When President Abraham Lincoln created the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1862 he referred to it as the People's Department. The problem is that its services have never been available to all the people. Although more recently, with the Clinton and Obama administrations, efforts have been made to correct discriminatory problems at the USDA, it's an unfortunate fact that the USDA's history has been marred by rampant discrimination. This is why Black farmers filed a 1997 lawsuit against the USDA that focused on discrimination in administration of its farm programs in the 1980s and into the 1990s.
The litigation -- referred to as Pigford vs. Glickman (now Pigford vs. Vilsack) and named after Tim Pigford a Black farmer in North Carolina and then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman -- was settled in 1999, and more than 15,000 Black farmers obtained relief for discrimination at the hands of the USDA. But the settlement itself triggered such an outpouring of pent-up frustration and demands for justice that more than 12 years later the case is still ongoing.
Black farmers originally needed to file claims by Oct. 12, 1999. While thousands of farmers met that deadline, many others were unaware of the lawsuit. As a result, the judge let people who missed the deadline petition to get into the settlement, providing they did so by Sept. 15, 2000. Again, thousands of farmers filed petitions and are now referred to as "late filers."
Of these late filers, only 3 percent (2,700) were found eligible to file a claim in Pigford. This left a staggering 97 percent of late claimants (around 58,000 and more than 75 percent of all claimants) who were denied the opportunity.
Black farm groups and their advocates expressed concern that tens of thousands of Black-farmer petitioners had been unable to file a claim. Many petitioned Congress and its leadership to resolve this issue. As a result, Congress included in the 2008 Farm Bill a provision to allow late filers into the suit, while establishing a budget of $100 million -- which unfortunately was not nearly enough to serve the farmers.
Since passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, President Obama proposed adding considerably more monies to bring the total to $1.25 billion for the Pigford lawsuit, an amount much closer to what likely will be needed to cover all proven claims. Based on that proposal, attorneys for Black farmers and the government have negotiated a settlement of the late-filer lawsuit.
All well and good, but the job remains unfinished. The Obama administration has already submitted legislative language to Congress but the settlement cannot go forward until Congress appropriates the funds requested by President Obama, and they have set March 31 as a deadline to do so. Time is short, and the whole effort is teetering toward failure.
We at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund recognize that work with farmers requires far more than a lawsuit can provide. This is why for 43 years we have offered Southern Black farmers assistance with cooperative development, farm management, debt restructuring, alternative crop suggestions, marketing expertise and a whole range of services to ensure family farm survivability.
Black farmers with late-filer claims, however, have waited for decades for relief for USDA denial of services and credit opportunities. In the 10 years since the original claim period closed, many of these farmers died, others lost their farms or left farming altogether. It is a tragic injustice that thousands of Black farmers are still being denied relief for discriminatory behavior from their own government. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, the Network of Black Farm Groups and Advocates, and the scores of organizations around the country supporting the network's efforts urge Congress to act expeditiously on providing necessary funding for the Black farmer late-filer settlement.
Ralph Paige is executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.