- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

BURKEVILLE, Va. James Beverly stands in a broken-down, vine-choked lean-to, surveying the rusting feed bins and stacks of rotting two-by-fours that were supposed to be his pig-breeding farm.
They have been sitting there for 20 years, waiting for a government loan that never came.
Mr. Beverly thought his wait had finally ended four years ago, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture settled a national class-action lawsuit claiming it systematically discriminated against black farmers in awarding farm loans. As one of the original plaintiffs in the case, the fourth-generation black farmer was even singled out by a federal judge in court papers laying out the deal.
"Forty acres and a mule," U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman wrote. "The government broke that promise to African-American farmers. Over one hundred years later, the USDA broke its promise to Mr. James Beverly."
But while the USDA has paid out some $630 million since then, more than 40 percent of the 22,000 claims made by black farmers have been rejected. And some farmers complain they continue to be foreclosed on by creditors while awaiting their payments.
Mr. Beverly is among the thousands of black farmers still fighting for the money they thought they had won.
"They beat their chests about 'This is the largest civil rights settlement in the history of the United States,'" says Mr. Beverly, 46, standing on a cornfield now overgrown with Queen Anne's lace, goldenrod and purple morning glories. "That's an outright lie."
The ultimate irony for the farmers is that they are having to deal with many of the same career USDA employees who were in place when the discrimination occurred.
"I mean, we're right back where we started from," says John Zippert, director of program operations for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in Epes, Ala.
Blacks make up less than 1 percent of the nation's 1.9 million farmers, and their failure rate has long been more than double that of white farmers. The consent decree was supposed to help reverse that trend, or at least halt it.
Under the settlement, farmers had two options:
Track A This fast-track process required farmers to prove they had tried and failed to get USDA loans between 1981 and 1996, and had complained about the denial. Successful claimants would receive $50,000 cash, an additional $12,500 to cover taxes on that money, and forgiveness of certain USDA debts.
To date, USDA says it has canceled more than $17 million in debt. (Including those figures, Alexander Pires, the lead attorney for the farmers, estimates the government has paid out more than $1 billion so far.)
Because attorneys argued that most plaintiffs could meet these standards, the vast majority of farmers went that route. As of the end of July, however, just under 13,000 farmers have been approved for Track A payments, and about 8,500 have had their claims rejected.
Track B Some 184 farmers chose this route, opting for one-day hearings before an independent arbitrator to seek something closer to actual damages. Those farmers had a tougher standard of proof, including showing that they were treated differently from a "similarly situated" white farmer in their area.
According to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the government has settled 58 Track B claims for a total of $7.5 million.
In 35 Track B cases, farmers have been awarded an additional $7.4 million. The government has appealed 31 of those awards or $4.5 million worth.
The highest amount received by any Track B farmer was $780,000; one farmer got just $7,500.
On top of the denial rates and slow payments, an appellate panel recently chastised the lead attorneys in the case for missing deadlines and other conduct they deemed akin to a "double betrayal" of the farmers. Judge Friedman recently asked several large Washington law firms to offer free assistance to the farmers whose cases are still backlogged.
Earlier this summer, farmers staged a sit-in at a USDA office in Tennessee to protest the large number of denials and delays in receiving payments. This past month, about 60 farmers converged on Washington with tractors and farm animals and demanded a moratorium on foreclosures and other action.
What really riled the farmers was when USDA attorney J. Michael Kelly was recently quoted as saying that the paucity of victories in arbitration "says something favorable about USDA's treatment of black farmers to begin with."


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