Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Black Farmers Criticize `Token' Deal

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Black Farmers Criticize `Token' Deal

Article excerpt

Lawyers and government officials in Washington yesterday hailed a multimillion-dollar settlement for black farmers as a triumph that will correct decades of discrimination and racism against America's minority farmers.

"It's going to put a lot of black farmers back on their feet," said Al Pires, a Washington attorney who represented more than 3,000 farmers in a class-action suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But back where tractor tires meet the turf, the farmers who will benefit from the settlement called it a token gesture that won't repair the financial and emotional damage caused by the mistreatment.

"We're like drowning men, and this isn't going to save us," said Henry Kirkland, 71, a lifelong farmer near Metter in central Georgia. "It really hurt the way it all happened, and this just doesn't make up for that."

The preliminary settlement approved by a federal judge Tuesday will include an estimated $50,000 tax-free cash payment to each farmer in the suit, as well as forgiveness of outstanding government loans. The suit still requires final approval by the farmers and the government after a fairness hearing in March.

Like many farmers in the suit, Kirkland said he quit farming after he was unfairly denied government loans for land, seed and equipment. In the past 60 years, the number of black farmers in the United States has dwindled and black land ownership has fallen from 16 million acres in 1920 to just 3 million in 1982.

In several internal reports, the USDA admitted its employees at the county and state levels routinely discriminated against farmers based on race.

Farmers from 13 states -- including an estimated half-dozen from Florida and as many as 200 from Georgia -- made similar complaints, alleging their loan applications were destroyed in front of them or that they were denied access to programs white farmers used.

"Everybody is very eager to put this painful chapter in the [agriculture] department's history behind us," said Laura Trivers, a USDA spokeswoman. …

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