Can USDA Make Good With Female, Hispanic Farmers?

Latino and women farmers have complained for decades about discrimination from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency is offering to address those concerns, but many affected farmers are not satisfied. Host Michel Martin speaks with Frederick Pfaeffle, the USDA's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

On this President's Day, we wanted to talk about a way in which the government is trying to write a new chapter in its civil rights history. As you may know, after years of protests and ongoing negotiations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture or USDA agreed to compensate black and Native American farmers who the government agreed had been discriminated against when they tried to get government-backed farm loans. Now, federal officials are working to resolve around the discrimination claims levied by Hispanic and women farmers.

We wanted to know more about this, so now a newsmaker interview with Frederick Pfaeffle. He is the deputy assistant secretary for civil rights at the USDA and he's with us now. Thank you so much for being with us on this President's Day.

FREDERICK PFAEFFLE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, what leads you to this work? Are you a farmer? Do you have a farming background yourself?

PFAEFFLE: As it turns out, I am an immigrant from Nicaragua. My grandfather farmed cotton. My father actually came to study in the United States even though he went back to Central America and where he raised us. One of his goals as an entomologist was to go back and help farmers. So, there is actually a little farming in my blood, if I could say. I know my mother's side - also my uncle was a - for a long time, he farmed cotton in Nicaragua, as well.

MARTIN: So, are you good with houseplants?

PFAEFFLE: You know, I do keep a plant in my office. But fortunately, I do have somebody that helps to water me because I might just kill it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's all right. OK. Well, but why are you drawn to this particular work? I mean, I assume you're a lawyer by training.

PFAEFFLE: I am a lawyer by training, but I'm fortunate enough to actually have become very passionate about civil rights. When you see about the history of this country with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, even going back to President Lincoln where this is such a significant part of the history of this country.

I'm naturalized American, and I am very proud to be in this country. I'm here by choice, but also the ability to provide for the greater good. I consider it to be a great privilege that President Obama has provided me in my role.

MARTIN: Can I just ask, is this a new position, this focus on civil rights at the Department of Agriculture, is this new?

PFAEFFLE: No, this is not new. Civil rights has been a very important issue at USDA now for decades. And the position and what we have been doing now is the culmination of, really, a long-standing effort that started when this president took office and when Secretary Vilsack took office.

MARTIN: Many people are probably familiar with the settlements or the issue around African-American farmers, the so-called Pigford Settlement. Perhaps less well known is the situation involving Native American farmers, but those were resolved at the same time. Are the cases involving Hispanic and women farmers the same?

PFAEFFLE: There are differences in the way that the courts have treated these cases. I mean, clearly the certification of the classes for Pigford and also for Keepseagle have allowed this court resolution. It's a settlement agreement. It's lodged in court and supervised by the court. We have a very different situation with the women and the Hispanics who the courts have treated differently. And therefore, we are offering this out of court administrative option to be able to provide to close a chapter for them as well.

MARTIN: Just to remind people of what we're talking about here. In the case of the African-American and Native American farmers there was testimony that loan officers would say things to their face that you're not getting this or tear up their loan applications in their faces and throw them in the trash. Or in one case of one farmer reported that a loan officer even spat at him, which was needless to say behavior that was not extended to similarly situated white farmers. So, those are the kinds of circumstances that we're talking about.

Are we talking about the same kinds of behavior directed at Hispanic and women farmers are we talking about the fact that the courts, for whatever reason, view these groups of people in a different way?

PFAEFFLE: Well, of course we can't speak for the courts, but we know that there are these stories of people that were not treated fairly and justly. Every case is different. You're going to have a situation where somebody was treated worse than other and somebody may believe that there's discrimination and maybe there's not. And in some instances, there actually was one. But we're not focusing on the individual cases.

We are focusing on offering this opportunity which, by the way, still will require a person who believes to have a claim to present it administratively to an independent adjudicator that the government will be procuring and it will be a third party, not the USDA, that will be determining whether there was discrimination. Discrimination is not something that's easy to determine in all cases.

MARTIN: We were able, in preparation for this conversation, to talk to a couple of Hispanic farmers and some women farmers about their experiences. And I just want to - I want to share with you what they told us. The first clip I want to play is from a Hispanic farmer named David Cantu(ph). He is a farmer in San Juan, Texas. He says that he and his father, after much careful planning, applied for a loan back in the mid-1990s. He thinks it was '96 or '97, and he says that the USDA just didn't process it. And this is what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

DAVID CANTU: We submitted the application in October. Now, in May, it hadn't rained, we needed to irrigate and dad is saying, son, we're out of money. We called the loan officer and said: What's the hold up on the money? And I'll never forget. It was May 15th and the guy shows up and says, you know, you really should have irrigated this corn sometime ago.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Cantu, says that he, his father, waited seven months for the loan to be processed and he believes he and his father were discriminated against. He says he thinks that the loan officer just put his request at the back of the pile. And he also feels that he's being treated differently because he's not African-American. He thinks that the standard for proving discrimination is more difficult for people who are not Native American and not African-American.

PFAEFFLE: Well, the standards - again, we don't speak for the courts. But the standards that are required to process civil rights claim - and that's my day job. That's what we do. We have a program - at USDA, we have a whole mechanism set up for dealing with claims of discrimination.

So, you know, perhaps it may have taken longer for Mr. Cantu to have received his loan than it should have happened, whether it was discrimination or not. We really don't know. We don't know the exact facts in that. But if he has in fact suffered discrimination, there's an administrative process within my office that we follow. And these changes are a continuation of efforts that began last February with the initial announcement of the claims process designed to address these allegations in the past decades by women and Hispanics.

Clearly, the Obama administration has made a priority to resolve all claims of past discrimination at USDA. And we are committed to closing what is viewed by many as a sad chapter in USDA's history.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm speaking with Frederick Pfaeffle. He's the deputy assistant secretary for civil rights at the USDA. He is talking about his efforts to resolve long-standing complaints of discrimination leveled by, in this instance, Hispanic and women farmers that follows the claims of discrimination that were previously settled by the department made by African-American and Native American farmers.

So, previously, Hispanic and women farmers could only get about $50,000. Now, they can get as much as $250,000. Is that per incidence of discrimination or is that in total?

PFAEFFLE: Well, participating under this program, in total, they will qualify up to $250,000. But there are also other elements that are important to point out, such as the possibility that if you are able to tie the discrimination to a loan that actually did occur, occurred late or with onerous terms or lesser amounts because of the discrimination, there is a loan forgiveness amount of up to $160 million for these potential claimants as well as tax relief of up to 25 percent for the tracks that are at the $50,000 level.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you, though, how would you, as an individual farmer, be able to prove that you were discriminated against? Aren't there independent investigators who are supposed to determine this kind of thing? Like in the case of Mr. Cantu who believes - he may be right, he may be wrong - that his application was put at the back of the pile. Why is it his job to go out and affirmatively prove that as opposed to the government saying we want to know whether this is true and then doing it's own investigation?

PFAEFFLE: Well, in many instances, for example, if an administrative claim is filed in due course, we do have a system where we set up and do investigations. In this particular program, it's very different than our normal course. Remember, the standard of proof, what you have to show, is much less than if you would have to go to court to prove your case.

And so, if you actually tell your story, that's what I encourage people to do. It's very hard, very, very difficult to actually prove discrimination and, particularly nowadays, when some of the forms of discrimination are much more subtle than they used to be.

MARTIN: But, looking at it from a different perspective, why is that fair to the taxpayers? Why is one person's belief that he or she has been discriminated against sufficient? I mean, is that a standard that you would use in any other case?

PFAEFFLE: This is an out of court alternative dispute resolution mechanism and so, these things, when you - as we file a case in court, oftentimes, a mediator is used out of court because it's expensive and, oftentimes, justice is not carried out because of the obstacles that are put in by the system.

So this is designed to actually provide expedited justice in a limited fashion. There are limits to the amount of the compensation being received as a trade-off, but if you actually look at, you know, what the taxpayer is getting for his - this is a bang for the buck to the taxpayer in that, if you actually have to go through and process all these claims and go through the expense of the court system for the government, it might prove to be much more expensive.

MARTIN: How will you know whether you have succeeded in this position?

PFAEFFLE: We already have succeeded in the sense that 2010 and again in 2011, for example, the farm service agency that makes these type of loans recorded the fewest number of customer civil rights complaints since the department began keeping track and that there is a similar story with the EO or employment discrimination by our employees.

So we know that our mechanisms are already starting to work and so we will do the best that we can to be able to provide some compensation and it's not perfect. Not everybody will get probably what they deserve based on if you had, you know, unlimited resources or unlimited time in which to do this.

But we will, hopefully, be able to see now, in this year - be able to see some compensation, some of these liquided(ph) damages, checks being made to some of these victims and that provides tremendous gratification to me, personally. It will accomplish some of the goals that the secretary has laid out for us.

MARTIN: Frederick Pfaeffle is the deputy assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Mr. Pfaeffle, thanks so much for speaking with us.

PFAEFFLE: Thank you.

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