakers such as Sen. Charles S. Robb, D-Va., along with Rep. Eva M. Clayton, D-N.C., and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, pressed Agriculture and President Clinton to do something.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman soon reinstated the department's Office of Civil Rights (which President Reagan had disbanded in 1983 without notifying farmers) and ordered an audit of Agriculture's treatment of minority farmers. The survey, conducted by department officials, detailed "long-standing problems" and offered 92 recommendations. This year's amendment to extend the statute of limitations would address one of the more significant recommendations, and the department has begun acting on others. John E. Sparks, Glickman's special assistant for civil rights issues, said the department will offer settlements in the outstanding claims of discrimination within the next six months, and will act on older claims if the amendment passes. Another audit, due for release in October, will evaluate the department's response to the problems found last year. And the department's civil rights office is working with the NAACP to train local NAACP officials to help minority farmers apply for loans and file complaints. The first training session was held earlier this month at Tuskegee University.

"I think [the department] is beginning to take a more aggressive role toward disadvantaged and minority farmers," Clayton said. But, she added, "I think there is a residual of a plantation mentality." Clayton, a House Agriculture Committee member, expects the amendment to reach the president's desk, because "both Democrats and Republicans have been sufficently shamed." She said the Starr report on Clinton's sexual misbehavior may delay action on the farmers' plight but shouldn't prevent it.

Congress is considering another amendment to the Agriculture appropriations bill-one that would repeal the lifetime ban on loans to farmers whose earlier debts were forgiven. That measure, which would disproportionately benefit black farmers, passed the Senate but not the House; a conference committee will decide which version of the appropriations bill to accept.

If Congress decides to extend the statute of limitations, Agriculture expects 400 to 500 new cases to emerge, as more farmers decide they have a valid claim. The aggrieved farmers will either wend their way through the department's rickety grievance process or join Pires' clients in the courtroom early next year, if they don't reach a settlement before then.

Newkirt maintains that he joined the lawsuit not to seek compensation but rather to "stand up and say, 'Enough is enough.' " After his five years of commuting between here and Washington, where he was a preacher at Capitol Hill Pentecostal Church, he had saved up enough to buy his land back. But now, still unable to afford the equipment to farm his land, he needs a favorable court ruling or a settlement if he hopes to return to farming. He currently lives off his Social Security payments and the rent his sharecropper pays. And he's still paying off his debt-now $22,000-to Agriculture.

But like many of the farmers who've waited a decade or more for their claims to be heard, he's too old to farm for many more years. "I know I had-and have---the ability to be one of the best farmers," he said. "At my age, I would say it would be a challenge to be able to show it."

Driving through a cornfield in his brown pickup truck, he's careful to distinguish between the 227 acres he inherited from his father and "my land," the 147 acres he bought and lost and bought. "These are my grain bins," he says, pointing to two 20-foot-tall silos. "I filled these up every year. . . . Now, I just put junk in them."

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