FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.
Most of us take for granted the fruits and vegetables on our tables. We don't think about farmers, big and small, who might be part of the food chain. Well, about every five years, members of Congress sit down and craft a plan for U.S. agriculture. Congress is working on its plan right now, including provisions to compensate thousands of black farmers who are denied government loans and subsidies in the past.
We've got more from John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association. He's also a farmer in Baskerville, Virginia. The farm has been in his family for four generations. And currently, they grow soybeans, corn, wheat and have a small herd of cattle.
Mr. JOHN BOYD (President, National Black Farmers Association): Welcome. And it's a pleasure to be here with you.
CHIDEYA: So let's start out with a little background. The House passed its version of the farm bill this summer. The Senate joined in recently. So what are the key issues with this farm bill?
Mr. BOYD: Well, the key issues - certainly - that we've been working on is the law - the subsidy payments to our large-scale corporate farmers. We certainly lobbied against that and was not successful. So this farm bill will look a lot like those that have in the past. And we were successful enough to get a small provision in the farm bill that would allow our African-American farmers to have their cases heard based on its merits.
CHIDEYA: Before I go deeper into the issues surrounding black farmers, when you talk about big farms and the subsidies that go to them, exactly what are we talking about? What size farms? We're talking corporate farming. And what kind of subsidies?
Mr. BOYD: Sure. We're talking large-scale corporate farmers, and certainly, the farmers out in the Midwest who continue to receive somewhere in the neighborhood of a million-dollar job. We released a subsidy report with the environmental working group that showed the top 10 percent and the U.S. Farm Subsidy Program over the past five years. Received over a million dollars, you know, per producer. And the average subsidy payment to a small producer, i.e., a black farmer, is $200. So that is a huge gap and we certainly have been working diligently to prevent those - to have a cap on the payments and this farm bill. But we were not successful in doing that.
CHIDEYA: Now, let's move on to the issues facing black farmers. There were thousands - up to 74,000 people or farms that could sue under a landmark civil rights suit what was settled a decade ago. If it was settled a decade ago, then why is this still dragging on?
Mr. BOYD: The government just did a poor job of advertising and letting the farmers know that this settlement was out there for them to participate in. And quite frankly, everybody heard, you know, too late. So 74,000 people never had their cases heard.
CHIDEYA: Why is it the government's fault that people didn't file by the deadline?
Mr. BOYD: Well, the government knew where all the farmers were and who had filed complaints. And basically, they posed a Civil Rights Office in 1983 under the Reagan administration and there was nobody working in the Office of Civil Rights. And when the Office of Civil Rights reopened under the Clinton administration, they found boxes of complaints that were never processed. They had two inches of dust on them. And it was the reason why we had to proceed to the federal court in the first place.
CHIDEYA: What about your family? You have a family farm. Is your family ever been party to one of these divisions of the suit and have you gotten any redress?
Mr. BOYD: Yes. I was certainly struggled with the United States Department of Agriculture right here in my own home county in Mecklenburg County, Virginia where I was denied a farm operating alone for nine years. And one particular year, my county supervisor tore my application up and threw it in the trashcan. And when the case was finally investigated years later, they actually kind of supervise it. This is the person that makes decisions on farm, loans and farm operating loans.
Did he throw Mr. Boyd's application in the trashcan? And he said, well, yes. And they asked him, did he have a problem making loans to black farmers. He only made one out of a hundred and forty-seven. And he said, well, yeah. I think that they're lazy and want a paycheck on Friday. And that is the kind of discrimination that we've been faced with. He said they didn't have anything with him doing his - preventing him from doing his job, on one hand. But on another hand, he certainly almost put my family out of business.
CHIDEYA: It sounds like the farming business, sometimes, it's good times and sometimes, it's bad times. And these loans tied you over during the bad times?
Mr. BOYD: Oh, these loans were - you need an operating loan every year to plant your crop and to harvest them. And all farmers, you know, need operating loans regardless of what your background is. And the United States Department of Agriculture is the largest direct lender to farm producers in the world. And when you can't get a loan there, it doesn't take long before like I said before, you will not have access to credit. And without access to credit and agriculture, you're just not going to make it.
So, we've been, you know, really facing some difficult times and, you know, as we campaign and lobby for this bill in Washington, you know, we had to explain that because many of our own members of Congress did not even know that black farmers even existed in this country. So you can imagine going from that mechanism of trying to get them to introduce legislation or sign on to legislation to help black farmers here in this country.
CHIDEYA: So when the Senate and House come together, they will put together a bill through the conference committee, that conference committee will be meeting in January. What would you like to see come out of it, in terms of what Congress does overall concerning black farmers?
Mr. BOYD: Well, a couple of things. One is they can look at - still look at adding some language to cap their payments (unintelligible) farmers. And I think the best deal could be worked out in conference, if the leaders agreed to that. And the other thing is there is a cap that we're looking at $100-million cap that we're looking at in our language. But I would like to see the cap removed to where all the black farmers will be able to participate in through legislation.
CHIDEYA: Is it too late for a lot of these family farms? Have they already gone out of business?
Mr. BOYD: Yes, absolutely. And black farmers, they're dying every day. They're losing land. And like I said, this is a bill that should have been done many years ago, and we're just not getting this bill passed. And it shows that sometimes, you know, Congress doesn't have the interest in looking at helping black farmers, but it's something that we continue to press by having rallies around the country and just trying to bring awareness, you know, by - like myself, I rode a mule and wagon to Washington, close to 300 miles, you know, to try to bring attention to this issue.
CHIDEYA: Isn't it a situation where at this point many different family farms are at risk, not just black family farms?
Mr. BOYD: Absolutely. I would say that all small farmers are struggling here in the United States and as we change Congresses and change presidents and president after president, Congress after Congress, they fail to address the need of the small farmer here in this country. But what has happened here to black farmers here in the United States certainly hasn't happen to a lot of small producers where they have to face the ugly head and ugly arm of discrimination. You know by the very agency that was supposed to be helping black farmers was the very agency that was putting us out of business. So a lot of the farmers didn't face that, although, they certainly - a small producer is certainly struggling here in this country.
CHIDEYA: John Boyd, thank you.
Mr. BOYD: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
CHIDEYA: John Boyd is the president of the Black Farmers Association, and he joined us from Baskerville, Virginia.
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