Black Farmers Rally For Discrimination Settlement

fromWFAE

Vern Switzer, 63, inspects a row of collard greens on his farm in Rural Hall, N.C. i i

Vern Switzer, 63, walks his fields in Rural Hall, N.C. Switzer has farmed 19 acres of land single-handedly for the past 30 years. Julie Rose for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Julie Rose for NPR
Vern Switzer, 63, inspects a row of collard greens on his farm in Rural Hall, N.C.

Vern Switzer, 63, walks his fields in Rural Hall, N.C. Switzer has farmed 19 acres of land single-handedly for the past 30 years.

Julie Rose for NPR

After rallying across the South last week, black farmers plan to be in Washington, D.C., on Monday to call on the government to "pay up" on its more than 10-year-old promise to compensate for discrimination.

Despite the conditions of the 1999 civil rights settlement, more than 70,000 black farmers have yet to see a penny.

'A Dying Breed'

Vern Switzer is 63 years old, but he still single-handedly farms 19 acres of land along a busy country road just outside Winston Salem, N.C.

He is one of only about 30,000 black farmers in America today. These farmers are mostly in the South and represent just 1.5 percent of total farm operators in America, compared to 14 percent back in 1920.

Switzer says he is part of a dying breed.

"This is why you cannot get any more young black farmers in it, because they see the struggle that the older black farmers got — being discriminated and mistreated," he says. "Why would you want to get into something like that?"

After 30 years of farming, Switzer hoped he'd own 100 acres and spend most of his time teaching kids to farm. Instead, he owns just a fraction of that, and he blames the Agriculture Department.

Time and again, Switzer says, USDA officials gave him the runaround, delaying and denying his loan requests. They said he didn't meet the standard for a government loan.

According to Switzer, the Agriculture Department says it uses the same standard for everyone.

"But that's a lie, too," he says. "I know farmers, white farmers, that can get a loan quick, fast and in a hurry."

Still No Money

In 1999, the USDA settled a class-action lawsuit in which they admitted to decades of discrimination against black farmers. Some 15,000 of those farmers managed to navigate the legal paperwork for an average settlement of $50,000. Many others, like Switzer, were rejected because they didn't have the right documentation or didn't hear about the settlement and applied late. They're still waiting to be paid.

"There was a real wrong that was done here by the government," says John Boyd, founder of the National Black Farmers Association. Boyd started the association to fight for that money.

"There's been admission of guilt," he says. "There's been study after study. Secretary after secretary has come and gone, and the black farmers still ain't got their money."

In 2008, Boyd helped convince Congress to give those 70,000 late filing farmers a chance at the settlement. President Obama put more than a billion dollars in his budget last year to help pay them. Congress cut it. This year, Obama has included it again.

"Ensuring that justice is done is important in this situation," says White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

"The primary issue now, I think, is that there's not money appropriated to pay the successful claimants," says Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC).

Watt is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which is also lobbying for the settlement funding. But there's talk of a spending freeze, and the farmers may have to wait for the economy to improve to get their money.

Boyd says they don't have time. "The average age of a black farmer is 60," he says. "And many have died ... waiting and thought they would get justice from the government and all of the promises that were made for decades."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said it is finally time to "close this unfortunate chapter." The black farmers who rally in Washington on Monday are taking him at his word.

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