TOPICS > Politics

Update: Angry Harvest

October 7, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MAN: Hey, man, how you doing?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Abraham Carpenter runs one of the largest vegetable farms in Arkansas. Every Tuesday morning, he travels to Little Rock to sell produce that has been picked in his fields the day before. But it hasn’t been easy for Carpenter. He and other African American farmers say they were financially ruined because officials at local offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against them over the last 20 years, denying all kinds of farm loans. When we first met Carpenter three years ago, he described how the agency stopped payment on federal disaster loans after a drought ruined his crops. The USDA’s action destroyed his credit and cost him nearly a half million dollars. He said it happened because of outright discrimination.

ABRAHAM CARPENTER, Farmer: You’ve got people in the state office, you know, saying that, “that nigger should have been satisfied with $100,000 instead of trying to get $500,000.” Or they might say, “We’re going to cut that nigger’s money off and see how he’s going to buy business and buy land.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Carpenter and other farmers filed a class-action lawsuit, and in 1999, the Clinton administration admitted that USDA loan practices had been discriminatory. Then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced the settlement.

DAN GLICKMAN: (1999) It is an agreement that will close a painful chapter in USDA’s history and open a more constructive front in our efforts to see this department emerge as the federal civil rights leader in the 21st century.

SPOKESMAN: We need to show what effect that discrimination was in your pocket.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Unlike most class- action lawsuits in which plaintiffs divide a sum of money, this settlement required that each farmer prove he’d been personally discriminated against. Lawyers fanned out across the country to help process claims. Farmers had two choices: Under so-called track “a,” farmers would provide minimal documentation of discrimination and receive a $50,000 cash payment and forgiveness of all outstanding USDA loans. Under track “b,” more extensive documentation was required to receive a higher level of compensation. Carpenter and his family chose the first option, as did 98% of the farmers.

ABRAHAM CARPENTER: We thought we could just easily zip in and zip out, you know, get the approval, get the debt relief, and be done with it; but it turned out that we were denied.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Carpenter is not alone. Of the 22,000 who filed track “a” claims, 40% have been denied because the government said they didn’t prove their cases. And although nearly 13,000 farmers have been paid a total of $623 million by the USDA, thousands of others are unhappy with the lawsuit’s outcome.

PROTESTORS: (singing) Ain’t gonna let USDA Turn me ’round turn me ’round…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: For the last several months, they’ve been staging protests around the country. In September, they gathered outside Carpenter’s local USDA Office in Star City.

PROTESTOR: I’m saddened by the fact that I even have to be here today to appeal to our United States government to treat us fairly. It’s three years since the lawsuit been settled and we don’t have a dime yet. That’s totally ridiculous.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: James Beverly was among the protesters. He is a fourth generation farmer from Virginia, but had to get out of farming after he was repeatedly turned down for USDA loans.

JAMES BEVERLY, Farmer: I was denied in ’81, ’82, ’83, and ’84. And they, you know, never gave me my money. So then I joined the lawsuit, thinking that I would get some type of justice in reference to the discrimination that had been levied against me.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Beverly’s claim was also rejected. He’s appealing and says he can’t farm unless he gets the money. Blacks now make up less than 1% of the nation’s 1.9 million farmers, and they are going out of business at a rate twice that of white farmers. The Clinton administration settlement was intended to help stop that trend, not only by providing farmers with money, but also by making changes in the way local USDA offices operated. But that hasn’t happened, according to Ephron Lewis.

EPHRON LEWIS: They haven’t fired anybody. I don’t think they had a thought of firing anybody after the settlement.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Lewis is a rice farmer near Forest City, Arkansas. When we met him three years ago after the settlement was announced, he was very optimistic that operations in the local offices would improve, but he now says things have actually gotten worse for many black farmers.

EPHRON LEWIS: They are having problems with getting their loans approved on time. You go in and wait and go in and wait and they kind of sit on your loan. So these are some of the things that are giving us problems these days.

PROTESTORS: We want action. We want action.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jim Little heads the Farm Service Agency, which administers USDA Loans. He spoke to the farmers at the Arkansas rally.

JIM LITTLE: We realize that there are concerns with management, and I want you to know that we’re taking action.

MAN: I’ve been discriminated against all the way.

JIM LITTLE: I understand.

MAN: Okay.

JIM LITTLE: And that’s why I’m here.

MAN: All the way.

JIM LITTLE: I want to see first-hand what some of the issues are.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Little does admit that there are still a lot of problems with the way local USDA Offices operate.

JIM LITTLE: We have administrative concerns, employment concerns, discrimination against black farmers, loans not being processed timely. We want to get to the root of it, and if there’s continued to be discrimination in county offices, we want to tackle it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Officials at the USDA say they are going to put renewed emphasis on training local employees to be more sensitive to farmers’ needs. Jim Moseley is the deputy secretary.

JIM MOSELEY: We want to make sure that the employees within the Farm Service Agency really do understand what discrimination is: What’s the law? What are their obligations? And again, it’s an effort to make sure that we get at the question of what’s the attitude and what’s the behavior that’s expressed as a result of that attitude with regard to discrimination. We want those employees to understand it will not be tolerated.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Alexander Pires hopes things really are changing. But, like the farmers, he’s skeptical. He’s the lead attorney in the farmers’ lawsuit. He said the USDA has challenged the farmers’ evidence of discrimination in every claim.

ALEXANDER PIRES, Attorney: They fought everybody tooth and nail, and they spent millions and millions of dollars fighting every case. Every single case they fought. They contested every case. By appealing every single case, the government has sent a… the wrong signal to black America.

JIM MOSELEY: I would not characterize it as fighting those claims. I would characterize it as providing the necessary information that the fact finder and the arbitrator needed to make a determination. And, in fact, that is our responsibility.

ALEXANDER PIRES: Because we’re going to be there and…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Pires himself has been blamed by many of the farmers for the high rate of rejected claims, saying he made too many clerical mistakes, missed too many deadlines, and now has completely abandoned them.

JAMES BEVERLY: As time has gone on, there’s no other conclusion that I can draw other than that Mr. Pires was in this only for the money.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: While Pires denies he’s gotten rich from the case, he does admit he made some mistakes. But he also thinks the farmers have unrealistic expectations for the lawsuit.

ALEXANDER PIRES: Black people want the case to be more than just what it was. They want it to be a reparations case. It’s not. They want it to be a return of the land case. It’s not. They want it to be a dismantling of USDA’s structure case. It’s not. They want it to be all those things. It’s none of those things. It’s just a simple loan discrimination case.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the black farmers say that “simple case” has large consequences, and they plan to continue their protests at USDA offices until their demands are met.